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Personal Essays

PHOTOGRAPH BY HILLARY HARTLEY

The Dream Vacation

When appointments and schedules get in the way of travel plans, it’s easy to think of the summer as a lost cause. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Last summer, there was no summer vacation. Friends were flying off to California or weekending on Lake Michigan, but we were moving east at summer’s end, and then our elder daughter unexpectedly needed to be in and out of the hospital. We had to stay in Chicago.

It was in this state of instability that I found myself on our stoop one humid afternoon in early July, my two daughters grumbling around me.

What to do? I looked out at the street.

“Um, want to fly to Hawaii?”

“No,” said the five-year-old.

“How?” asked the three-year-old.

“That plane,” I said, nodding at our parked station wagon.

After some eye-rolling, we clambered onto the roof of the “plane,” taxied down the street, and took off into the air. We headed west, soaring over plains and oceans until the islands of Hawaii appeared on the horizon. After landing, we picked palms (leaves from our tree), and found a secret waterfall (our hose), only stopping—“Turn off the waterfall!”when the evil King Kamehameha (the surly developer of the empty dirt lot next door), strode down the sidewalk, barking into his cellphone.

The following day we flew to Zimbabwe. My younger girl steered the plane, madly punching its horn. My elder daughter stood through the plane’s sunroof, pointing out wildebeest and lions (dogs and their walkers) as they passed below, while I plucked grass from the veldt and decorated the plane.

Our summer expanded. We flew all over the world: Fiji, Budapest, Beijing. The appeal of our destination lay in the mystery of the name (Sheboygan was more popular than Paris), and whatever association we could conjure for it. Should we go see the invisible tigers of Papua New Guinea? Of course! We were going nowhere, and nothing could stop us.

The following day we flew to Zimbabwe. My elder daughter stood through the plane’s sunroof, pointing out wildebeest and lions. One afternoon, on our way back from Barcelona, we made a stop in Iowa. I wanted to plant corn. Specifically, I wanted to plant corn in the neighboring dirt lot before the developer planted another marble mansion, and, in the multi-tasking of parenting, I was trying to work this into our flight plan. As we swooped low, I gave the girls kernels that they threw across the sidewalk and into the dirt. This was fun, until the developer walked past. We stopped, trying to look as innocent as one can when planting crops in someone else’s property.

In the next weeks, something unexpected happened. The corn grew, little resilient shoots of green. Every day, after adventuring in Kashmir or Kirkuk, we flew to Iowa and checked their growth. Two inches, three, four. Then, one evening as we were sitting on top of the plane, a pair of rabbits ventured across the lot and nibbled our shoots flat. They were gone, like that. My daughters watched, wide-eyed and hushed, as I tried to explain this change in plans. We weren’t growing corn anymore: We were growing rabbits.

Some things can’t be explained: a move away from home, trips to the hospital, change itself. I don’t know if my daughters understood these things. I don’t know if I did either. But in those days, as we sat on the roof of our car, parked on our street in front of our home in Chicago, I like to think they imagined that anything was possible.