Spectator – Carla Carlisle

This is the summer we stayed home. Let me rephrase that. This is the summer when Ma and Pa stayed home and Sam came and went. And mostly went: a week in the Lake District fishing with his friend Harry. A week in Corsica with Lucian’s family. Five days in Norfolk (more fishing) with his friend Tom. He’s now home for a few days before taking off for the Isle of Mull for 10 days with Tatiana’s family. When the turnaround is too tight to make it home, the banker, laundress and courier (Ma), meets him at train stations with fishing rods and clean clothes.

Perhaps it’s called a ‘sea change’: children grow up and make their own plans. They ride in cars driven by their friends. They pack their own bags. They choose their own sunblock and stride out into the world in flip flops that provide no support at all and undo all the good that the hefty investment in Start rite provided. Still, with luck, they see home as an oasis in their nomadic lives, an oasis where the food is plentiful, the sheets are clean, and reruns of Friends are never-ending.

It’s not easy to admit that there isn’t a family holiday. Writing it here feels like entering a 12-step programme that begins: Hello, my name is Carla and I am an alcoholic/gambler/spendthrift/derelict mother who didn’t organise a house in the Dordogne, white-water rafting in Colorado. Because everyone is somewhere. Even my support system, Audrey, who valiantly brings order to my life and house, reminding me which beds have clean sheets and keeping an unwritten record of the beds with the cleanest dirty sheets, is spending two weeks in Tunisia as I write.

Part of me has felt liberated to be chez moi. I’ve read aloud reports of the 160 tour buses cramming daily into the hillside town of San Gimignano. I pinned up emails complaining about plagues of jellyfish at Pawleys Island. I listened hawkeared to tales of locals suffering in Cornwall and north Norfolk as vacationers disrupt their lives, all the while gazing smugly at my carbon footprint, as modest as a Quaker’s.

And then something happened. I read Libby Purves’s column on the importance of family holidays. At first, it seemed her usual eloquent plea for a re-think enough of sneering about the expense, discomfort and hell of family holidays: they are the stuff of life. What you might expect from a writer who took her children out of school and sailed around the world.

But tucked halfway down, she tells the unsuspecting reader that a month ago her son died. She doesn’t go into the sad facts that he was 23, a graduate of Oxford, a talented rower and skier who bravely fought depression until he could fight no more but she reveals that what has sustained her now-smaller family of three are the memories of journeys, expeditions, boats, planes, adventures. Interwoven with a plea for privacy is a generous gift to the reader yes, there is one lesson from the tragedy: take family holidays.

I confess the column stopped me in my tracks. Never underestimate the power of the written word. Thanks to Libby Purves, we’re going somewhere for a week as soon as Sam gets back from Mull. He may be buckin’ and snortin’ in the back seat, longing for his friends but that’s part of the package. The day will come when the calamine lotion dries up, the snorkelling mask cracks, the anti-midge juice refuses to open, and the enforced family holiday is just a memory. But those memories really are the stuff of life.

This article first appeared in Country Life magazine on 17 August 06, 2006.