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Dining Out
July 24, 2011 - 4:17pm

Reading both Rosemarie’s and Libby’s columns last week made me think about dining experiences of Ben’s childhood, especially the absolute worst one, which took place during the most wretched “vacation” of my life.

Ben was two years old when, for a number of reasons, we decided to travel to California to visit two sets of dear friends, one in San Francisco and one in Sacramento. He had been on a plane trip once before, when he was six months old, but he didn’t remember it.

To prepare him, we took picture books out of the library about plane travel and read them to him at bedtime, talking up how exciting it is to speed through the clouds and how much fun it is to visit new places. He was thrilled, in prospect.

And he was great on the plane. He loved looking out the window; he charmed fellow passengers who played peek-a-boo with him; he napped instead of getting cranky and shrieky (which was in his repertoire), and though he complained mildly about the changing air pressure (“There’s poop in my ears!”) he took it all with good humor.

Our San Francisco friends marveled at how cheerful and sweet-tempered he was—until bedtime. When I told him it was time to say good night, he kissed our friends and said, “Okay, let’s go home now.”

We hadn’t thought to prepare him that he was going to sleep in a strange house. He freaked out. He cried inconsolably, calling out, “I want to sleep in Ben’s bed!” He cried himself to sleep, woke up disoriented and upset, and things went downhill from there.

Our friends, R and J, were, it turned out, going through a difficult phase in their relationship, and having an active, edgy toddler in their apartment intensified their misery. I called our friends in Sacramento and asked if we could come a bit early.

What we didn’t know was that my friend M had invited us without her partner’s full approval. Her partner, C, had a low threshold for noise, mess, and upheavals in her schedule. She needed an hour and a half of complete quiet to meditate every day. On our first full day there, Ben found his way into her meditation closet and played with the pretty “toys” before we found him. He ran around their house, yelling, “Rubber duck! Rubber duck!” for no reason we could discern, while C attempted to meditate. He, and we, clearly drove her crazy. We tried to stay out of the house as much as possible, but it was 100 degrees there, and we didn’t know our way around the city. And we were exhausted, frustrated, and fairly brain-dead.

One night we offered to take them out to dinner at a restaurant of C’s choice. She chose a quiet, peaceful Buddhist restaurant. Ben loved it—there were pretty plants everywhere, and wind chimes, and interesting little dishes, and he wanted to explore everything. It was a nightmare. He kept using his “outdoor voice,” presumably because the place looked like a nature preserve, and no sooner would we get him seated than he would jump up to explore another fascinating attraction.

An elderly couple stopped at our table on their way out. “He ruined our entire dinner,” the woman said. “You need to teach him some manners or leave him home.”

At that point, C burst into tears. “I can’t do this anymore,” she said, and left the restaurant.

Soon afterwards, we went to a hotel until it was time to leave for home.

That was 15 years ago. Neither couple is still together, but I’m still close to R and to M, and we can now laugh about the nightmare vacation.

But Rosemarie’s column, and the responses to it, brought me back to that Buddhist restaurant in a painful way.

I can see how Bill and I exercised poor judgment at a number of points. The vacation was ill-conceived to begin with—looking back, it’s clear that bringing a two-year-old into two households without children was insanity. We didn’t prepare Ben well enough for an extended stay in others’ homes. We should have nixed the Buddhist restaurant and stipulated that anyplace we went had to be kid-friendly. Etcetera.

But I’m also aware now, when I’m trying to have a quiet grown-up evening and it’s spoiled by a cranky or rowdy child, that the parents are probably bumbling through without a rulebook; sleep deprived, and at their wits’ end—and that I get to go home and have a fun conversation with my brilliant and charming almost-17-year-old, while they will be playing air traffic controller, changing diapers, and apologizing to friends and strangers for several years to come. So I stifle the part of me that wants to mouth off like the patron in the Buddhist restaurant, and instead try to beam support in their direction.


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