Virtuoso Life - July/August 2018 - 126
Our parents happened to both be celebrating their 80th birthdays, six months apart.
A celebration was in order! Since they were
marking a big milestone, I'd assumed we
should be thinking big as well. But while Mom
and Dad are intrepid travelers (Iran, Egypt,
Morocco, Bhutan, India, Sicily, Cuba - you
name it, they've either been there or are
going next month), they're not big group
people. Fourth-generation Californians,
they're sophisticated, but low-key. They
wanted to keep it cozy. And so my sister and
I found ourselves lucky beneficiaries of a
dream plan: just the four of us together for
the first time in decades, celebrating our
timeless Californian parents in a timeless
This was shortly before Montecito's tragic
mudslides earlier this year. It stuns us now
looking back at it to think how unimaginably
things changed. The Biltmore shuttered its
doors all winter, while the town began its delicate recovery. The hotel reopened in June.
Shared travel history weaves family identity, and when you're a child forming your
perceptions of the world, the very act of moving through it as a traveler gets hardwired to
your DNA. In the 1970s, our family's travels
were free-spirited and adventurous, not luxurious. We drove a Volkswagen Thing through
the Yucatán jungle, rafted the Colorado
River, backpacked for miles in the Sierra. We
didn't do resorts or take what most people
now would even think of as a vacation. Once
my sister and I were busy with work and
families of our own, we traveled vicariously
through our parents - often the first humans
we knew who'd been to some exotic place -
but as our families grew, it was harder to pull
off serious travel together.
By the time I'd arrived in Santa Barbara
from Seattle and my sister from Jackson,
Mississippi, the four of us had spent months in
anticipation of our mini-reunion. Mom and Dad
had driven to the Biltmore from their home
in Southern California a few hours away. We
found them happily ensconced in a secondfloor corner king room with French doors
opening onto a balcony. It overlooked a pool
edged by feathery fern trees and leafy palms.
And there was cake! The hotel had sent
up a sinfully rich dark-chocolate confection
frosted in shiny chocolate icing. On top, a white
chocolate flag proclaimed "Happy Birthday!"
V I RT U O S O L I F E
WITH BOSSY BIG-SISTER
AUTHORITY, I'D DECLARED WE
SHOULD HAVE ONE GOAL A DAY,
PROVIDING A LOOSE STRUCTURE FOR
GETTING THE BAND BACK TOGETHER.
We reverted to our best bad family habits and
demolished several slices before dinner.
WHAT DO YOU DO WHEN IT'S JUST YOUR
original nuclear family traveling together
again for the first time in 30 years? With
bossy big-sister authority, I'd declared we
should have one goal a day, providing a loose
structure for getting the band back together.
Accordingly, Mom booked a private tour
at Lotusland, a 37-acre estate with exotic
gardens designed by the fabulously eccentric Madame Ganna Walska. Dad drove
us through the hills of Santa Barbara to
the Old Mission with aplomb (which got
us reminiscing about road trips past: all
those miles we'd logged in the 1970s via
our cocoa-brown VW camper van - winding
up Highway 1 to redwood country, braving switchback turns en route to the High
Sierra, driving to Baja for campouts on the
beach). And there was an exquisite birthday
dinner at San Ysidro Ranch - just the four
of us alfresco beneath cozy heat lamps
and olive trees strung with white lights. It's
bittersweet to have celebrated there: San
Ysidro Ranch, badly damaged in the slides, is
closed until further notice.
We had such a lovely time, we shut the
place down, and it occurred to me that you
never know what the next moment will bring.
Not only were my sister and I fortunate our
parents were still so healthy and active, we
were also incredibly lucky to be able to spend
this kind of time with them now that Kristen
and I (in our fifties) were practically adults.
The thing about sons and daughters is that,
when we're with our original nuclear family,
we often revert back to our original familial
roles. But now we were all grown up; my sister
and I were no longer carrying heavy packs
up steep shale slopes and whining about our
blisters. Spending time with moms and dads
reminds us that they're our first reference
point - flawed and wonderful as they are.
And what we admire, with a reverence that
grows over time, is them. They're our pole
stars, our trusted guidebooks.
Of course, our true goal was one that can
prove elusive these days: savoring the simple pleasures of just being together. During
long breakfasts at the Biltmore, we talked
about everything - Dad's new mountain
bike, Mom's latest art opening, old family
friends, politics, climate change, who was
reading what, who was watching what, who
had been where - but the real conversation,
the one that's passed down from generation
to generation, like blue eyes or curly hair, is
subtext: values, beliefs, character.
BY DAY TWO OF OUR FOUR-DAY WEEKEND
we waltzed into breakfast like we owned the
place. My parents were glowing - they seemed
so happy, and I realized that, although they
adore their sons-in-law and grandkids, there
was also something elemental and important
about reconnecting just the four of us. Every
family has its distinct culture, and being back
in that culture, in the land of the Browns, was
like hitting an instant reset button. Grounding,
but somehow different too.
Spending this much time in such a genteel
resort setting was not the kind of thing our
hardy pioneer-stock California family typically did. Extravagance was in the air! As we
lounged poolside and the sun sank toward
the Pacific, Mom turned a page in her book,
and Dad dozed off reading The New Yorker.
My sister and I ordered cappuccinos and
gazed through our giant sunglasses. You'd
almost think we acted this way every day. I
felt a quiet happiness fizzing up and realized
it wasn't just the caffeine. It was love.