The martyr. The mooch. The whiner. The foodie. The control freak. The peacemaker. The iron fist. The drunk. The obsessed pet owner. The “I ran 10 miles before dawn, what did you do this morning?”
When it comes to the family vacation, everyone has a role.
In the Brooks family, younger sister Samantha, 23, plays the diplomat.
In the real world, she’s an assistant account executive from the North End. On vacation, she’s a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, shuttling between squabbling loved ones, trying to smooth relations so the group can get back to appreciating the pyramids in Egypt, Rome’s Spanish Steps, or the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires, considered one of the 10 best opera houses in the world.
“I have a lot of hushed conversations,” she said.
Many of those are with her sister, Sandy, 29, an event planner on Martha’s Vineyard.
“I’m the complainer,” she acknowledged. “I like to sit around on the beach and have a cocktail and not [be forced to] go to museums.”
There may be nothing sweeter than a great family vacation. Kids, grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins joyfully taking group selfies in distant locales, gossiping on the beach, or gathering for a boisterous group dinner. In-laws bonding over a 1,000-piece puzzle. Everyone reading on the porch.
But even in the most collegial families, tensions arise, roles emerge.
“You have way too many unfiltered personalities to navigate,” said Sherry Kuehl, author of the Snarky in the Suburbs books.
She recalled her one and only “Hey, we’re all related so let’s travel together” trip.
The vacation featured: the New Parent Who Believes a Baby Should “cry it out” All Night in the Shared Condo (her brother); a Germophobe Afraid to Send her Kids to the Beach (her cousin); the Baby Who Has to Get Her Way (her mother-in-law, don’t ask).
“It ended up as an Instapot of insanity disguised as a vacation,” Kuehl said.
On the road, in a bunch of hotel rooms or an Airbnb or VRBO rental, tight space, shared bathrooms, joint schedules, and differing notions over the importance of eating only organic can magnify issues that are not even issues when everyone is living in their own homes.
Let’s pause for a moment to ask a question. Who are you on vacation? Are you sure? As with so much in life, it depends on who’s doing the labeling.
Pop quiz: Is the person who has bought tickets to a movie — and who wants to leave in time to see that movie — the “scheduler” or the “drill sergeant?”
It’s a question that resonates with Kathy Vines, a professional organizer from the North Shore.
“My husband and I, and my parents, are all of the school of thought that if an event starts at 7, you arrive by 6:45 at the latest,” she said. “My sister and her husband are a bit more easygoing with their relationship with time, as it were.”
She recalled a trip to Napa Valley in which her sister’s desire to stop and shop on the way to a pre-paid, $100-per-person winery tour would have resulted in the group missing the tour had not Vines placed a begging call to the winery.
In the end, the tour waited for Vines’s family, an outcome that left both sides feeling vindicated, and no doubt doomed to repeat similar behavior on future trips.
“They always like to give me the lesson that I should slow down more and relax on vacation,” she said, “and I think I like to give them the lesson that plans make the world a better place.”
Some roles play out during the trip — the land grabber who claims the master bed with the ensuite bathroom; the workaholic who sets up office on the dining room table, marring the holiday vibe with office tensions; the kitchen hog.
But by their very nature, other roles begin before the trip starts, chief among them the “packer,” a high-stakes, no-glory position, that — politically incorrect though it may be to say — often breaks down along gender lines.
“My husband gets to pack just himself,” said Leah Leahy, a mother of four children under age 8, from Holden, “and I pack everyone else. I’m always very stressed, because if diapers or wipes are forgotten, it’s all on me.”
But such is the plight of the packer that Leahy would be anxious even if her husband took over.
“I know he’d bring the wrong shorts,” she said. “I know which things in the kids’ drawers still fit them and what they’ve grown out of.”
Some extended family trips are one-time deals, but many are regular events, meaning that going in, everyone knows the roles — particularly since vacation roles typically mimic decades-old family patterns.
In Stoneham, Patty Francis, a medical biller, ticked off the positions on her extended family’s bi-annual-ish trips to St. John’s, where the group of 10 or more rents a villa. She’s the planner, her husband and kids are the tag-along-ers, her niece is the Excel spreadsheet creator, and her nephew is the cheapskate, a guy who always says, “I’ll get the next one,” but never seems to find his wallet, who freely helps himself to steak tips and booze paid for by others.
And yet, even as the family group is exchanging glances behind his back, sometime near the end of the trip, when the adults are relaxing in the pool with drinks, all annoyances are forgotten.
“No matter what, it is your family,” Francis said. “Money doesn’t matter. It’s about coming together.”