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Minding the Gap

Maira Kalman

Photo: Maira Kalman

We were sitting at the dining room table when the thought came to me. I was trying to get my 11-year-old daughter to talk about her day and eat her meal; she sat with her legs tucked under her, offering what had become her usual monosyllabic responses to our questions. If my husband, Larry, and I let her, she'd have dinner with her headphones on.

This was not the child I knew. Kate used to bubble with excitement, sharing each tidbit of her day, each goofball cafeteria anecdote. But lately she seemed almost indifferent to me. She and I used to share everything—hot baths, long reading sessions in bed, walks to school. Now we read in separate rooms, if she reads at all. And she walks to school with her pals.

A friend of mine whose children are in high school had warned me: "When they turn thirteen, they're gone." Kate, our only child, was on the brink of adolescence, and I was starting to feel that the mothering part of my life was done. Where had those years gone?Nostalgia crept over me. Our time at home felt parceled out between phone calls and e-mail. I had been extremely busy with my career as a writer and teacher, and Kate had school and a demanding basketball and volleyball schedule. I hesitated to admit it, but both of us were moving on.

Though she sat across from me, I found myself missing my own daughter. That was when I turned to her and said, "How about just you and me take a vacation over spring break?" She peered up from the food that was circling her plate. Her tired brown eyes widened. We had always traveled well together, and I saw I'd lit a spark. "Sure," she said. "Where?"

I mulled it over. London would be nice, but too civilized. A spa?Too easy. The Andes?Too rough. Then I recalled the seaside trip we'd all loved in Montego Bay when she was six. "Let's go to the Caribbean," I said. "We can go snorkeling."

Her dad, a journalist, was all for it. "It would be great if you girls had some time together that was all yours," he agreed. It was late to get reservations for spring break, but the Holiday Inn Grand Cayman had a room available for five nights. Planning the trip gave us something to do together. We bought guides to Caribbean fish, to shells and coral. Kate had always been a nature lover, and I hoped the trip would rekindle that interest—as well as our interest in each other.

In the weeks before our journey we made a pact. We would bring no electronic devices: no Discman or Game Boy for Kate, no laptop for me. We would have books, journals, and our own adventures. But on the plane Kate wanted to play hangman all the way to Grand Cayman. After an hour or so I was ready to pull out a novel. "Why don't we read or just relax?" I suggested. "If you'd let me bring my Discman," she complained.

On arrival Kate was reluctant to help carry the luggage. She said the bags were too heavy; I told her to pitch in. I had thrown my back out ice-skating and couldn't believe I hadn't bought suitcases on wheels. We were tired, but our hotel was in worse shape. Despite being nicely situated on the beach, it was slated for demolition the following week (it has since reopened nearby). Morale was low, services were poor. Our room had an air conditioner that clanged like a train engine and no view of the sea, which disappointed both of us. "Let's see if we can't get a nicer room," I said. Kate flopped on the bed.

I got us a room right on the beach—more expensive, but, I thought, How often do I take a trip like this with my daughter?As we moved the luggage again, we were barely speaking. Kate loved the new room, however, and soon began to relax. Once we were settled we headed for the sand, where someone was parasailing high above the waves. "Hey, Mom," Kate said. "I want to do that!" I followed her gaze and thought about my back. "Well, you can go alone," I told her. "That's not my cup of tea." Already, we seemed to be falling into our old patterns.

I'd imagined that this vacation would somehow make the barriers and obstacles melt away, but after the first few nights, it was obvious that it hadn't. I wanted my books and solace. Kate wanted to play in the pool and stay up late, listening to the Barefoot Man, the house band. I was up at six, ready to explore; she slept until 10. I spent my early mornings longing for my computer, walking a lonely beach. Once Kate woke up, she was grumpy, and it wasn't until noon that the day could begin.

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