It was a textbook case—novelist Mary Morris and her preteen daughter were no longer connecting. The cure?A quick Caribbean getaway. . . together
Maira Kalman
| Credit: 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.

I knew in my maternal gut that we had to strike a balance. On one of my solitary mornings, I discovered the hotel's daily snorkeling excursions to Stingray City and signed us up. The boat left at 10, which meant Kate had to be up by nine. She was tired, but soon there were baby stingrays resting in her hands, stingrays swimming between our legs. We visited the cavern of a spotted moray eel (named Mama) and stroked the back of a nurse shark.

That night we slept soundly. And the next morning we eagerly went on another excursion, to the wreck of the Cali, where Kate found the hiding place of a giant sea turtle and swam with it as if out to sea. We developed a language for being underwater together—we would point and give a thumbs-up if something was great, and make a time-out signal when we were ready for a break.

A fellow traveler told us that Cemetery Reef was an easy place to snorkel alone, that lots of people went there and that, despite its ominous name, it was safe. Kate liked the idea of going out on our own, so the next day I bought lunch at a nearby market and we hopped in a cab.

We found ourselves on an almost deserted strip of pure white sand ringed by coconut palms. We kicked placidly in the warm water until we came to the huge orange and purple reef, and we swam across the top of it, pointing out the fish we wanted each other to see. Kate seemed happy when the school of palm-sized black-and-yellow fish approached us. Soon they surrounded her, and before I knew what was happening, they began to nip at her. She flailed, fighting them off.

As she reached for me I saw that she was terrified, and I swam her to shore. When she got out, she ripped off her mask. She was trembling, on the verge of tears. "I'm not going back," she said. "I'm not going in that water again." I understood her fear, but was trying to understand why the fish had attacked her and left me alone. As I comforted her, I felt the gold chain around her neck. "Honey, it's the chain," I said. I know this much about being in water: You aren't supposed to swim with a shiny object on your body; a fish might think it's a smaller fish. "Here, let's take it off."

Still she refused. My daughter's stubborn side and vulnerable side can become one and the same, but I know the importance of getting back on the horse when you've fallen off. "I promise you," I said, "if they bother you again, we'll get right out and you'll never have to get back in." I took her chain and stashed it in the dive bag. Then we put on our flippers and masks. As we stepped into the water, Kate reached for me. "Mommy," she said, "hold my hand." We swam to the reef hand in hand, and the fish didn't bother her at all.

Back at the hotel, the Barefoot Man played at a seafood buffet. We ate, danced, and headed to bed before 10. En route to our room, we paused before a man who inscribes your name on a grain of rice. Kate had him write hers, then seal it in a dolphin-shaped charm. That night, my daughter who was poised on the brink of adolescence, my girl who was almost "gone," called out to me, half asleep. "Mommy," she said, "hold my hand." And I reached across the pillow and held it the whole night long.

The next day she was up early. When she asked what we were doing, I said we were going parasailing. I trembled as two men strapped me into the harness and plunked Kate between my legs. I wrapped my arms around her and, as we rose above the sea, started to scream. I screamed and screamed, absolutely terrified, my back hurting, and felt Kate clutch my hands. "It's all right, Mommy," she said. "Look, it's beautiful."

And as I sailed in the air up and down the shore, past palm trees, my daughter clasped to me, it really was.

Our getaways are becoming a regular thing. Right now we're thinking about a friend's invitation to Hawaii, or a hike on the Inca Trail. But it doesn't always have to be a big trip. It might just be what we call spa day, when we take hot baths and slather ourselves with mud. Or an afternoon of shopping and lunch in Chinatown. What matters is this: I've learned to recognize when Kate's asking for my help and when she wants to be on her own. And she has learned that she can grow up and still ask me to hold her hand.

Mary Morris is the author of the novel Acts of God (Picador USA), as well as three memoirs about her journeys as a woman traveling alone.

Leave Dad (or Mom) at home

SAND AND SNORKELING The Cayman Islands are the place for snorkeling in the Caribbean. Consider the Hyatt Regency Grand Cayman, on a private stretch of Seven-Mile Beach, with its own diving facilities (800/554-9288 or 345/949-1234; doubles from $235), or the smaller-scale Casa Caribe (345/945-4287; condos from $265), where the two of you can hole up in a two-bedroom condominium.

GIRLS-ONLY SKIING Join U.S. Ski Team vet Kim Reichhelm for a weeklong mother-daughter workshop at Club Med in Crested Butte, Colorado. You'll get lively lessons—with a video review of how you've done—and if you happen to pull a muscle, there's always the hot tub. 888/444-8151;; $950 per person, not including lodging.

GOLF SCHOOL Nike wants everyone in golf shoes. The company holds parent-child tutorial weekends led by PGA and LPGA veterans at 33 championship courses, from Pinehurst in North Carolina ($525 per person) to St. Andrews in Scotland ($2,895 per person). At the latter, you'll stay in 500-year-old university residence halls while you delve into the history of the game. 800/645-3226;

PAS DE DEUX, PERFECT FOR TWO Smithsonian Study Tours delights dancers young and old on its four-day trip coinciding with the Kirov Ballet's visit to Washington, D.C. You'll see two performances at the Kennedy Center, go on an exclusive backstage tour, and make a pilgrimage to Sleeping Beauty's costume at the Library of Congress. 877/338-8687;; $1,255 per person, including lodging and meals.

A SPA FOR (ALMOST) EVERYONE Disney's Grand Floridian Resort has one of the few spas that caters to young teens. You and your 13-year-old can recover from a spin on Splash Mountain by sinking into a marine algae bath, followed by a Swedish rubdown. 407/824-2332;; five-day package from $3,030 for two, including Disney World passes and some treatments.

STRESS-FREE SURFING Las Olas Surf & Snow Safaris for Women offers holistic surfing in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, taught by trained "surf divas." Each day of its mother-daughter week (scheduled next in June 2002) starts with yoga and ends with a massage; in between, the fun in the sun includes kayaking and hiking. 707/746-6435;; from $1,695 per person.

TRAIL RIDING Trek on horseback and share a tent on GORP Travel's three-day parent-child outing, from the remote Rock Creek Pack Station (in Bishop, California, three hours south of Reno) to the Sierra Nevada and back. Bring your own campfire tales. 877/440-4677;; from $850 per person.

—Hillary Geronemus and Robert Maniaci