The Best Part of Being a Family is the Inside Jokes

My husband and I were at a restaurant with two of our three sons recently when my youngest addressed me – although he made sure his dad and brother heard – “Should I tell the waitress why you’re sitting down?” We all erupted in laughter.

Two months before, I’d planned an overly ambitious trip to Costa Rica that involved crossing the country. Twice. In a week. The mileage sounded doable. One day we needed to drive 250 miles from Monteverde to La Pavona. From Trip Advisor posts I knew there would be stints on unpaved roads, but I imagined speeding Dukes of Hazzard style across the countryside ignoring posted speed limits. What we ended up ignoring were posted minimums. The boulder-strewn roads (think soccer balls) were narrow and fluctuated between sheer drop offs into verdant valleys and hairpin turns. Often, we faced both. The route was majestic and slow-going, giving us lots, and lots, of family time.

The one thing that makes each family unique are the inside jokes.

Our rental car, all they’d had left when we got to the front of the line, was a mid-sized Hyundai Elantra for five-full sized adults. The middle son, claiming he’s biggest, which he is by less than two inches and no more than ten pounds, rode shotgun the entire vacation. My husband drove, since he was the only one who knew, or could still remember, how to handle a stick shift. My spot was back seat middle with a son on either side and a console where my leg room should have been. The three of us not in the plush, front bucket seats, could never all sit with our backs flat. Someone always had to layer their shoulders in front of the others, like that hand slapping game you play as a kid.

[More about family vacations with teens here.]

It’s been more than five years since we all shared the same abode. My oldest son lives and works out-of-state. The middle son is in college, just twenty minutes away, but we give him his space. (If he’s reading this he’s likely thinking, not that much space.) But it would take more than time passing to erase family. Every story we recount is as fresh as if it had just happened. Our gift as a family is we can laugh about all of it.

One day on the trip we hiked through Tortuguero National Park, an hour boat ride off mainland Costa Rica. In the park you can hear the ocean crash a few hundred feet away, but the vegetation is so thick you can’t see it. In spots, the canopy overhead completely blocks out the sun. A fellow trail hiker passed by and gave us a nature-lover’s heads up. Ahead she told us, was a brilliant orange snake partway up a tree on the right. In exchange, we pointed out a sloth best viewed with binoculars. We found the snake. I peeked quickly at its bright, bold, slitheriness from about six feet away, grabbed the nearest human arm (it happened to be my youngest son) and cried, “Get me out,” pointing to a clearing near the ocean. As he escorted me he said matter-of-factly, “Definitely keep walking.” Well, that was reassuring.

The next day eating lunch at a soda, a tiny, little restaurant with rickety chairs and native food, he divulged the secret. My son had spotted a spider about the size of a baseball. Evidently I walked past at least three. Some even larger. The boys began recounting my too-close brushes with nature from their childhood. There was the time a chipmunk hitchhiked in our minivan from our house to the grocery store. And the time I abandoned the kids in the front yard, as I ran to the neighbor’s screaming, “S. N. A. K. E.” I guess I spelled it so as not to frighten them, even as I left them in my wake. Before the waitress came, I interrupted the conversation to helpfully remind my pretty-much adult sons they could choose something healthier than the beans and rice we’d subsisted on for nearly a week. They didn’t answer, but I’m sure they were considering.

Well-fed and relaxed we got back on the road. Not right after lunch, because there had been a flat tire – remember the soccer-ball sized boulders? We spent at least an hour in a garage as several kind men helped us find not only a working tire, but a fresh rim. My two older sons and the men chatted in Spanish the entire time. After that, we continued our drive. Slowly. The conversation lagged a bit as we were all tired. Vacation-tired. Happy, but worn out. Suddenly, the oldest son broke the silence, “Mom, if you had to choose between being duct taped to a chair, behind an observation glass, watching the youngest gorge himself at an all-you-can-eat buffet, seeing him choose only fried foods and not a single vegetable … or if you had to touch that spider back at the jungle, which would you pick?” I spied my husband’s eyes in the rearview mirror, checking my reaction just before I doubled over with laughter.

They get me. And I get them. There are no other people on earth who know every frailty, every susceptibility, like family does. The rest of the drive to the volcano we asked each other “What ifs” trying to scratch at each other’s imperfections, exposing one another’s Achilles heels. All the while, laughing hysterically.

[More on five ways to keep your family close while growing apart here.]

Finally, long after dark, we stopped for dinner. We wandered into a quiet restaurant in a tiny town, far off the tourist track. The boys filed in and sat. I stood stretching, letting each kink in my back and my legs straighten out. When the waitress walked over I glanced at the youngest son, the least likely to speak Spanish, and said, “Honey, please tell her why I’m standing.” The middle son didn’t even glance up from the menu, addressing his younger brother he said, “The waitress doesn’t care why Mom’s standing.” Which was a fair assessment and delivered with such deadpan proficiency that I laughed at that too.

The rest of the vacation the older two would look at the younger one and make helpful suggestions. “Tell the clerk why Mom is buying a t-shirt,” or “Tell the tour guide why Mom likes to look at waterfalls.”

When I think back on that vacation filled with postcard-perfect scenes I remember the adorable agoutis (raccoon-like, but smaller) foraging for food and attention along the roadside. I think back to hiking in the Monteverde Cloud Forest where we could feel the cool breeze of the Pacific waters and the warm winds of the Caribbean as we stood atop continental divide. But what I remember most fondly were those long, lazy hours, riding in that cramped, little car, laughing fiercely at all our old inside jokes and coming up with the new ones we’ll tell for years to come.


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jacysuttonJacy Sutton’s debut novel, Available to Chat, was published last spring and her essays have appeared on The New York Times and PBS’s Next Avenue. Along with working as PR Writer, Jacy is also a wife, mom to three grown sons and chief dog walker.  You can find her at on her website or on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or Pinterest.

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