Grandparents Day is just around the corner (September 13), and a growing body of evidence confirms the rising incidence and influence of multigenerational travel.
My thoughts turn to August 2013, when I joined my parents, two siblings, brother-in-law, niece and nephew, wife and two young children on a group journey to northern Israel.
Traveling With Different Needs (and Speeds)
Like most multigenerational travel endeavors, the reasons for our trip were as diverse as the people present. For my mother, the project’s real engine, the goal was to share a gift-from-beyond-the-grave inheritance. She wanted to behold with her own eyes and set her feet on land her father had secretly purchased, sight unseen, decades before. The title had finally been placed in my mother’s name after considerable effort hacking through bureaucracy.
As one piece of a larger area used to grow olive trees and date palms, the parcel is small and doesn’t touch the Sea of Galilee or the road around it. But symbolically, this unexpected bequeathal was huge for my mother– a physical point of attachment to a much-beloved father who died early in her life and left her only time-worn juvenile memories. Of course, she was also brushing the branches of “her” olive trees in a powerfully significant location of the Holy Land.
This was largely lost on her four grandchildren, ages 3 to 13, who were more excited about the pool at the cabin we rented nearby. There was also a ping pong table, a diet heavy on hummus, and a hike that included a tricky scramble along the steep slopes of Mount Arbel, which is fabled for its thousand-plus years of history. My elderly parents were frustrated at not being able to witness firsthand the history beyond their physical means.
Meanwhile, my feelings were as confused as my role, a fulcrum in the unfolding multigenerational travel experience. Knowing the grandchildren wouldn’t fully grasp the vacation’s gravitas, my mother had put up funds for her adult offspring to be present for her deeply personal moment of connection to the grandfather I never knew.
The Significance of Shared History
With my feet in the soft soil of my mother’s land, I felt a memory snap into place from 1987, when I ventured solo behind the Iron Curtain to visit long-lost relatives in Kiev.
These descendants of my grandfather’s siblings hosted me and arranged a visit with my ailing octogenarian “Aunt” Roza, the oldest surviving relative of their war-decimated branches of the family tree. She had been a very little girl when my grandfather– in his young 20s at the time and her favorite uncle because he always playfully threw her into the air and caught her– departed for America.
Unaware of my visit, Roza opened her eyes from a nap, stared at me confusedly and, with a sense of weary (but penetrating) calm, whispered “Leib,” my grandfather’s birth name. Leib died before I was born, but a genetic thread bound us together in the eyes of this woman, whose recollections reached back in time to identify in me the young man who had left her 80 years earlier. She immediately took my hand and didn’t let go.
Back in Israel, standing on ancestral land with three generations of family, remarking on the pervasive presence of a fourth, and the complex forces that brought us together, I got that same sense of connection with the past. To no one in particular, I whispered “Leib,” and wondered about the legacy I will leave to my unknown heirs in 50 years.
Recognizing Common Ground
Although our brains and bodies were moving at vastly different speeds, the members of my family found strong common ground (both physically and emotionally) as a multienerational group, guided predominantly by my mother’s rediscovery of her roots and desire to share them. This was fundamental to the success of our trip.
As President Obama said in September 2014, at a ceremony announcing that year’s National Grandparents Day, it’s important for younger generations to recognize the contributions of older ones, including the latter’s share “in some of life’s most cherished memories, from small moments to personal milestones” that have “been a source of comfort in difficult times.”
According to advocacy organizations such as the Family Travel Association, multigenerational travel now accounts for between one-third and one-half of all vacations. And much of it is made possible by grandparents eager to use their retirement savings to the benefit of their progeny.
Little did we know then just how important our trip would ultimately prove to be. Just nine short months later, my beloved mother passed away, suddenly and unexpectedly. But our remembrances of her are far richer for having spent that quality time together in Israel.
Nothing can ever ease the pain of losing a parent or grandparent. But we were granted some measure of peace thanks to the satisfaction and closure we watched her relax into, and the familial land legacy she and her father have left for us. I hope that my children’s memories of her, now anchored in a joyful sense of place, will provide them with the same fulfillment she got from being with them. –Ethan Gelber
BIO: As a writer, Ethan Gelber has agitated tirelessly for responsible/sustainable travel practices, a focus on keeping things local, and quality and relevance in publishing and destination marketing. Among many other things, he is the founder/editor of The Travel Word, a website showcasing responsible, sustainable and local travel; and editorial director of the Family Travel Association.