Personal Journey: Instead of gifts, birthday adventures

Cousins Lucas Davidson and Julian Greene with a reenactor at Fort McHenry in Baltimore.
Cousins Lucas Davidson and Julian Greene with a reenactor at Fort McHenry in Baltimore. (JANET DAVIDSON)
Posted: January 13, 2014

We have six wonderful grandchildren ranging in age from 12 to 5. Over the years, we have found choosing birthday gifts (fun and educational) very difficult. It is hard to find a spot-on gift for children who are blessed with so much.

A few years ago, after searching frantically for a specific Lego set, we realized most gifts got lost in the excitement of the parties and the sea of presents. We wondered whether the kids even remembered what we gave them. So instead of birthday gifts, we decided to create adventures.

Thus began the annual trek for each grandchild to a place he or she had never been. Our trips vary according to age and interests but have included theater, Old City, a Saddler's Woods hike with a naturalist, the Empire State Building, the Franklin Institute, Ringing Rocks State Park (with hammers), and, most recently, Baltimore's Inner Harbor.

We scheduled the trip for two days after school ended, before camp started. Our 8-year-old grandsons (cousins) checked out Baltimore on the Internet, coming up with a list of things to do. Arriving at lunchtime, we refueled (always surprised at how much 8-year-old boys can eat) and took the water taxi to Fort McHenry. The boys are young and enthusiastic enough to be totally delighted by the fort. They ran through the battlements, jail, and bunkhouse and met the reenactor standing guard at the mouth of the harbor. To the boys' delight, he showed them how to load a musket, explaining the bayonet as well. The boys learned about "The Star-Spangled Banner" (who knew it had so many verses?) and became Junior Rangers, complete with badges. After a brief visit to the gift shop, we were off to the USS Constellation.

The Constellation dates from 1853. The boys scrambled around the decks, helped operate the windlass, and took pictures of hammocks where the sailors slept. They were fascinated by the infirmary with its old-fashioned medical implements.

Dinner in Little Italy (where they inhaled everything in front of them) was followed by a swim in the hotel pool. In between, they astonished us with their creativity by making a movie on an iPad.

We awoke to quiet chatter and two boys ready to take on the National Aquarium. They loved the dolphins and sharks. They especially liked the jellyfish, taking lots of pictures for a planned slide show. We were delighted they remembered going to the Camden Aquarium with us when they were younger. After touring the USS Torsk submarine, the grandparents were ready to head home.

My husband and I have traveled extensively, here and abroad, but seeing patriotic sites, a Broadway play, or a state park through our grandchildren's eyes makes even our most spectacular trips fade in comparison. This is not an inexpensive choice. But we know that friends, sports, and life will soon trump anything we do with them. In the meantime, these birthday trips are priceless.

Janet Davidson writes from Mount Laurel.

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