Heaven Is Just the Four of Us

Getting back to basics for a big celebration.

Virtuoso Life, July/August 2018.

THE COCOON OF OUR DOUBLE ROOM AT THE FOUR SEASONS BILTMORE WAS WORKING ITS MAGIC. Palm fronds shushed outside our terrace window, and the tiled pool lay still and silent. Santa Barbara's peaceful, tropical ease had lulled me into a deep, restful sleep.

Around six in the morning, my eyes shot open. Rapping at the door ...

I jumped up, grabbed a white terry-cloth robe.

"Sorry, miss. Did someone call security?"

My sister, Kristen, and I were sharing a room for the first time in years, but as my eyes adjusted to the dim morning light, I realized her bed was empty. It was empty, the security guard explained, because my sister was locked outside on the terrace.

"What happened?" I grinned, unlatching the slider. Kristen, also wearing a white terry-cloth robe, was sitting on a chaise lounge grading a stack of papers.

''Sorry," she said sheepishly. "It locked behind me."

''You must be freezing!" I exclaimed.

“Nah.” She shrugged . "These robes are the best! Lucky I had my phone, though."

By 7 AM we were propped back in bed with espressos. Having survived the “Lucy and Ethel" portion of our trip, we were now free to not only reminisce about our favorite travel fiascos, a sisterly specialty — simultaneously missing trains to the same, place, taking wrong turns on bikes, losing our wallets — but also to focus on the real reason were here: Mom and Dad.

Our parents happened to both be celebrating their 80th birthdays, six months apart. A celebration was in order! Since they were marking a big milestone, I'd assumed we should be thinking big as well. But while mom and Dad are intrepid travelers (Iran, Egypt, Morocco, Bhutan, India, Sicily, Cuba — you name it, they’ve either been there or are going next month), they're not big group people. Fourth-generation Californians, they’re sophisticated, but low-key. They wanted to keep it cozy. And so my sister and I found ourselves lucky beneficiaries of a dream plan: just the four of us together for the first time in decades, celebrating our timeless Californian parents in a timeless Californian place.

This was shortly before Montecito’s tragic mudslides earlier this year. It stuns us now looking back at it to think how unimaginably things changed. The Biltmore shuttered its doors all winter, while the town began its delicate recovery. The hotel reopened in June.

Shared travel history weaves family identity, and when you're a child forming your perceptions of the world, the very act of moving through it as a traveler gets hardwired to your DNA. In the 1970s, our family travels were free-spirited and adventurous, not luxurious. We drove a Volkswagen Thing through the Yucatan jungle, rafted the Colorado River, backpacked for miles in the Sierra. We didn't do resorts or take what most people now would even think of as a vacation. Once my sister and I were busy with work and families of our own, we traveled vicariously through our parents — often the first humans we knew who’d been to some exotic place — but as our families grew, it was harder to pull off serious travel together.

By the time I'd arrived in Santa Barbara from Seattle and my sister from Jackson, Mississippi, the four of us had spent months in anticipation of our mini-reunion. Mom and Dad had driven to the Biltmore from their home in Southern California a few hours away. We found them happily ensconced in a second-floor corner king room with French doors opening onto a balcony. It overlooked a pool edged by feathery fern trees and leafy palms.

And there was cake! The hotel had sent up a sinfully rich dark-chocolate confection frosted in shiny chocolate icing. On top, a white chocolate flag proclaimed “Happy Birthday!” We reverted to our best bad family habits and demolished several slices before dinner.

WHAT DO YOU DO WHEN IT'S JUST YOUR original nuclear family traveling together again for the first time in 30 years? With bossy big-sister authority, I’d declared we should have one goal a day, providing a loose structure for getting the band back together.

Accordingly, Mom booked a private tour at Lotusland, a 37-acre estate with exotic gardens designed by the fabulously eccentric Madame Ganna Walska. Dad drove us through the hills of Santa Barbara to the Old Mission with aplomb (which got us reminiscing about road trips past: all those miles we'd logged in the 1970s via our cocoa-brown VW camper van — winding up Highway l to redwood country, braving switchback turns en route to the High Sierra, driving to Baja for campouts on the beach). And there was an exquisite birthday dinner at San Ysidro Ranch — just the four of us alfresco beneath cozy heat lamps and olive trees strung with white lights. It's bittersweet to have celebratcd there: San Ysidro Ranch, badly damaged in the slides, is closed until further notice.

We had such a lovely time, we shut the place down, and it occurred to me that you never know what the next moment will bring. Not only were my sister and I fortunate our parents were still so healthy and active, we were also incredibly lucky to be able to spend this kind of time with them now that Kristen and I (in our fifties) were practically adults.

The thing about sons and daughters is that when we're with our original nuclear family, we often revert back to our original familial roles. But now we were all grown up: my sister and I were no longer carrying heavy packs up steep shale slopes and whining about our blisters. Spending time with moms and dads reminds us that they're our first reference point — flawed and wonderful as they are. And what we admire, with a reverence that grows over time, is them. They're our pole stars, our trusted guidebooks. Of course, our true goal was one that can prove elusive these days: savoring the simple pleasures of just being together. During long breakfasts at the Biltmore, we talked about everything — Dad’s new mountain bike, Mom’s latest art opening, old family friends, politics, climate change, who was reading what, who was watching what, who had been where — but the real conversation, the one that's passed down from generation to generation, like blue eyes or curly hair, is subtext: values, beliefs, character.

By day two of our four-day weekend we waltzed into breakfast like we owned the place. My parents were glowing — they seemed so happy, and I realized that, although they adore their sons-in-law and grandkids, there was also something elemental and important about reconnecting just the four of us. Every family has its distinct culture, and being back in that culture, in the land of the Browns, was like hitting an instant reset button. Grounding, but somehow different too.

Spending this much time in such a genteel resort setting was not the kind of thing our hardy pioneer-stock California family typically did. Extravagance was in the air! As we lounged poolside and the sun sank toward the Pacific, Mom turned a page in her book, and Dad dozed off reading The New Yorker. My sister and I ordered cappuccinos and gazed through our giant sunglasses. You'd almost think we acted this way every day. I felt quiet a happiness fizzing up and realized it wasn't just the caffeine. It was love.

By Kim Brown Seely.  All rights reserved.