Sometimes returning to the same destination each year is the best way to stay close to the ones you love.
Photographs by Joel Meyerowitz
The photo on the mantel — a woman holding hands with a small girl, water up to their knees — is twilight-blurry, unintended sunny streaks creasing the picture. Is it my mom and me? Is it me and my daughter? I love that it’s unclear, that sometimes, for a split second, even I don’t know the answer.
The photo captures the feeling that surges through me each summer when my daughter, Lucy, and I walk into the surf at Nauset Beach in Cape Cod. It’s a location I went to with my family as a child, and as soon as the ocean spray hits my face, it’s as if time collapses. I feel the presence of my mother, who died nearly a decade ago and never had a chance to meet her granddaughter.
I love traveling, but as soon as I set foot somewhere I love, I’m already planning to come back. It’s a feeling I call “nowstalgia” — loving the moment so much I know I want to re-create it. While it’s hard to recapture moments in real life, I’ve found vacations to be a loophole — a way to experience those similar highs once more.
That’s why, every winter, Lucy and I head to Santa Teresa, Costa Rica — a place I discovered on a solo trip to a surf camp in my 20s. I’m a single mom, so it’s always been just the two of us, and doing this trip with a 20-month-old was challenging. Every day, I would carry all 30 pounds of her along the mile-long dusty road into town. Now she’s a 4-year-old who assuredly runs ahead of me to the café next door, who greets the locals and realizes that those people have watched her grow up. There’s a confidence she gains in being part of a community, even if it’s for a short span of time.
“Nostalgia was originally seen as a form of homesickness, a motivation to find an anchor in an uncertain world,” says Krystine Batcho, PhD, psychology professor at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, New York. Like annual celebrations, repeat vacations offer stability and connection — which may feel even more important when our “real” lives are a flurry of contract gigs, apartment rentals, and political headline dramas. “Part of our brain desires the excitement of the new, while we also want a place we can return to,” Batcho explains.
What I’ve found is that mixed in with the familiarity is sadness: Sometimes, our favorite cafés have closed. The babysitter who watched Lucy during our first two winters now lives in France. The “secret” beach we thought we discovered, where we spent hours looking for hermit crabs, is now overlooked by a sprawling hotel.
“Nostalgic places remind us of what we’ve gained and what we’ve lost,” says Batcho. “We will never be the carefree 2-year-old running on the beach again.” While one side of nostalgia is despair, the other side, she says, is optimism. “Once we come to terms with what we’ve lost, we can celebrate what we have. We have our memories. With those memories is the ability to relive them, over and over.” In this way, repeat vacations are a way to pass the torch: to remind us of who we are, and to introduce our children to family members they never met.
I’ve found vacations to be a loophole — a way to experience those similar highs once more.
Of course, the other complicated part is coming face-to-face with loss. On the Cape, I miss my mother. I want her to see my daughter running on a trail in Nickerson State Park, want her to lead us in catching turtles at the pond in Chatham. I want her. And now that I have my own child, seeing Lucy visit a locale where we’ve been before — a little older, a little taller, a little less wide-eyed — is beautiful and heartbreaking.
A few winters ago, my daughter and I went to Copenhagen. We explored along the canals, wandering into cafés, and spent two days in Tivoli, the amusement park in the center of the city. Lucy was 2 then, and her excitement on the Rutschebanen roller coaster captivated me; I knew we had to go back. A year later, we returned, spending an entire day at Tivoli. This time, Lucy was a worldly 3, not as frightened on the roller coaster, far bigger in the photos of her atop the carousel camel than she was a year ago, when she had been constantly clutching my hand. Now she was racing ahead, and I realized with a jolt that time was, too. We would never revisit her toddler years.
But we can go back to Tivoli. And I choose to go to the same spots because I want these moments embedded in Lucy’s heart, like those Cape Cod summers are for me. I want her to know she can always find me in a Santa Teresa sunset, on a Copenhagen roller coaster, on a Cape Cod beach. I want her to learn what I have learned: While travel can’t turn back time, it truly can make memories last forever.
About the author: Anna Davies has written for The New York Times, New York, The New York Post, Elle, Cosmo, Glamour, CN Traveler,and others. She lives in Jersey City with her daughter and shares their adventures and travel hacks on Instagram. Next trip on the calendar: A few days in Split, Croatia, followed by a multi-city train trip that ends in Pisa, Italy.