On Cruising the Caribbean with Your 90-Year Old Mother-in-Law

I never tire of postcard like sunsets. Cruising is a great way to enjoy them.

“You can’t take your knife,” Peggy reminds me. It is a two-inch long Swiss Army knife with a tiny blade, screwdriver, scissors, a toothpick, tweezers and a nail file: in other words a deadly weapon. We are going on a cruise. I feel warm all over knowing that the Transportation Security Agency is on guard.

Even more critical, we can’t take alcohol. TSA could care less but the cruise line is obsessed. Buckets of profit will be lost if we bring our own. Terrible things are threatened.

My son-in-law Clay has carefully researched the issue. Cruise lines are more paranoid about sniffing out booze than TSA is at sniffing out bombs. If you sin by as much as an ounce, Mr. Nice Guy Cruise Ship turns into a raging monster of the deep. You’ve heard of people being thrown overboard, right? Even Clay, who had contemplated filling a shampoo bottle with bourbon, is daunted.

Our ship, The Navigator of the Sea, sails out of Fort Lauderdale. We are scheduled for a five night, six-day cruise that takes in the Cayman Islands and Cozumel. Twenty-five family members are joining us including two Bahamian cousins. Peg’s mom, Helen, is generously picking up the tab in celebration of having survived 90 years.

We park the RV at the dock and then wait for our immediate family to arrive from the airport. Clay, our daughter Tasha, their two kids and Helen are flying in from Tennessee. Our son Tony, his wife Cammie and their son joined them in South Carolina.

Eventually, the bus arrives. Ethan, Cody and Connor tumble off and make a beeline for Peggy. Grandma is sugar and spice and all things nice. Grandpa, apparently, is chopped liver. Helen and the kids give me a big hug, however. Eventually, the Grandkids, willing to leave Grandma for five seconds, do as well.

Tasha and Clay look stressed. Their day started at 5 AM in Hendersonville. Travelling with a two-year old, a five-year old and a ninety-year old is challenging, to say the least, and there is tough competition for which of the three provides the greatest challenge.

Helen, I and the beautiful blue sea in a mandatory cruise photo.

Helen has reached the wonderful age where she says whatever comes to mind. Damn the torpedoes and full speed ahead. For example, she announces in an awed voice, “Wow, that guy is fat!” And he is; he just doesn’t want to hear it. Unfortunately, her observations also apply to the TSA workers whose sense of humor is right up there with zombies’.

“Grandma,” Tasha whispers in desperation, “behave or they are going to strip search you.” The admonition has little effect. Fortunately, we make it through the gauntlet with clothes in tact.

On board, the rest of Peggy’s family joins us. It takes a brave man to go to sea with 18 in-laws, especially one who has been on family probation for 20 years. Focusing on damage control, Peggy has already announced that I won’t wear a tie on formal dinner night. (I have an image to maintain.) The first evening is smooth sailing, however; casual attire is recommended. I specialize in casual.

Nighttime presents a different challenge. Helen has her own room. There is a very good chance she will wake up not knowing where she is or why she is there, which might prove interesting on a moving ship surrounded by deep water. (Her younger sister and proposed roommate thought about the implications and stayed home.)

To counter the possibility of Great G’Ma going for a midnight dip, Peggy has located us in the next room with an adjoining door. The door will be left open a crack and we will leave a light on. The thought of my ninety-year old Mother-in-law suddenly appearing in our bedroom absolutely guarantees my best behavior. I threaten to go to bed fully clothed.

When I think of Helen, ‘Grand Dame’ comes to my mind. And she is, a Southern Lady with charm, intelligence and a great sense of humor. But Helen looming over our bed at 2 AM in her white nighty is something else, an apparition. “Where am I,” the ghost asks plaintively? I shake Peggy awake (none too gently) to supply the answer.

The big event of the cruise is a family talent show. Peggy and her siblings, Jane and John, have organized the production to say thank you to their mom. The cruise line assigns us to the “Dungeon” for the party. It’s a dimly lit bar in the bowels of the ship filled with fake skeletons playing dead instruments. The children dash off to explore its darkest corners.

I drink.

Connor steals a quick snooze in his Great Grandmother's room.

Other than Toddler Connor re-tuning Peggy’s guitar and the great grandkids and Helen eating the mint candy Bingo markers, everything comes off smoothly. It’s a success. There is poetry, rap, guitar playing, singing, games and a stiff bourbon for Great G’Ma.  The show is capped off by a stirring rendition of the Hokey Pokey played by Peggy, sang by the adults and danced by the grandkids. Even the two-year olds join in, sort of.

With the talent show over, we return to the major cruise ship activity, eating. At dinner, we are expected to consume as many calories in one meal as we normally would over two days of eating breakfast, lunch and dinner on shore. “Here, have another plate of prime rib,” our waiter urges.

But beware, it isn’t the fat-induced heart attack that will get you; dangerous bugs lurk in dining areas. Recent on-board epidemics have sent passengers dashing en masse to their toilets. It’s great for the disaster-oriented media but bad for the guests and bad for the tourist industry.

Cruise ships have retaliated by placing numerous anti-bacterial hand sanitizer dispensers backed up by smiling Kung Fu masters at each dining room entrance. I am suspicious of the omnipresent, noisy greeters and dutifully sterilize myself. (Who knows what a liquid gel guaranteed to kill millions of germs on contact will do to a human.)

Fortunately we avoid any major health crisis involving toilets. Even more happily, we avoid the fate of our sister cruise ship, Splendor, which is shut down off the Baja by an engine fire while we are cruising. Our son, Tony, who flies helicopters for the Coast Guard out of San Diego, is particularly grateful he is sailing in the Caribbean as opposed to rescuing passengers in the Pacific.

As for the rest of our cruise, we do the normal cruise ship activities that have been around since time immemorial: attend shows, play miniature golf, read, gamble and go on shore excursions. Each family is assigned to two days of being entertained by Helen. “Who get’s the short straw today,” she asks every morning. Truth is we enjoy our valued time with the feisty oldster and her humorous observations.

I do have a comment on shore excursions. Any traditional culture that can survive up to 12,000 cruise passengers per day is purely coincidental. On Cayman Island, Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville is as good as it gets.

Our nephew Jay comes over on the last afternoon to share photos of a quest he just had in Iceland. We’ve been close ever since he went on a 60-mile backpack trip with me that included climbing Mt. Whitney. He is developing into a talented photographer. As the closing picture fades away we gather up the rug rats and dutifully trot off to consume our final 5000 calories and say our goodbyes.

It has been a fun, family filled adventure. My thanks to Helen for making it possible and to Peggy for organizing the trip. Bone, who has become allergic to custom agents, stayed home. But it was truly a Bone-type event.

Read about Bone falling in love with Bonette in the next blog, 'An Itinerant Idler.'