09/20/2012 01:02 pm ET Updated Nov 20, 2012

Family Vacation: It's All About the Dinner

With summer behind us and our family vacation just a file of photos in my camera, I realize that my reason for traveling with my kids has changed. When they were little, I wanted to get them out of the house. With three small boys, a cramped space and a cold climate, my idea of vacation was any place where the sun shone and my children could not break anything. In their middle years I wanted to show them things, add culture and breadth to their world. Now that they live away from home, I just want to have meals with them.

Research has shown that we are happier when we buy experiences than when we buy things. When I buy those five airline tickets or fill the car with gas and pile us all in, I am buying 21 consecutive meals with my family. I am buying hours of conversation at the breakfast, lunch and dinner table with my husband and sons and it is worth every penny.

The minute we leave for the airport or get into the car we wrap ourselves tightly into a cocoon and are transformed from a family focused outwardly -- communicating with friends and colleagues, immersed in work or study -- into a family oblivious to others. At each meal we are a world unto ourselves, as we once were when they were small and our love was all they knew.

The conversation is the continuation, not literally but in a larger sense, of a dialogue we have had for all of our marriage and of all our sons' lives. My husband tells and retells tales of his childhood, our kids finishing the stories with the endings they know and love so well. We laugh at tales of our family's lore, tales from the more than two decades that we have spent together, that would only be humorous to the five people seated around that dinner table.

One son complains about the food because that is what he has been doing all of his life and similarly the rest of us continue to ignore him. My other two sons squabble, pushing and shoving and coming perilously close to damaging every hotel room we have ever occupied, until they realize that we are immune to their behavior and they lose interest as well.

I worry about the details of our family vacation, about flight connections, luggage, check out times and directions. The four of them, who know better than to give the appearance of ignoring me, bobble-head along. Patterns are set, we each have roles and time and venue do not impact this dynamic.

During each meal the conversation drifts, not to the relative trivia of our day's events, but to current events and the culture and history of wherever we are. We traveled through central Europe recently and talked for a week about The War and genocide, about the Iron Curtain and resistance. It was not a conversation that we would have begun sitting comfortably in the suburbs. If we did it would only continue until one of them said, "what time is the game on?" But driving from Munich to Nuremberg and later on to Prague, with long unhurried meals in town squares and beer gardens, allowed a conversation to ebb and flow as if we were in the pre-electronic age.

On vacation, I don't nag. Not hearing the sound of my own voice and the words "Summer job, dorm move-in, preseason" is a vacation in and of itself. I don't realize how much I loath the sound of my own nagging voice until I don't hear it.

Then it all ends in a blinding flash. While still on the tarmac at JFK, my kids switch on their cell phones and, before we are at the gate, one son has made plans for dinner that night asking how fast we think we can clear customs and another wants to know what time his dentist appointment is in the morning. The third plugs in ear phones that have been left untouched in the bottom of his backpack all week.

But it is not gone. We have revisited the well that is our family. We have drunk deeply over 21 different meals of that which connects and binds us.