06-23 Cartoon

When I was a child, packing to go on vacation was something I only experienced in books and on TV. We were poor and there were a lot of us, so we never went anywhere but the occasional camping trip.

Even that involved nothing more than my mom tossing a change of clothes per person into a big cardboard box, some random groceries in another, and heaving a few blankets into the back of the truck.

When I grew old enough to travel on my own, I packed carelessly and with abandon. Just the right tight shirts; three swimsuits, each skimpier than the last; platform shoes and bell bottoms; a trendy fringed jacket – all tossed into a thrift-shop duffel bag.

Once I got married and we began taking proper vacations, I had to be more practical and pragmatic when it came to packing.

No more carrying our belongings into a hotel in black trash bags or the old Israeli ammo bag we picked up on the bargain rack at a military surplus store; we bought “decent” matching suitcases.

I was forced to kick it into high gear once our kids came along. By the mid-1990s, when I had what felt like several dozen young children, my packing skills reached their zenith.

Zip-closure bags became my secret weapon. I’d pack a shirt, pair of shorts, underwear and socks for each day for each kid, and just stack them upright in the suitcase like folding files.

We enjoyed at least one trip to Florida each year in those days. This was a typical scenario:

■ Three weeks out: Start making lists of what to take. Buy everyone new underwear and socks. Check to see if Drew’s shoes still fit.

■ Two weeks out: Match shorts to shirts; add underwear and matching socks and put in bags, one for each day. Seek out coordinating socks, hair bows, hats, bracelets, necklaces, etc. Buy new shoes for Drew.

■ Four days out: Run 20 or so loads of laundry so that not only do we have clean clothes for the trip, but we come home to clean, fresh hampers upstairs and down. Buy new shoes for Drew, since he somehow already outgrew the ones from two weeks ago.

■ Two days out: Haul suitcases out from the closet under the stairs. Make a store run for travel-size toiletries, coloring books, snacks and fun stuff for goodie bags.

■ Day before departure: Start stuffing suitcases. Run to store to replace cache of travel-sized toiletries following catastrophic Barbie beauty salon episode. Assemble goodie bags; stash snacks in every nook and cranny of the van. Tell Drew to shut up about his shoes being tight.

■ Day of departure: Wrangle kids into minivan, turn out the lights and lock the door and head out. Turn around after seven miles to retrieve Maddie’s special pink headphones and her Razzles pillow.

■ Listen to “Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead” 17 times in a row while trying to ignore the growing stench of a vehicle chock full of spilled snacks, stale soft drinks and unshod teenage feet.

I thought about those hectic but fun days when I was contemplating packing for my most recent trip to Florida, where four of those same children now live.

I’ve gotten older and wiser when it comes to travel arrangements. I keep a bag of toiletries at the ready, with duplicates of the things I use at home – toothbrush, comb, deodorant – so I never have to remember to transfer from the medicine cabinet to a suitcase.

I learned the art of rolling clothes to better fit into a suitcase, making them look much less wrinkled on arrival. I’ve acquired several small suitcases and rolling duffles, some even collapsible, and all with tons of pockets and compartments for stashing goodies.

I’ve discovered the joys of mesh packing cubes, which eliminate having to dig through the entire suitcase to find one lousy pair of socks.

And, most importantly, I’ve adopted a laissez-faire attitude toward packing. Instead of trying to pack for every conceivable situation I might encounter, I pack only what I think I may need. The new mantra is, “If I need something badly enough, I can borrow or buy one when I get there.”

Here’s what packing is like for me now:

■ About 15 minutes before leaving, drag small suitcase from under bed. Toss in a few shirts, shorts and underwear; add toiletry case and phone charger. Drive to airport; read until boarding is called.

It’s far less stressful, but I somehow kind of miss those crazy old days.