A Company Benefit I’ll Never Forget

hummingbird

When I started my first job—my first real job, that is, I realized it was a turning point. I’m talking about the kind of job where you go to the HR Department and meet with the benefits person.  It’s daunting when you begin hearing about 401k plans and dental insurance, then you get told that there’s a policy in existence to ensure you won’t be harassed, and when you are harassed, where you go to report it. As daunting as all of these things are, though, none of them signal that your life is about to change quite like hearing about the vacation policy. Those words alone—“vacation policy”—mark a shift to adulthood in a way that graduations do not, moves into dorm rooms do not and buying first cars do not. It signals the shift from a world where vacations are frequent and long, they don’t require any checking in at the office, and they don’t put the recipient further behind when they end. Vacations from there on are two weeks of time, or three or four if one is lucky, and the days are sometimes used for things such as getting cars worked on and medical tests done or staying home with kids when there is no school. At one point, after my excitement of finding a real job began to wear off, I remember hitting a wall and thinking, “I will never have more than three weeks off again for the rest of my life.” It didn’t exactly work that way. For one, some years after that, I had doctor-imposed pregnancy bed rest, but I didn’t enjoy it much, so I don’t count it.

Yesterday, the kids and I wore shorts in the afternoon. There was dancing and screaming, and there were legs coming out of shorts that fit perfectly last year, but now looked too short and awkward. One kid said, “these shorts really are short.” The shorts won’t stay out long, though, because it’s not really spring yet. Yesterday was just a sign, not a real shift.

There are hummingbirds coming around. There aren’t many, but there are a few, and they are as reliable a sign of spring as anything. When we get to the point in life when our breaks are called “vacation days” and they are tracked through software and issued as reports, hummingbirds, and small pleasures like them, are left to pick up the slack. Along with the hummingbirds, new patios, a BBQ’d hamburger, a cold beer after mowing the lawn—they are asked to do a lot for us grown up kids with our company-sanctioned vacation days.

There was one thing the HR director at my first job didn’t tell me, and it almost made my head explode. After suffering through a long winter, there was a day that felt like the most perfect day in the world, because it was unnaturally hot and sunny, and it was smack at the start of March, a time of year that could have just as easily had us stomping through a foot of snow as driving to work in short sleeves with the windows down. I showed up for work, sat down at my desk, and no sooner had I arrived with my lunch and turned on my computer, there was an announcement over the intercom. It was the president of our company, a group of about 90 people, announcing that it was “Spring Break Day.” There was a collective scream, and computers were turned off, lunches came back out of the break room refrigerator, and cars began peeling out of the parking lot, faster than I’d ever seen. It turns out, the company had a longstanding tradition of having a secret annual spring break day. Nobody was supposed to talk about it—it was meant to surprise. One day each year, almost always the first beautiful day after winter, a day that had no right to be as pretty as it was, the president of the company gave everyone the day off. Nobody knew when it would happen, but when the sun started coming out and the temperature got hot, there was hope each day that that would be the day. Nobody had any warning, and if you had called in sick, you didn’t get an extra day off. It was a secret spring break day.

It’s been 20 years since I worked for that company, but when the hummingbirds start to show up, and the kids pull last year’s shorts out of the back of the closet, I still think of spring break day and how exciting it was to show up to work, only to be told to go home. I’m still amazed by the genius of that perk. There were no family obligations, there were no travel plans and reservations that had been made, and there were no expectations of any sort, just a mandate to enjoy the day. For that one day, I forgot that I only had three weeks of vacation to my name. It didn’t matter:  I had one perfect day in front of me.

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