Thursday, April 25, 2013

Epic Car Trips of Forced Family Togetherness

One of my dad's station wagons we inherited when we were first married.

My family is preparing to take a road trip of epic and insane proportions. My mother in Pittsburgh recently downsized from a large condominium to an assisted living country club, and all her excess stuff that somehow I convinced myself we couldn’t possibly just get rid of, was put into a storage unit. Now, we need to go pick it all up, because obviously we can’t survive without all that stuff.

We live in Colorado. This will be no small undertaking.

However, since my son graduates from college next month and my daughter is heading into her senior year of high school, my spousal unit and I decided that this might be the last time we are all together for ten very close proximity...before our lives splinter off in different directions. Given the distance, this is really a very short timeframe and will require long days of driving from point A to point B, which really brings me to all the memories I have of long car trips when I was little. They are not especially good memories.

When I was a young lass, back in the sixties and early seventies, we'd take an annual vacation to some distant land, usually Rhode Island to see my mother’s kin or Ohio to see my father’s family. The actual car trips, our long hours together, squashed in the backseat of various used station wagons my father sensibly purchased, had a consistent theme of boredom, antics and excessive sweating.

My brother, sister and I are all four years apart, with me being the youngest. This birth order was intentional and part of my parent’s “never have more than one child in college” tuition plan. But it meant that back seat trips were a sibling hierarchy of control--who got to sit by the windows. As the youngest, I usually landed in the middle slot. After several long, hot, sticky hours sweating against vinyl seats, it was inevitable—in the days before you could numb your children out with head sets of music or videos—that we would end up in squabbles. Someone was touching/stole a pillow/hit/gave a dirty look to someone else. Slapping and yelling and crying would ensue. And that was usually from my father.

After repeated attempts to settle us down so that my dad could drive and read peacefully (yes, he would attempt reading while driving—it was the seventy’s version of texting and driving for the intellectual), the shenanigans were tolerated no more. My father, his face red, his neck muscles twitching and his foot pressing the gas pedal in time to his outbursts, reached behind with his right hand, keeping his eyes on the road ahead, and began randomly smacking children. I was in the middle, but I was little and managed to duck out of the way at least fifty percent of the time.

Eventually, we'd pull over at a designated rest stop and were forced to use the primitive potties and stretch our legs. My mom always packed sandwiches, chips, cut up celery and carrots and maybe made a batch of cookies. We begged to stop at an orange roofed Howard Johnson’s or maybe one of the golden arched McDonalds, but my dad almost always refused. I wanted to find out if we bought a burger at McDonald’s if they’d run out and change their sign: over five billion and one hamburgers sold.

But no frivolous expenditures, air conditioning or cold sodas with ice cubes for us. No sir. The big green thermos jug filled with refreshing iced tea made from a powder mix was hauled out, and we had a picnic on the pulled down tailgate of the car. If we were lucky, there might be a picnic table with rough wood benches resulting in long splinters to be pulled out of the back of sweaty thighs. Then we'd pile back into the now sweltering station wagon, waiting for a wave of car sickness to hit one of us, forcing the car over again for an impromptu rest stop and maybe to throw away a pillow.

Maybe it's just wishful thinking, but I’m approaching our road trip in June with much higher expectations. Our kids are older and our family dynamics are different. Still, I can’t help wondering what we’ll discover about each other corralled in a car for eight or nine hour stretches. Maybe there will be a few rest stops along the way and I can share a family memory or two. After all, they'll be forced to listen. And if they don't? There's always random smacking...

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