From the back seat of the big station wagon, I could see my father’s angry expression in the rear-view mirror. He didn’t get angry often, so when he did, it was best to take him seriously. Family legend has it he once left my sister on the side of the highway and didn’t turn back until he’d gotten about 100 feet down the road. My brother and I had been fighting, but now I nudged him, pointed my chin at the rear-view mirror and we both settled down, silent.
My mother was slumped in the passenger seat, fast asleep.
It was summer in the late 1970s and we were off on a family road trip. Well, most of the family, anyway. My older sister (20) and brother (17) weren’t with us – my sister had moved out at 18, and my brother was minding my parents’ store.
My folks have a magic shop, which they opened in 1977 when my dad was 40 years old. He sold the fruit and vegetable importing/exporting business he had inherited from his father to follow his dream, resulting in a drastic change of lifestyle for us. In addition to running the retail store, operating a mail-order business and throwing a magic convention once a year, they also did a summer road tour of all the major magic conventions across North America. It was the only way to establish their name amongst the competitors.
My brother and I travelled with them. I was eight years old that first time and he was 14. Wow, did we fight. In retrospect, my parents were remarkably good at ignoring us.
My mother always slept in the car. It was amazing, really. She’d pass out the minute the engine started and only wake up when we arrived at our destination.
“That was quick,” she’d say. Every. Single. Time. I wonder whether she was faking it.
In my 20s, I romanticized those summers. I only recalled the good parts and the crazy adventures. Now that I’m older and have a family of my own, I realize I overlooked so many things about those trips – such as the packing. My mother must have done it for the whole family, including my father. I can’t even imagine packing for my husband. Underwear. Anti-perspirant. Do men use hair brushes? I don’t know. But she did – and carried out the task with zero recognition.
And the organizing. The itineraries took us from east coast to west, from north to south. We went across the Prairies, through B.C., down to Houston, Dallas, New Orleans, Wyoming, the Wisconsin Dells, both Carolinas – the list goes on and on. In between conventions, we’d often camp.
I go camping with my family now, but the site is the destination. It takes me a week to prepare and a week to clean up and in between we “sleep” outside in a tent for three nights while I do dishes in cold water at a communal sink. And then we load up the overflowing car.
While I pride myself on inheriting my father’s Tetris-like ability for packing cars, mine never look like his. Display cases, suitcases, tents and overnight bags – all would be neatly arranged with room to spare. We’d be equipped for a six-week-long road trip and I could still see easily out the window of the wayback.
My dad was also an expert at making the trip fun for us. He loved being on the road and was happy to stop at all the tourist destinations – Mount Rushmore, Old Faithful, Arizona’s Petrified Forest, the Badlands, the Grand Canyon, Graceland and Wall Drug Store, a tourist attraction in South Dakota advertised for hundreds of miles on the highway. That’s where we saw the infamous and elusive jackalope, a mythical creature comprised of a jackrabbit with antelope horns. So many family stories come from those trips, such as the time we lost my mother in Jackson Hole, Wyo.
Jackson Hole is a tiny town surrounded by mountains with a population less than 11,000. It was impossible to get lost, but my mother did. For hours. Because even though we were staying at a motel called the Pony Express, she wandered around town asking everyone for directions to the Crazy Horse.
When I think about those summers, I sometimes worry I’m depriving my own kids. I danced in the streets of New Orleans at eight years old. My daughter danced in the street at the neighbourhood sidewalk party. Of course we take family vacations and have built some wonderful memories, but it’s not the same. I saw places and things before I was 12 that many people won’t see in a lifetime. My kids sit with their iPads and computers, watching Netflix or playing video games. When we take a road trip, they stare at their screens instead of enjoying the scenery and yelling “cow!” Or fighting with each other.
On the other hand, I realize my parents brought us on those trips because they had no other choice. They were trying to establish their name in a new industry and didn’t have the money to send us away all summer while they travelled.
I try keeping in mind that things are different now. My husband and I can’t take six weeks off to explore the country – as appealing as that sounds. My kids will have to make do with different experiences and they will – I hope – cherish those childhood memories just as I do. Instead of visiting Mount Rushmore, we picnicked at a local bird sanctuary. We haven’t gone white-water rafting, but we did ride the Hornblower at Niagara Falls.
More and more I realize it’s not what we do that’s important, it’s the time spent.
So, when we are in the car, I ignore the sound of headphones snapping on in the back seat. To be honest, I don’t even know what she’s watching, or what he’s playing.
I’m too busy pretending to sleep.
Live your best. We have a daily Life & Arts newsletter, providing you with our latest stories on health, travel, food and culture. Sign up today.