We didn't have much money so we usually drove "straight through" without taking a hotel room. My mom finished work at midnight on a Friday evening, and we hit the road soon after my mom got home, took a bath and changed her clothes. Earlier in the day, after my dad finished his job around 4pm, he and I usually packed the car and tied the luggage down on the roof while my sisters made dinner. I wasn't much interested in cooking and it was fun climbing onto the roof of the car and looping ropes through the luggage rack runners.
After we ate and did dishes, my dad retreated to the bedroom and tried to nap before the long drive. We played outside and said goodbyes to neighborhood friends during the long hours of summer daylight. Although my sisters and I tried to stay awake until my mom got home, we all inevitably fell asleep. I always had butterflies in my stomach as our vacation got closer, hoping my parents would stop at Kings Island Amusement Park along the way or take us to Big Bend waterpark once we got to Kentucky.
When it was time to roll, my parents woke us up and we all piled into the station wagon. Because I was the youngest, I often sat up front and laid my head on my mom's lap while she snoozed against the window and my dad drove. He drove and drove until daylight and then we always ate breakfast at a truck stop where they served enormous pancakes and made eggs and bacon, just the way my dad liked them.
After sleeping all night, my siblings and I inevitably started "our shenanigans". There were fights over who had to sit in the middle, blame on whoever left crumbs on the seat after eating crackers, etc, etc. After our hardy truck stop breakfast, my mom usually insisted on driving so my dad could sleep a bit. While my dad snored and my mom tried to resolve the back seat disputes, she almost always ended up getting lost. She'd continue driving and fret for a while about telling my dad before she finally nudged him awake. Overtired and never understanding "why women can't follow a map", my father yelled a bit and then took over the wheel again.
Eventually, we made it to my Grandmaw's (pronounced exactly how it's spelled) and spent 2 hot weeks in an older one story masonry block home without air conditioning. For the first few days, my sisters and I complained about the lack of TV, no one else to play with and missing friends and would be boyfriends. My brother usually read sci fi novels and looked at comic books, seemingly unaware that we'd even changed environments.
Within a day or two of arriving, the magic began. Without TV to distract us, we explored the simple pleasures of life in the country. We walked around barefoot most of the time, enjoying the cool linoleum that covered the floor in every room and we also skimmed our feet over the soft grass of their enormous front yard. My brother and I climbed trees while my sisters sunbathed in a far corner of the yard, where my grandmaw couldn't see them in their swimsuits (she didn't think it was right for a girl or woman to bare even their shoulders).
In the evenings, we carried worn metal pails down past the chicken coop, the barn and the pond until we came upon several neat rows of bush beans, potatoes, carrots and more in Grandmaw's vegetable patch. We shrieked at bugs as we filled our pails with whatever grandmaw told us to pick. We returned to the house and we all sat on the front porch stringing and snapping beans that would be on the dinner table the next day. We also chased fireflies and put them in old jars with lids that Grandpaw punched holes in.
When the sun went down and the biting bugs came out, we retreated to the living room, where we all sat quietly as grandpaw read the bible, a lifelong nightly ritual in their home. After the scripture, we all knelt down as grandpaw prayed aloud and we kids sneaked glances at one another to see who didn't have their eyes closed, and later threatened to tell on one another.
Afterwards, my 2 sisters and I raced to the back bedroom, fighting to be the first one to dive into the middle of the freshly fluffed mound of a featherbed. Drifting downward, as the sides came up, is as close as I can imagine to actually floating on a cloud. In the morning, we awoke to the smell of bacon cooking and the clink of an old milk glass cutting homemade biscuits on my grandmaw's porcelain clad sink top. There was always a selection of homemade jams that my grandmaw canned herself from the berries she grew out back. We drank the best tasting milk that we poured from a glass pitcher. I once asked my mom why Grandmaw didn't have a milk jug and she explained that Grandpaw milked the cows himself each morning, pouring his take from his milk pail into the pitcher. I would be in my teens before I stupidly questioned aloud whether we should be drinking milk that hasn't been homogenized and pasteurized.
Sometimes, my grandfather walked with us, down to the pasture and let us pet his mule, Ole Red. He didn't have a saddle for him but we convinced him to let us sit on his back and take pictures to show our friends.
After lunch, we cleared the table and scraped the plates into the slop bucket outside the back door. It was gross and a little smelly but Grandpaw insisted that's how the pigs like it. When we whined that we were bored, my Grandmaw pulled out tubs of wooden thread spools and we challenged one another to build the tallest tower, adding to it until one toppled and spools rolled every direction.
We also ventured out the mile long dirt lane to pick up the mail; along the way, we broke off leafy branches and held them over the barbed wire fence that surrounded the pig pen, watching them climb over one another to reach the treat. Some evenings, my grandpaw would pull out his crank style ice cream maker and let us pour salt over the ice as we took turns cranking the handle. On those hot summer nights, we enjoyed the best ice cold, slightly mushy vanilla ice cream, huddled around the back porch.
While we stayed at our grandparents, my mom’s sister, Aunt Lily, visited and usually sewed one or all 3 of us girls a dress or skirt. She and my mom laughed and joked and talked about gray hairs, my Aunt Lily insisting that she just “gets a little ole rinse” on her hair to cover her few grays. Sometimes, her sons, my cousins Rick and Tommy, also visited in their latest vehicles. Rick always had muscle cars and Tommy had a motorcycle with a sissy bar which he took us for rides on down the dirt lane.
We also packed up fried chicken and potato salad lunch baskets and visited my grandparents’ elderly brothers and sisters, our great aunts and uncles, who lived in small homes in the country side. I remember my dad pressing the accelerator down as he ran our car up each hill and then let his foot off so that our bellies flip flopped as we ran down the back side of each hill. It was nice to see my rather stern, disciplinarian dad relaxed, having a good time.
Time to return home always came too quickly. My grandmaw wrapped up pieces of cake and pie for us to eat in the long ride, gave my mom a handmade quilt or two and bid us a tearful farewell at the end of the lane. My grandpaw told us to be good to our parents and be careful; he also shook my father’s hand. My dad always teared up and put his sunglasses on as he hugged my grandmaw and said, “see you next year, Mama”. It made me wonder if in that moment, he thought about and missed his own mom who passed away when he was only 12 years old. My mom and grandmaw wiped tears from each other’s faces and hugged each other several times before my mom got in the car and rode quietly wiping her eyes and nose for several miles.
Now it is my turn to hug my mom goodbye and wipe tears from one another’s face before I drive for a day and a half home. My husband always hugs my mom and promises her “we’ll see you again soon, Ma.” My daughter, the Beast, wrapped her arms around my mom’s waist and thanked her Grammy for the homemade cookies and for taking the time to dye Easter eggs with her.
I know my children’s trips to their grandparents are not the same as those of my childhood. We ride pretty comfortably and often combine a trip to my mom’s with a side trip to a BMX track, dinner with old friends and stops at our favorite old places. Instead of disconnecting from the electronic world, my daughter enjoys Grammy’s on demand TV and stays in touch with all of her friends via text messaging.
But I also know that when she puts down the cell phone, turns off the TV and joins my mom for cookie making, egg dying or whatever Grammy has dreamed up to do, she and my mom talk and laugh with a familiar warmth in their voices. It’s the kind of generational connection you just can’t get without a visit. It was nice to visit family again, the ones who’ve always known us AND our BMX family.