Sunday, July 12, 2009

Remember family vacations of your youth? They began at an hour so early it could not be defined by clock time; it was still-dark, still-cool, damp-grass early. Dad paced in the driveway waiting for everyone to climb into the packed car so he could fly out of the city before a horde of other vacationers flocked like Nazgul to the highways. In our Dodge station wagon, the “way back” could be a place of privilege or exile, depending on the mood of driver. We used the open trunk bed as a bunk or a fort, a picnic spot for our Happy Meals, and a control tower for any trucker in our sight line on the highway, pumping our arms for a honk or pretending to talk on cb radios to warn the Bandit away from Smokey. All the while, Dad drove.

Twenty years later, seatbelts, i-pods and cup holders for each passenger ease some of the risks and boredom of long car trips. But the anticipation, the general discontent, the leg cramps and the group phenomenon of spontaneous punchiness remain. One other difference between the past and our recent trip up to Maryland for a cousin’s wedding: this time, the kids did most of the driving.

Husband and I, my sister and brother-in-law took turns shuffling between cars and zoning out behind the wheel while counting mile markers up and then back down I-85. Of course the wedding was beautiful, the bride delightful, the weather pleasant, yada yada yada. We met up with extending family and dominated the lobby of a Hampton Inn, playing Settlers of Catan and various card games under the blue glow of a perpetual lobby TV. At some point someone said “Oh, Sarah Palin just quit.” Then it was someone else’s turn to deal. We were in the family vacation bubble. News of the world just seemed far away, and minor. Making sure everyone had the right wedding clothes (one of mine forgot his, of course, good grief, kids these days, etc.) seemed much more pressing than the whims of Our Lady of Wasilla.

On the way home, driving again, the rest of the minivan napped as I tried to make time through North Carolina. As one gets older, I’ve noticed, one begins to appreciate sleep. Sleep becomes an event. One even reminiscences on great naps of the past (that one time on the back porch) or plans how to maximize a sleep experience in the future (I’m going to try tonight with some white noise in the background). As a kid, sleep was just something that happened to you, uncontrollably, and not fully with your consent.

But naps in the car while Dad drove were some of the best naps ever. That little bubble of safety, your family all within arm’s length, your sister’s head nodding gently on your shoulder. Leaning on a pillow propped on the vibrating car door, each exhale made a little cone of haze on the window. On this trip, I checked the rear view mirror more than a few times, keeping an eye out for Smokey and watching my parents sleep as I drove them home.

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