Each May of my childhood with the grade school workbooks almost all the way filled in, the shoes purchased the previous fall unbearably snug, the evenings lingering with a bit of extra sunlight, and the school year drawing to a close, my mom would unearth the suitcases from the attic and lay them in an open line against her bedroom wall. All four hard suitcases lay waiting to be filled like baby birds in a nest. They smelled of mothballs and anticipation.
Our home changed its tenor in late May as we began the preparations for our 2,000 mile drive to our summer house in Vermont. We would spend every moment of summer vacation up there, so the process of packing was complicated. My mother became distracted by the task, thinking always ahead, as opposed to being present. We gave her leeway during these days leading up to our departure, forgave her for shunning today in the name of tomorrow, because we knew she was the only one who could get the job done. For the last week of every school year, those suitcases were her babies, her lists were her friends, and she was married to her agenda.
Finally, the day would come, and she'd load up our Buick station wagon with every single item we might possibly want for the summer. The mail was set to be forwarded, the extra keys were delivered to the neighbors, the curtains were drawn, and the doors locked. Most of the luggage went in the bulky black roof rack on top of the car. My sister and I each had a place carved out for us in the back seat, our black lab Fafnir got much of the wayback, the cat's litter box fit snugly between my mom's feet on the passenger side. We had food, books, and some simple non-noisy toys to serve as entertainment. The clothes for the five day drive were in smaller bags in the way back with the dog. My dad was always at the helm of our travelling ship on wheels.
We hoped to travel approximately 400 - 500 miles per day, but we had to balance our need to make progress with the rather fragile, often deteriorating chemistry between us. By the time we hit the 200 mile mark, we were knocking on the door of hating each other.
It was quiet. My dad chose silence over the crackling of the radio when we were in between stations. As a result, I remember hearing every sniffle, sigh, fart, nonspeak and stomach gurgle as if it were being broadcast through a microphone. It was a maddening, heavy loudquiet that I hated. I remember looking at the families in the cars we passed, imagining the converstaions they were having, the laughter they were sharing, or the music they were allowed to sing along to.
"Stop kicking the back of my seat," my dad would spit.
Suddenly, our fat orange cat would begin her journey from her post on my headrest to her litterbox on the floor of the front. Through the drone of the wheels on pavement, you could hear her scratching the dusty pebbles, digging the perfect hole, and finally peeing. She'd cover her evidence with more digging and scratching, but not before the odor hit us with a jolt.
I spent much of the time on the road staring out the window willing the next mile marker to hurry up and come. Or staring at the clock begging it to speed up. I'd be silently pleading with my family for some noise. Some music. Something.
When we stopped for the night, we would open the car doors and peel ouselves from the hot pleather seats like the skin off of an orange. The evening air was so welcoming and liberating, we'd enter it with true gratitude.
Thank God for the hotel pools. As soon as we could get in the pool, our tension would slip away and the world would begin to seem lighter. We might be somewhere in godforsaken Kentucky with several days of travel ahead of us, with the smell of dog breath and cat pee burned in our senses, having endured far too much quiet around us and far too much noise in our souls, but for those moments in the pool, life was good. We were closer to Vermont and we were out of the car. Tomorrow would be a new day.
Day seven. TRAGEDY STRIKES.
5 hours ago