(Originally published on http://www.newsworks.org, the online news source for WHYY – NPR in Philadelphia on May 7, 2011. I have also adapted this essay into my just-finished memoir, The Queen of Everything, a memoir about being a sister.)
One summer, when I was twelve, my entire family packed ourselves into our car and drove from Colorado to New Jersey. This was considered a vacation.
Our car was the usual old behemoth heaving its last black plume of exhaust. Our neighbors made the sign of the cross as we lurched away. My father’s thought process was probably that the car had exactly enough miles left on it to get us to Aunt Mary’s house in Manasquan, New Jersey and back. He often calculated the risk/mileage ratio this way, and never liked to trade a car in a moment too early.
There were no seat belts in cars back then, and my four sisters and I fit ourselves into the back seat as best we could. We alternated between the actual back seat and the floor. Elaine, the baby, slept wedged into the window well in back of us. We rolled on like this through Kansas and then Missouri, although we were bored to tears before we had even left behind the flat brown plains of eastern Colorado. We hung our heads out the car windows and all we saw were Burma Shave signs, cornfields, windmills, tractors, and nothingness. We played License Plate, Ha!, and Alphabet over and over until we reached a mild form of female hysteria.
Waffles with strawberries and whipped cream for the entire family at a coffee shop in Missouri wiped out our food budget so we ate thin slices from a block of Velveeta cheese on Wonder bread with mustard for the rest of the trip. I have never eaten such a thing as that since. At the coffee shop we even got to play one song from a jukebox that had the selections on an amazing little device right at our table. We chose “She Wore an Itsy-Bitsy, Teeny-Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini .” There are certain moments that just stand out in your mind.
It was a given that my father always drove on these trips, but every now and then my mother would take the wheel so my father could take a short nap. Or as he called it, “Catch a little shut-eye.”
As soon as she took over she took over, my sisters and I would tense as one. Because even though my father was supposedly sleeping, he would somehow intuitively know if she was driving too slow, or if she had failed to pass a semi truck. And he would criticize her out of the corner of his sleeping mouth. I didn’t know if I should be on his side or hers. But I knew there were sides.
We’d be going along nicely (I thought) when suddenly my father would say, with his eyes still closed, “Pass this idiot.” At this my petite pregnant mother would sit rigidly at attention and peer doubtfully around the vehicle in front of us as if looking directly into the face of our doom.
Normally it was a policy of hers to never pass a car, even if it was a dusty old Model T driven by a ninety year-old with cataracts and polio.
“I said, pass this idiot or we’ll be in Ohio for the next two weeks.”
We’d all be on the edge of our seats then, holding our collective breath. You forgot all about the fact that Avis had sat on the Crayola box in Kansas and broken all the crayons, or that Karen had spilled soda on your shoe, or that any of them had the nerve to be alive. The only thing to still be mad about was that you had the bad luck to be born into a family that didn’t take airplane trips or stay in hotels like Patty Duke and Hayley Mills surely did.
We understood that our mother had no choice but to do what our father said. She would tentatively give the car a little more gas, veer to the left slightly, and then fade back into our lane a few times.
My father’s eyes were still closed. Could he talk in his sleep? Could he see with his eyes closed?
“Pass the son of a bitch or I’ll have to get out and drive.”
At this, my mother would just floor it and go. I swear she didn’t even look. The sudden lurch caused my father to sit bolt upright and grasp the dashboard as though he hadn’t really expected her to follow his command.
Somehow she always managed to slide our car back into our lane before we were all killed by oncoming traffic. She would look at my father coolly, as if to challenge him to say anything. He would just shake his head and go back to sleep.
The headline I had imagined Seven Members of Golden Family Tragically Die in Collision – Oldest Daughter on Life Support would never come to pass.