Every summer when I was growing up, we packed the car before daybreak and headed south for a week long family vacation. Dad spent most of the week getting too many suitcases in and out of the too small trunk. Mom worried about plugged in irons and germs on toilet seats. And my sister and I fought in the back seat for seven days straight.
It is testament to our parents' dedication to family that the constant fighting never once deterred them from the annual vacation. While mapping out our daily routes along two lane roads through rolling hills that Dad could make feel like roller coasters, they simply tried new strategies for bringing peace to the feuding sisters. Nothing ever worked. It was too much to ask for in the confined space of an un-airconditioned Chevy.
When they bribed us with the 28 flavors of Howard Johnson's ice cream, we both ordered chocolate almond, then counted our almonds and fought for the next sixty miles over who had the most. When they drew chalk lines down the middle of the backseat, stray fingers and sandaled feet inched into forbidden territory before we even passed the first Stuckey's. When they made a separate bed for me in the back window, every acceleration and lane change gave me an excuse to roll down on top of my sleeping sister.
And, whenever silence seemed to be settling over the back seat, my sister would start singing the one song that could bring me to tears throughout most of my childhood. It was the song "Twenty Six Miles Across the Sea," which she had personalized to include various verses about the "mean little girl named Jeanne Lee." That was me--three years younger and never able to come up with a comparable song that could make her cry.
After our first few vacations, she was strictly forbidden from ever singing this song in the car. She always got around the prohibition by humming at a level that I could hear clearly in the back seat, but that Mom and Dad, in the front seat with windows rolled down and semi trailers passing by, couldn't hear at all. By the end of the vacation she didn't even need to hum because I heard the song every time I looked at her and saw her smug grin.
We rarely obtained the family harmony that was Mom and Dad's goal on these annual trips to see grandparents in Tennessee and beaches in Florida. But we always brought back something more lasting than sunburned noses and cheap souvenirs from roadside stands.
More than fifty years later not a summer goes by that I don't fondly recall our family vacations and find myself yearning for a chocolate almond ice cream cone from Howard Johnson's. The shared experiences provided a binding tie to family and a sound foundation for my own family values.
Unfortunately, over the years , those same happy memories provided me with one more reninder of what I wasn't able to give to my own daughters.
Being children of divorced parents, my daughters never vacationed as a traditional family. Instead of taking off with mom, dad, and sister, their vacations were usually shared with different groupings of aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, and family friends. They headed to Florida, not in a crowded family sedan, but with enough extra people along to take up several rows of a wide bodied jet. They competed in Family Fun Nights not with a sister tethered to their leg in a three legged race, but with sons of family friends dragging them along.
They never crowded together in one room of a roadside motel chosen solely for its tiny swimming pool, but enjoyed multi-room accommodations with different cousins or friends in adjoining rooms or at different ends of the hall. Their vacations were defined by battles, not between siblings, but most often, between my oldest daughter and her same age cousin.
It sometimes seemed that there was only one common thread between my daughters' vacations and my own childhood ones. It was the song, "Twenty Six Miles Across the Sea," which my sister kept alive all those years and which our combined daughters loved to taunt me with. It no longer brought tears, but it did bring regret that my daughters weren't building a foundation of family memories that grew every time Dad packed the car.
A good friend, whose family often vacationed with us, understood how my own traditional upbringing sometimes haunted the good times of my nontraditional family. As a Christmas present, she made t-shirts for my daughters. On the front were pictures of each of them, surrounded by pictures of various friends and family members, and the words, "A family is a circle of friends that love you."
Summer's just around the corner and I'm finding myself looking for chcoolate almond ice cream in the grocery aisles. I like to think that my daughters might find themselves humming "Twenty Six Miles Across the Sea," remembering family vacations.