the River and Through the Woods
with the Harrises
Larry Dean Harris
get carsick. Whether it's the two-footed driving of my best friend,
the shock-free suspension of a Super Shuttle van or the swerving-left-and-right-you'd-swear-he-was-drinking
steering of my father, I often find myself wishing that cars were
equipped not with air bags, but air sickness bags.
this isn't another holiday barf-on-baby-Jesus story, although I
have one of those (and it's a doozy -- let's just say that Bethel
Assembly of God will never be the same). No, this is a story about
mankind's burning desire to celebrate the holidays with the most
barbaric of rituals. Worse than fruitcake. Worse than Johnny Mathis.
I'm talking about holiday travel.
England, they say "on holiday" when they mean "on
vacation." Which must mean the English don't ever get to enjoy
travel. Because "on holiday" to me means, "in excruciating
a child, "on holiday" meant sleeping on the floor of our
Chevy Impala's back seat for the 400 miles to Grandmother's house,
wedged between the door and the infamous "hump," while
my older sisters enjoyed the luxurious splendor and the semi-permanent
imprint of plastic covered seats.
an adult, "on holiday" means longing for the comfort of
that Impala floor on the 4-hour flight to Dad's house, wedged between
the 350-pound sweaty man and the 350-pound farting man, while we
all enjoy the luxurious splendor of recycled blankets and someone's
carry-on Taco Bell.
a child, that suffering was rewarded by the open arms of my wonderful
mother's wonderful mother, who would often stay up as late as 3
a.m. awaiting our arrival. I can't remember the color of the Impala,
but I remember her big thick arms wrapping all that unconditional
grandma love around me, and that warming smile that always asked
"are you hungry?"
an adult, I wish my grandmother were still around. I would finally
understand her suffering at the emotional cruelty of my grandfather.
And it would be my big thick arms refusing to let go of her. I'd
make her a heaping plate of pancakes and bacon and wonder if she
appreciated the salty sweetness of pork and maple syrup the way
I still remember from those wonderful late nights in her kitchen.
And it would be me waving and crying as the car pulled away at the
end of an exhausting visit, not her.
regret a single trip to Grandmother's house. Now. But as a child,
it was an exercise in pain and suffering that -- much like the pain
and suffering American troops are experiencing in Iraq even as I
write -- was totally avoidable (sorry, but any opportunity to Bush
bash must be seized).
was the annual diatribe by my father on why it was important to
give equal time (and love) to his mother, Grandma Stoneface,
who always served the same thing for dinner as she did at lunch
(sometimes leaving it on the table under a linen cloth for four
or five hours). She rarely spoke, unless it was to pray (I assume
for the Lord to deliver us from botulism) or chastise us with "Were
you born in a barn?"
was the static-heavy AM radio dialings of my father, who searched
the airways furiously for the faintest detection of a sporting event
or Christian radio broadcast. It didn't matter to Dad, as long as
the signal was faint and scratchy, which is exactly how I often
felt after six or seven hours on the floor of the back seat.
especially avoidable was the dearth of bathroom breaks along the
way. Apparently, a five-minute "potty break" meant the
difference between arriving at Grandma's at 2:45 and 2:50 a.m. There
were exactly four rest areas between home and the quaint little
town of Cannelton, Indiana. And my father knew how to avoid all
of them. No matter how much we pleaded, begged and even pledged
our love as a final desperate measure, he was relentless in his
efforts to placate us with "just fifteen minutes more."
know exactly what my father hoped to accomplish by denying us this
most basic of human kindnesses. Perhaps he knew I would someday
move to New York City, where there are exactly four public restrooms
on the entire island of Manhattan, and he was trying to build up
times, my sister was able to trick my father by feigning sickness,
but he quickly saw through her charade. Unfortunately, as previously
mentioned, I actually was highly prone to motion sickness, which
was only aggravated by my father's speed-up-and-break acceleration
technique, accompanied by his random jog-to-the-left/jog-to-the-right
approach to steering. Jaded by my sister's cries of wolf, my Dad
ignored my pleas, leaving me no choice but to barf
equally sad and hysterical is that the next year, history repeated
itself. Dad swerved. I warned. Dad ignored. I hurled. A new holiday
tradition had been born.
days, I don't travel for holidays. I believe that Peace on Earth
begins at home, and that's where I stay. My family doesn't understand,
but how could they? They aren't the ones who have to travel.
I know that if I could go back -- to those winter nights in my Grandma's
toasty kitchen long after bedtime; to those magical mornings of
Christmas lights and shiny foil-wrapped presents and stockings filled
with nuts and jellied candies and grownups jumping on pogo sticks
and secret sips of bourbon-and-Coke -- I would travel twice as long,
enduring double the pain and suffering.
the journey, maybe I wouldn't have appreciated the destination quite
so much. There is, to this day, no place that can approach the warmth
and joy of Grandma's kitchen: her prize collection of salt-and-pepper
shakers to the left when you pass through the creaky door, the icebox
filled with cold cuts and 7-up on your right, the cookie jar straight
when I watch the old 16mm movies that my Dad shot every holiday
without fail -- and I see my Grandma, and my Mom, and my sister
once again -- it's easy to forgive his tyrannical, maniacal behavior
behind the wheel all those years ago.
he had the foresight to know that it wasn't just the most wonderful
time of the year, it was the most wonderful time of my life.
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