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Over the River and Through the Woods
On Holiday with the Harrises
by Larry Dean Harris

I 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.

No, 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.

In 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 pain."

As 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.

As 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.

As 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?"

As 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.

I don't 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).

Avoidable 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?"

Avoidable 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.

And 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."

I don't 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 my stamina.

A few 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…all over him.

What's 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.

These 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.

But 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.

Without 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 ahead.

And 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.

Because 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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