It’s December, and, for my mother’s family, the Rittenhouse clan, that means a makeshift reunion in Colorado over Christmas. For my nuclear family, The Florine-Healy clan, that means a road trip from Chicagoland to Denverland. We’ve been making this trip and ones like it every year for as long as I can remember. My brothers, my father, and I have gotten this travel down to a precise science, and in our heads, the perfect trip goes something like this.
Sometime in December, Mom will let us all know that we’re leaving early in the morning, around 5:00 a.m., on Sunday. She will observe her semi-annual tradition of reminding us that we should pack in soft-sided duffle-bags because they squish more easily in the back of the car and that we will be able to do laundry if we run out of clothes so pack light.
Somewhere around 5:00 a.m. on Saturday, mom will go into Noah’s Ark mode, creating piles two at a time and designating where they will go in the car. Sometime before dinner, my dad will start to get his things together, put timers on the lights, and begin tripping over said piles. At dinner, my mom will tell us that she thinks we should leave closer to 3:00 a.m. to “beat traffic.” We were all expecting this. So far, so good.
My brothers and I will not pack until around 8 or 9 p.m. In fact, my brother Patrick, will call my cell around 7:00 to tell the family that he’s gotten out of work but still has to do laundry, clean his house, and convince his roommates to watch his dog while he’s gone. My sister-in-law, Claire, will call soon after that to tell us that Dennis’ band practice is going a bit long but they should be pulling into the driveway around 9:00. I will neglect the details and tell my mom that everyone will be at the house by 9:30, at which point she will begin to recite the Serenity Prayer.
My boyfriend Ben, my brother RC, and I will while away the hours to 3:00 a.m. by watching reruns of The Fresh Prince of Bel Aire while my mom and dad go to bed around 9:00. At 9:15, Dennis and Claire will roll in, throw their stuff in my car, and come in to join RC and I in the living room. My mom will come downstairs at 10:00, revealing to all of us, as if it were some great surprise, that she can’t sleep and that she thinks we should pack up the cars and leave now and for the love of Pete, where is Patrick? Meanwhile, Patrick will be in the driveway, trying to remember why he packed, like, three hard-sided bags and casually stuffing his inexplicably multiple pairs of steel-toed work boots into all available crannies of my mom’s car.
After what my mom thinks is half an hour, but what is really about ten minutes, both cars will be suitably packed, RC will have woken up his daughter and gotten her into her car seat, and she will have fallen asleep again. Dennis, Patrick, RC, and my dad will be in the middle of playing a loud game of tetris with their cars because two will fit in the garage, and two will fit in the driveway, but whose goes where is based largely on seniority, maneuverability, and whether Venus is in retrograde. In the interim, Ben, Claire, and I will have found comfortable seats in my car, parked it at the end of the driveway, and been nonchalantly discussing current events over a box of Cheez-its.
Somewhere between 10:45 and 11:00 p.m., we will finally leave the house and the worst will be over. Patrick and Dennis will be the first drivers because they are both trained professionals in one way or another, RC and Mom will take over after a couple hours, Claire and I will take the lunch shift if RC will relinquish his seat, and mom will insist on driving through the mountains, leaving whoever is awake to take the other car. My niece will occupy herself with coloring, reading, naming roadside cows, and singing along to the soundtrack from Mama Mia. The minivan will enjoy several helpings of Harry Potter audio books, and Dennis and Claire will provide the Prius with hours of stimulating discussion on a variety of topics. It will all go smoothly.
But that is an ideal, the best of all worlds. When we were young, things didn’t go this well because we didn’t have enough legal drivers to get us through the long hours and none of the kids could be trusted to pack their own bags without forgetting underwear or toothpaste. Now that we are all adults, we have the drivers, and we have the packing wherewithal, but there is a new beast that threatens our road trip bliss: Lunch.
“Lunch” is what my mother calls the demon that possesses her about 12 hours into the 16-hour drive. It used to be, when we were kids, that Lunch would sate itself with a quick drive through at McDonald’s or Burger King, or at worst a full stop at Subway. Not so anymore. Lunch has grown greedy. Now Lunch wants Perkin’s or Cracker Barrel, which, if you’re unfamiliar with folksy highway-chain eateries, take considerably more time than either McDonald’s or Subway, and in the past, have added as many as two hours to our already frustratingly long journey.
Lunch is something my brothers and I prepare for. Around the time mom is warning us to pack light and squishy, we are reminding her that we would like to avoid long, luxurious stops at places that have the nerve to provide customers with parking lots and tables. Moreover, when Lunch does try to break up our perfectly choreographed road-trip routine, we fight it: my mom will ask, “What do people want to eat?” and at least 75 percent of the car will respond, nearly in unison, “Anything but Perkins, please, for the love of all that is holy, anything but Perkins.”
It’s interesting now how thoroughly the tides have turned. Even with all the little bladders and short attention spans in tow, my parents used to get us from Chicago to Denver in as little time as possible. Our mom raised us in such a way that long stops were akin to cigarettes and online chat rooms: extravagances in which the Devil rejoiced. And yet here we are.
I suppose we should be grateful to the Road Trip Angels for their protection over our family. In all these years, we’ve only had one car accident and one blizzard so bad we had to stop for two days. And every year, we still love each other enough to celebrate Christmas by the time we actually get to Colorado. If Perkins is the price we have to pay for that kind of safety, perhaps I should stop complaining.
Mary Margaret is a 2013 English, history, and secondary education grad who went rogue and became a Social Worker in Pennsylvania’s Child Welfare system. Specifically, she works as a caseworker in the Statewide Adoption and Permanency Network finding families for children and educating the masses about foster care, adoption, and permanency planning. She made it over the grad-school hurdle with gold stars and warm fuzzies and is on to the next big adventure: the unknown of adulthood. Her major writing dream right now is to finish her science fiction novel that explores the concurrent futures of child welfare and artificial intelligence.