Every year we would drive there – to the place that is a piece of my soul, where everything is always relaxed, happiness rules and all is forever right with the world. Every year it was the same: on the second Saturday in August, my mom would come through the door of our bedroom at 2:30 am, waking us up with the gentle voice of a drill sergeant, and the mad rush to get out the door would begin.
It was a long 10-hour road trip to get from Montreal to Wildwood N.J., my oceanside paradise of bodysurfing and boardwalk amusement parks. If we were lucky, we would make it past the 20-minute mark of no return on the very first try. After 20 minutes on the road, my dad would be able to win the argument that we’d gone too far to turn the car around to check for unplugged kettles, unlocked front doors, or bathroom faucets left running.
The first thing my mom would do after settling us into the car was to distribute juice and pills. My sister would get a whole Gravol, because she always got car sick, and this would knock her out within about 10 minutes, and she would sleep the rest of the trip. I would get a half of a Gravol, because I rarely got car sick (unless I tried to read), but instead of getting groggy, I would end up with a bit of a buzz, bouncing off the car seat and talking a mile a minute if there was anyone awake and not too preoccupied with driving to listen.
We went to Wildwood the same week every year because it made sense for my dad’s work schedule. Every year we left at 2:30 in the morning because it got us to Wildwood in time to enjoy a late afternoon swim. And every year around 4:00 am, just as we were winding our way up the Adirondack mountains, my dad would invite me to come and sit by his side on the front bench seat, between him and my sleeping mother in the passenger seat.
Back in those days there were only lap buckles in the back seats, and no one was obliged to use them. We certainly didn’t. My sister would lay there, sprawled over her half of the back seat, fast asleep. I would unceremoniously climb over to the front seat, doing my best not to wake my sister or mom with a misplaced foot or elbow to the face.
It was one of the very few moments in the year when I had time alone with my dad, unshared with anyone else. About the only other times were when we had a family gathering at my Auntie Mamie’s lake house, where I got to “help” my dad barbeque and, as long as I promised not to tell mom, would get to sip from his stubby bottle of beer.
I always knew not to take moments alone with my dad for granted, and I will never forget how it felt to sit there in the car as we came up over the Adirondacks, resting my head on his shoulder, talking about who knows what and staring up at the sky.
Over the years I had learnt the hard way that there were certain questions that I could pose only to my parents. For example, when I wanted her to explain, if Adam and Eve were the first two people on earth, why we weren’t all somehow related, my second grade teacher asked the entire class, “Now isn’t that a really silly question, boys and girls?” and encouraged my classmates to laugh uproariously along with her. (I noticed, by the way, that her evasive technique worked: she never did answer my question.)
I never asked my sister the interesting questions either, unless I was in the mood to put up with her rolling her eyes and saying, “Why are you so dumb?” or, “You can’t possibly be related to me.”
I was always able to ask my mother and father, though, and I would get honest, uncomplicated answers in return. That was one of the best gifts my parents gave me, and I do my best to pass this on to the young ones in my own adult life. I loved the subtle ways my mom and dad would work together to ensure that they were getting to the essence of everything I needed to know, even if the question was at once as simple and loaded as, “Why is Archie Bunker so mean to the Candy Man?” (The Candy Man was Sammy Davis Jr, guest starring on a very controversial episode of All In the Family, and thank you, Mom and Dad, for never thinking I was too young to watch those ground breaking shows).
But there was something truly special about those moments alone, just my dad and me. We would have the radio on, and we would listen to whatever horrible music the A.M. radio stations of Vermont or upstate New York would see fit to give airtime in the dark of the morning. My mind would meander and then it would occur to me to ask my dad what music was made from. He patiently explained musical notes and how they are played, using many sorts of instruments to make the sounds required for a song. As we listened to the radio, he helped me single out and identify the different noises.
“Dad,” I asked, a little bit sorrowfully, afraid of what the answer might be, “if there are only seven musical notes, how long will it take for us to run out of new songs?”
Then my father provided my first basic intro to the topic of Combinations and Permutations. But far more importantly, I got to see how deeply interested he was in the working of his young daughter’s mind. I could literally witness, in his eyes and his responses to me, just how proud he was of my curiosity.
Eventually, the conversation would run its course and we would just peacefully stare, my dad at the road and me at the sky.
The sky was truly amazing. The colour of the clouds and mountaintops at that particular time of the day are impossible to put into words, but I’ll try. A hint of violet, fuchsia and peachy-gold, all blended together but separate, a bit like the rainbow sheen you get to see on the bubbles from a child’s wand, or the bizarre bit of beauty you can see in gasoline floating on rain water as it gushes to the street gutters. The trees would glow with those magic hues, as if trying to reach out and define themselves from the blank, black pages of an empty book.
And now comes the best, the very best – every year, except the rather scary year of the big rainstorm, my father and I would witness the very best of fireworks not made by man. As we drove the highest peaks of the Adirondacks, where the air is thin and clear, the Perseid meteorite showers would arrive, an awesome and breathtaking gift just for me. We never spoke during the showers; we just sat back and absorbed them.
I figured something out all on my own during those car rides: who needs to wait for one single shooting star in order to make a wish? Out there in space, something huge is always happening.
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