A fifth-grade bully, a blossoming romance, a late-night crash
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I am one of ten children raised by a saintly mother and an alcoholic father. We were loved by both and felt lucky even though we had very little. Each summer our dad, a house painter, would take most of us camping while our mom stayed home with the kids under five. Dad would load up his paneled work van — sometimes there would still be paint cans in the back — with coolers, sleeping bags, tents, and children, and off we’d go to Laytonville, California, to set up our tents miles from civilization. Or we’d camp in the woods in Santa Cruz and go to the beach during the day. On one trip my five-year-old brother, Tom, wandered off and went missing for hours. We were sure he had drowned in the ocean until one of us found him on the boardwalk. Meanwhile, back at the campground, someone got burned by the campfire. On another occasion my brothers were firing BB guns, and one of them got shot very close to his eye.
Once, we stopped for gas on the way home and got back on the road without my youngest sister. We drove for an hour before my dad noticed she wasn’t with us. He made a U-turn on the highway and raced back to the gas station, where she sat on the counter, sucking on a lollipop, tears rolling down her cheeks.
Vacationing with my father was risky, but every summer we were always eager to climb back into that paneled van.
When I was a thirteen-year-old girl, my family drove from northern Virginia to California in our station wagon. Two of us kids sat in the middle seat, and one lay in the back. We rotated positions every few hours. I liked being in the far back of the station wagon, where I could escape from the rest of the family and read or doze or even masturbate under a blanket.
Sometimes during the trip my father and I sang duets together. I felt closest to Dad when we were singing. He had been my idol, but that was changing. He was a Lutheran minister, and I was beginning to doubt there was a God.
During our stop at Yellowstone National Park I saw a moose, bears, and other wild animals and felt a joy that had become rare for me. Later, overcome by the beauty of South Dakota’s Black Hills at sunset, I felt something stirring in me that I thought was a little like God.
Finally we arrived in California, the place I had most longed to visit, because I believed that even I, a short, chubby girl with acne, could find a boyfriend there. I fell in love with the West Coast and promised myself I would return.
Over the next few years I gave up the God of my childhood. I wrote poems about existential pain and, at the age of fifteen, had a spiritual experience in the woods that was nothing like my old religion. I left home at sixteen and a year later hitchhiked across the country to California, where I lived for thirty-eight years. I married and had three children, then got divorced.
Recently I moved to Nashville, Tennessee, to begin a new chapter in my life. I continue to ask who I am and why I am here and what God is. The questions, it seems, are the same no matter where I go.
Maggie Deutschmann Harris
I was sixteen when I went with my father, stepmother, and brothers to Mexico City for our summer vacation. My father reminded us all not to drink the water, or else the microbes would give us the terrible diarrhea known as Montezuma’s revenge. We drank canned sodas at every meal, and my brothers and I would offer our water glasses to each other, joking, “Montezuma is looking for you. . . .”
On our fifth night we ate at a restaurant that featured a live band. A young woman in a red strapless evening gown was singing torch songs in Spanish. She had big brown eyes and flowing black hair. I watched her between bites of a dish whose name I couldn’t pronounce.
It was a slow night at the restaurant, and as the other patrons left, ours was one of the few remaining tables. The singer approached us and, to my embarrassment, sang her next song directly to me, in a voice that was sultry and mysterious. I had no idea how to respond. My father and stepmother chuckled, and my younger brothers gave me looks that said they were saving their wisecracks for later. The singer, who could see how I was blushing, continued her seductive performance. At the end she patted my hand, said something in Spanish, and left.
Later that night, in our hotel room, I had to run to the bathroom. Sitting on the toilet, I recalled miserably how, under the spell of that siren, I’d accidentally drunk the glass of water next to my soda.
St. Petersburg, Florida
During the last decade of his life, my father ended every phone call to each of his five children with the same question: “All set for the beach?” Through his persistence he got most of us to bring our families to Bethany Beach, Delaware, for the last week in July every summer. Once we were all there, though, our father would linger on the sand alone or run errands that kept him away for much of the day. “Where’s Dad?” was a common refrain. I think he preferred the idea of family togetherness to the reality of squabbles, meltdowns, and tears that inevitably flared up during the week. Yet his off-season recruiting efforts never wavered, and the beach vacation became a family tradition.
In 2010, on the evening before our eighth beach trip, I learned that my father had liver cancer. When I spoke with him on the phone, his voice was softer than usual, but otherwise he sounded chipper and insisted that he was still coming to the beach.
I hadn’t seen him for a few months, and when he arrived, I was shocked by how frail he had become. He walked with a cane and had to be helped into his seat. The flesh of his upper arms drooped, and his stomach protruded. He spent a large part of each day napping.
One evening I was sitting on the couch next to him, holding his hand, when my brothers locked arms and began their annual off-key rendition of the Jimmy Buffett song “Come Monday.” Their spouses all rolled their eyes, and their children looked mortified. My father, a sophisticated man, had never been amused by the tradition, but this year, when my brothers started to sing, he opened his eyes wide and leaned forward as if entranced.
My father died six weeks later, sooner than anyone had expected. My family has been to the beach three times since then, and sometimes I still look around and think, Where’s Dad?
In the early 1950s my family’s vacations always included aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents. We’d load as many relatives as we could fit into our big black Buick and drive north from Brooklyn through charming New England towns with white-steepled churches. We’d always stop and get out to read the historic markers.
When I was seven years old, we stopped at an old house that had been converted into a restaurant. The whole group of us filed inside: my parents, my aunt and uncle, two cousins, my little brother, and I. The restaurant was quiet except for the clinking of silverware on dishes. The diners all looked so composed at their tables. We waited in the reception area for a long time before the owner came out. When my father requested a table, the man asked for his name.
“Morris Cohen,” my dad answered.
The man asked my dad to spell it, and he did. Then the owner announced that there were no tables available and turned away.
I was confused. Why would our name make any difference? I could see empty tables in the dining room. I turned to my parents and saw their pinched faces looking down at the floor. My dad said we had to leave. I kept imploring the adults to tell the man there were empty tables, but they only shushed me as we walked outside and got back into the car in silence.
Linda Cohen Slezak
Hampton Bays, New York
My parents fought throughout my childhood. They would often interrupt dinner with their shouting, and arguments would end with my mother crying in the bedroom. Then we’d have peace for a day or two before the next fight occurred. I often fantasized that my parents would get a divorce and I would go to live with my dad, who was the calmer one.
Our family vacations, however, were never marred by their battles. Whenever we left our small hometown, their war was suspended, and the love they had for each other — and for my brother and me — became evident.
Once, when we were on a backpacking trip to Mount Rainier, a rainstorm flooded our tent and showed no signs of letting up. Defeated, we wrung out our sleeping bags and left. On the wet, windy drive back, my mom said, “Maybe we should just go somewhere sunny.”
My brother and I started chanting, “California!” and our parents appeased us, spontaneously driving to LA. I loved this land of sunshine and bikinis and the family we visited there: cousins who knew the meanings of bad words, grandparents who gave us bubble gum, aunts and uncles who made my parents laugh, and fruit you could grab right off the trees.
When it was time to go home from any vacation, I always prayed for our Volkswagen van to break down along the way, and it usually did, delaying our return for another day or two.
I realize now that my parents fought at home because of the stress of trying to achieve some ideal vision of how a family should be. They wanted to be perfect Christians, perfect parents, with a perfect marriage and perfect children in a perfect home. A vacation was a break from all those expectations.
My sons were seven and nine the first time I took them camping in the mountains of Vermont. After weeks of planning I loaded our gear into the car and settled the boys into the back seat along with the cat in her carrier, planning to drop her off at a boarding kennel. But the cat yowled on the way, and it occurred to me there was something wrong with this picture: we were going to have fun in the wilderness for a few days, and the cat was going to be locked in a small cage the whole time. I decided to take the cat with us.
As it turned out, she fit right in. For the next two weeks she accompanied the boys as they explored the nearby mountain and a neighboring pond. Every morning I would find the cat’s latest offering inside the tent flap: a shrew, an ermine, a deer mouse, even a garter snake.
When it came time to leave, the cat was nowhere to be found. We looked for hours before she finally decided to show herself.
The next spring we prepared to do it again. We spread our camping gear across the living room to be sorted and packed, and right in the middle sat the cat, her tail swishing back and forth.
A friend who had come to visit asked, “You’re not taking that cat camping again, are you?”
“Of course,” my son replied. “She’s part of our family.”
As the daughter of a U.S. Army officer in Germany in the 1960s, I was exposed to foreign languages and cultures, travels on ships and trains, and visits to castles and palaces, but there is one experience I remember better than all the rest.
On a family vacation in 1965, my father announced that he would be going alone to visit the newly opened Holocaust memorial at the site of the Dachau concentration camp. He had been among the troops who had liberated the camps at the end of World War II, and he felt compelled to go. I asked if I could come with him. I was ten and had recently read Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl and had heard firsthand accounts of the war from my father and our German housekeeper. Mom and Dad explained that this was not an attraction for children, but I begged, and ultimately they decided that I was mature enough.
I wore my favorite red jacket and comfortable tennis shoes. Dad seemed large and imposing in his uniform. As we approached the entrance, I shielded my eyes against the bright sun, and Dad held my hand. He didn’t have to tell me to be quiet; I just knew.
As our guide talked about the people who had lost their lives there, I felt sadness and disbelief. I learned that the prisoners were made to stand at attention for hours at a time and to work even though they were exhausted and starving. They were often punished when they had done nothing wrong. No heat, no baths, no soft beds, no loving parents to comfort them when they were sick and afraid. We saw photos of bodies piled up like sticks. Shouldn’t adults have known better than to treat their fellow humans this way?
Toward the end of the tour the guide announced that he was taking us to see the ovens. At least the guards baked cookies and bread for the prisoners, I thought. The ovens were very large, and I pictured giant loaves — there had been thousands of prisoners, after all. I asked my father what sort of bread they had baked in the ovens.
“Oh, sweetie,” he said. “They burned people in there.”
I didn’t say another word.
Kem Rankin Smith
Blythewood, South Carolina
© Link Nicoll
Most nights my family ate dinner together on the sun porch after my father got home from work. He would watch the news while he was eating, and we had to be quiet so he could hear Walter Cronkite’s reporting. Sometimes my father would angrily mutter, “That Cronkite’s a communist.” Except for that and the sound of our dog’s nails on the floor as he scurried around begging for scraps, our dinners were silent.
One night a month my father went away on business, and my mother, my sister, and I got together in the wood-paneled den. We sat on the sofa and laughed and enjoyed TV dinners. My sister and I didn’t have to be quiet, and we had our mom all to ourselves.
Throughout my childhood my family took trips to all kinds of exotic destinations, but the most satisfying vacations of all were those evenings in the den with just my mother and my sister.
In the summer of 1962 my father decided we’d make the trek from Southern California to the Seattle World’s Fair for our first family vacation. I was seven years old. Since we didn’t have much money, we camped along the way up the West Coast. On the first night, as we settled down in the cramped tent, we realized that our sleeping bags smelled like urine. Apparently, while we’d been airing them out in our backyard before leaving, our dog had peed on them. My mother’s solution: spray the sleeping bags with perfume. To this day the smell of Chanel No. 5 reminds me of camping.
On our second night a bear demolished our ice chest and pilfered the bacon from it while we were sleeping.
On the third night my mother lost her dental bridge and announced to the whole family, “If I don’t kill myself before this trip is over, I’m probably going to kill one of you.”
Our first day at the crowded World’s Fair was going well until I looked up and realized my family was nowhere to be seen. I walked the fairgrounds for hours, sobbing. My father had taught me never to speak to strangers, so I ran from everyone who tried to help, even policemen.
My father had also said that if I ever got separated from them, I should find the car and wait there. So I left the fair and searched for our Buick LeSabre, but I couldn’t find it. Exhausted and terrified, I headed back to the fairgrounds entrance, wondering what would become of me if I never found my family.
That’s when I spotted my father on the sidewalk. He saw me and froze. I knew he was going to be furious, but I didn’t care. I sprinted toward him. He dropped to one knee, and I ran into his big barrel chest and breathed in the comforting scent of his sweat and cherry tobacco. He wrapped his arms tightly around me and began to cry. I had never seen my father cry before.
Los Angeles, California
Every summer in the 1950s my family vacationed at Yosemite National Park. My siblings and I brought our water wings, shiny new flip-flops, and dreams of playing in the river. Our parents packed their vodka and bourbon. Most evenings they bickered and quietly cursed each other and sometimes yelled.
One night when I was six, my father threatened to kick my wooden stool out from under me to see if I would fall into the campfire. Frightened, I asked my older sister to take me to the campground’s restroom. We held hands and walked silently among the trees as tears wet my cheeks. When we exited the restroom, I suggested we walk in the opposite direction from our camp. My sister, who was twelve and had seen more of our parents’ erratic behavior than I had, squeezed my hand and said, “Yes, let’s go that way.”
We soon came upon an older couple singing beside their campfire. They asked if we were lost and invited us to sit. We chatted for a while before my sister bravely asked if we could go home with them.
The couple eventually returned us to our parents, and our punishment for disappearing was severe. But I will never forget how my sister tried to save us.
When I was seven years old, my parents, my brother, and I traveled to New Zealand. The trip had been my mother’s idea: she wanted to visit former co-workers who had quit their jobs to become potters and farmers in a remote spot on the South Island. We were there for three weeks.
Here is what I remember of that family vacation: Climbing the cathedral spire in Christchurch with my dad. Throwing up on a curvy road in the Southern Alps. Putting my hand under the spray of a waterfall while my four-year-old brother moped and complained. Picking blackberries and eating them with thick cream the morning we left. Throwing up again on the drive to the airport.
Here is what I don’t remember: my mother’s profound depression, which hit her forcefully on that trip. Much later she told me how she had hoped the plane would plunge into the ocean on our way home. Her despair was so deep that she would rather have seen us all dead than have to endure it.
Back home my mother got help and began taking medication. She lived for thirty more years, until she stopped taking her lithium and committed suicide.
In the summer of 1956 I had a crush on an eighteen-year-old Air Force recruit stationed near my family’s annual vacation spot in Destin, Florida. His name was Sandy. I was only twelve but looked and acted much older.
Whenever Sandy and his buddies were allowed to leave the base, they would hang out with me and my pretty older sister. I knew I couldn’t compete with her, but she had a boyfriend back home in Arkansas, so I thought maybe I had a chance. We would go swimming in the ocean with the boys or dance to Elvis Presley 45s until our father yelled for us to come back to the motel room.
Late at night, before I fell asleep, I would fantasize about Sandy kissing me and asking me to stay behind with him in Florida while my family returned home.
On our last night in Destin my sister and I sat with Sandy on the beach and promised to write to him. When I got up to go inside, Sandy kissed me goodbye on my forehead. My sister remained on the sand. Halfway to the motel I turned around and saw him put his arm around her and start kissing her on the lips.
My father was a chemist and often traveled abroad to attend meetings and conferences when I was a girl. I was in awe of all the places he’d visited and always wanted to go with him.
I was just out of college when I finally got the chance to accompany my dad on a trip to Paris. As we strolled the streets, I grew annoyed with his habit of stopping at every map kiosk to determine our exact location. I wanted to roam freely and perhaps even get lost. My father didn’t seem to notice my frustration, though. He was just happy that at least one of his children shared his interest in travel.
Throughout my twenties and thirties my dad and I went to Europe many times, and I discovered other quirks of his personality, some of which bothered me more than others, but as I matured, I got better at keeping those feelings to myself.
In my midthirties my dad and I went to Scotland. We took different flights, and I met him at a coffee shop in the Glasgow airport. As I approached, I noticed lines in his face that I hadn’t seen before. He was in his early seventies by then. Walking the city streets, he still stopped to look at every map, but he was slower than before and needed to take more breaks. It occurred to me that one day our trips would come to an end.
I’m forty-two, and my dad is seventy-six. In a few months we’ll be flying to Portugal together. We are not done yet.
My family once took a three-week trip through the western United States and southern part of Canada in a rented RV. There were six of us: our mother and stepfather; his nineteen-year-old daughter; my sister, eight; me, ten; and our grandmother, the domineering matriarch.
Before we left, my stepfather instructed us to keep the RV’s cupboards and refrigerator all latched, so that they wouldn’t fly open while we were moving. One morning my sister made a pitcher of lemonade and put it in the refrigerator. She secured the door, but soon after that, my stepsister opened it to get a drink. At the next left turn the refrigerator door swung open, and the lemonade pitcher smashed to the floor. Our stepfather was livid. Because my sister had made the lemonade, he blamed her. It didn’t matter that his daughter had been the last one to open the refrigerator. For my sister’s punishment she would not be allowed to have dessert for the entire three-week trip.
My stepfather and my grandmother normally had a contentious relationship, but on that trip they were suddenly united by their newfound taste for desserts. As if to taunt my sister, they would stop at ice-cream parlors and buy extra treats at the store. Their pettiness infuriated me. In solidarity with my sister I resolved not to have any desserts either.
As the days passed, the tension grew. Once, at a campground, my sister was sitting on a swing and did not come when called. Our stepfather yanked her off the swing by her ponytail and kicked her. When he asked why she hadn’t come, she tearfully stammered that she hadn’t heard.
There seemed to be no calming our stepfather’s fury. Meanwhile our mother consistently acted as if nothing were wrong. She smoked a cigarette, drank a highball, and made dessert.
Pacific Palisades, California
On family trips my three brothers and I were a rambunctious group, always bickering about whose turn it was to sit where in the station wagon and who had crossed the invisible boundaries in the back seat. But our parents did a good job of keeping us engaged in various activities while we were on the road.
We counted signs and looked for different state license plates. We tried to find all the letters of the alphabet — in order — on billboards. (A Quality Oil of Texaco sign could give us either a long-sought-after Q or X.) We divided into two teams and played “cow poker,” in which you accrue points by counting animals on your team’s side of the road. A junkyard would cut your team’s points in half, and a graveyard would wipe them out entirely. (None of us ever spotted the redheaded girl on a white mule that would have meant automatic victory.)
For one hour each day my brother James would play his ukulele and lead us in song. As the day wore on, my mother would take over the driving duties while my father told us the next chapter in the adventures of pirate captain Tidmore C. Jones (his own creation, named for a convenience store near our home in Tuscaloosa, Alabama). There were characters representing each of us in the story, and our father would work sights and events from the day’s journey into the plot as he told of the bumbling pirate crew getting into another terrible jam. Once, my mother became so entranced by the story that she missed a turn.
Each day’s travel ended in a state park, where we made camp while our mother cooked supper. We fell asleep to the sounds of frogs and crickets.
Only much later, when my brothers and I were adults, did we realize that our family vacationed that way because it was cheap, and our parents had little money. Sometimes our father had to work to pay for the cabin or dorm where we stayed. But we never felt deprived.
Clemmons, North Carolina
When I was in my teens, my family spent summer vacations exploring the western United States. In 1964, the summer following my junior year in high school, we took a trip from our home in Pennsylvania Dutch Country to the Grand Canyon.
Earlier that year I had started going steady with the bass player of a local band. By the end of the school year, I had lost my virginity in the back seat of his ’62 Ford.
My family and I flew into Denver, Colorado, for our Grand Canyon trip. As we drove south to Arizona in our rental car, stopping at scenic spots along the way, I became increasingly edgy: my period was late. My anxiety grew with each passing mile. I imagined myself being sent to a home for unwed mothers, shaming my family, and getting cast out of the popular crowd at school.
One evening, in our cabin near the Grand Canyon, I could no longer keep my secret bottled up. I asked my mother if we could talk in private. Sobbing, I blurted out the truth. My mother responded with an age-old remedy: that I soak in a very hot bath for a very long time. As I lay in bed that night, I overheard my mother and father in their bedroom. Mom was crying.
I awoke the next morning headachy and depressed. Sluggishly I went into the bathroom and was overjoyed to find that the bath had done its job: I wasn’t a fallen woman after all. The family vacation — and my reputation — had been saved by a soak in the tub.
When I was ten years old, my father planned a family road trip from Los Angeles to Nashville, Tennessee. He opened a map on the kitchen table and, eyes glinting, traced with his finger the highways we’d take through Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas. We’d leave on Sunday morning, he told us, and by Wednesday we’d be knocking on my aunt’s door. I don’t know why he and my mother believed that a black family could travel through the South in 1958 without any problems, but they did.
The morning of our departure, our parents filled the back seat of the car with pillows and blankets so my two sisters and I could sleep. Then Dad gave us a reassuring wink, and we were off. The red clay of Arizona sped by, followed by the rock formations of New Mexico, and the small, run-down homes of West Texas. On Monday night three Texas motel managers turned us away, saying they were “full up,” despite their signs out front that read VACANCY. Dad swallowed his anger, drove a little farther, and parked on the side of the road. We slept in the car that night.
In the morning we ate standing up at the back door of a diner, our food handed to us by the black cook under the suspicious eye of his white boss. We drove straight through Arkansas, stopping only for gas.
Finally, on Wednesday morning, bleary-eyed and hungry, we arrived at my aunt’s house. My sisters and I met our grandparents and other relatives for the first time, and we stayed on the farm where my mother had grown up. On the return trip home we were again denied service at a restaurant in Texas. As the white managers glared at us from the entrance, Dad yelled out the car window, “So long, you crackers!”
It felt like a victory.
Los Angeles, California
The only vacation my family ever took together was to Cuba in 1959. My father managed a restaurant in Miami Beach, Florida, at a motel that had ties to mobster Meyer Lansky. My dad had once been kind to Lansky’s son, who had cerebral palsy and worked the switchboard at the motel. The trip to Cuba was Lansky’s repayment.
Our family stayed at the plush Hotel Nacional de Cuba. A hired driver took us to rum distilleries, where my parents purchased pineapple liqueurs to give as gifts. We strolled the local flea markets, watched people hand-roll cigars, and toured Morro Castle in Havana, where political prisoners were being held.
Fidel Castro’s communist forces were in the process of taking over the country. My teenage sister, my brother, and I posed with Castro’s guerrilla fighters, who were milling around. The soldiers wore camouflage uniforms with ribbons of bullets crisscrossing their chests and rifles slung over their shoulders. We all smiled for the camera while my mother took pictures.
After we returned to Miami Beach, we learned that all air traffic between the United States and Cuba had been shut down. Our family had been on one of the last American flights out.
New York, New York
My physician father’s idea of a vacation was reading in his study and drinking a beer. On the few occasions when he gave in to my mother’s requests to take us somewhere, I feared that his foul mood would get even worse.
Once, my father took my brothers and me to a St. Louis Cardinals baseball game. Afterward, as we were leaving, we saw a man lying on his back in the concourse leading out of the stadium. People formed a circle around him.
My father pushed through the crowd. I watched as he knelt and performed CPR on the man until an ambulance came to take him away.
Later my father told us that the man had suffered a heart attack. He sounded slightly put out that he’d had to help. And yet he’d done so. My father had the ability to be kind and caring — at least toward strangers.
On the first day of our family vacation in Darjeeling, India, my mother woke my brother and me, saying, “You don’t want to miss this.” It was still pitch-dark outside. We reluctantly got up and climbed into the car, unsure why we were being dragged out this early in the morning. At our destination we stood on an observation deck and looked at the starry night sky. Other people were there, all bundled up and shivering in the cold.
A few minutes passed, and then everyone started murmuring excitedly and pointing toward the horizon. In the distance the snow-covered peaks of the Himalayas were slowly lit with the fiery reds and brilliant oranges of the sunrise. Cameras clicked, and my father and brother tried to identify Mount Everest. I turned to my mother and saw her smiling, her face aglow with the pale-orange light. She reached out and held my hand. I was glad I had gotten up early.
Years later cancer ravaged my mother’s body. Now, whenever I think of her, I remember her as she was at that moment: smiling blissfully, watching the sun rise over the glistening Himalayas.
My father slapped the brightly colored brochures down on the dining table, and we gazed at them in wonder: a houseboat vacation — fishing, swimming, cooking out on deck. I was a sophomore in high school, and my family of twelve had stayed in a hotel only twice in my life. The rest of our vacations had been spent in Army-surplus tents in the Southwest desert.
My father was an actual rocket scientist, but even he had trouble loading all of us and our luggage into two cars for the four-hundred-mile drive to the Sacramento River delta. Nevertheless he got us there with only some of my younger brothers’ clothes left behind.
At the dock we saw our houseboat. It wasn’t as big or as shiny as the ones in the brochure. It looked like a motor home welded onto two pontoons. My father unlocked the sliding glass door, and we recoiled from the stench: the chemical toilet was backed up. The manager was apologetic but said it couldn’t be fixed until morning. We used the bathroom at the nearby RV park and slept in the boat with all the windows open.
By noon the next day the toilet was fixed, and we were underway. The Sacramento River delta is a hot place, with midday temperatures approaching a hundred degrees. The map we’d been given looked like something from a Disneyland guidebook and was marked with locations like “Pirates’ Cove” and “Emerald Isle,” but the scenery beside the boat was nothing but brown water, green rushes, and reeds burned by the sun. On the second night, frustrated by the dull surroundings, my father announced that we were going to visit some friends of his in Antioch, a town somewhere off the bottom of the map.
The next morning we raised anchor and began to putt-putt in the direction of Antioch. By late morning we had emerged into a deep-water channel, where the wind whipped the surface into two- and three-foot swells. Powerboats passed us pulling water-skiers. We also saw other houseboats, big and blue and white, with beautiful decks and safety railings all around.
At least this part of the trip wasn’t boring, and we cheered — until the motor gave out. My father couldn’t figure out what was wrong. There was no two-way radio on our boat, and not even a distress flag. We waved at the other boats for help, but they only waved back as they sped by. Finally someone stopped and offered to get word to the rental company.
Somewhere around 2 PM the toilet broke again.
After five and a half hours a man in a small powerboat arrived. He reattached a fuel line that had come loose, but he couldn’t fix the toilet. Unconcerned with creature comforts, my father continued on toward Antioch. Late that afternoon he docked the boat beside a refueling station, and we leapt off and raced for the restrooms. The station owner told us we couldn’t leave our boat there, and that no one else would let us dock it, because it wasn’t “up to spec.” With no other choice, we started back across the now eerily quiet deep-water channel.
Night fell, and we couldn’t tell where we were going. We turned off the cabin lights to better see outside the boat. My older sister, Jo, steered while my father pored over the map. No one felt like playing games or listening to the radio. The youngest kids cried themselves to sleep. Around 11 PM I saw a light out of the corner of my eye. It wasn’t coming from our boat but from someplace behind it. Then I saw three lights rising vertically far above the water. I went to ask Jo about the tower we’d just passed. “What tower?” she asked. I pointed and realized it was getting closer. Then I saw the “tower” was really an enormous cargo ship bearing down on us.
By then the ship’s captain had noticed us and blew a loud horn. My father grabbed the wheel from Jo and spun it right until we were perpendicular to the oncoming ship, which rose seven stories above the waterline. It blew its horn again. My father held the wheel tight, and our pitiful boat continued to spin.
The ship missed us by only a few yards. We could see the khaki-clad crew members standing at the rail, looking down with stunned faces. My mother laughed nervously, but my father’s face was pale. I saw something there I’d never seen before: fear.
The next morning I found him huddled on deck, wrapped in a blanket, having stayed up all night. No one complained about the broken toilet on the way back to the rental place. It was the last family vacation we took.
Los Angeles, California
In the summer of 1979 my Dad abruptly took my brother, my sister, and me on a trip across the country while Mom was at work one day. We were four, eight, and ten years old. He drove us from our home outside Philadelphia to Atlantic City, New Jersey, where we stayed with a rowdy bachelor friend of his, sleeping on the floor while guys we didn’t know came and went. Then we visited my aunt’s house in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. For three days she fretted that we would break something. Late one night I heard my father whispering to her, “It isn’t fair.” What wasn’t fair? I wondered.
The next day we left for Colorado. I was the oldest, so Dad asked me to rub his shoulders and keep him awake while he drove. During the trip he told me that my mother was trying to break up the family.
Over the next three months we stayed in countless hotels and at the homes of family members in Colorado, Washington, and California. Our father allowed us to send postcards to our mother, but by the time they reached her, we’d be somewhere new. He also let us talk to her by phone when we asked. She spoke calmly and remained positive, even though she was desperately trying to find us. (We found out later that she had hired a private detective but didn’t want to call the police, because my father had told her that, if she did, she would never see us again.)
I made up games, songs, and stories to distract my younger siblings. Whenever we said we wanted to go home, our father gave us a threatening look that quickly shut us up. He would go on tirades, telling us how awful our mom was. I silently wondered how that could be, when he was the one who’d slapped her, pulled her hair out in clumps, and once broken her arm.
When the school year was about to start, we returned to Philadelphia and stayed in a hotel ten miles from our home. Because my brother sent her a postcard with the hotel’s address, our mother was finally able to find us and convince our father to bring us home.
Mom’s second job as a family therapist kept her away from home at dinnertime. My siblings and I would make boxed macaroni and cheese and watch TV while her work line’s answering machine picked up again and again, recording all those needy people’s voices. Once every summer, though, we’d pack up and leave the house for a vacation spot within driving distance, somewhere not too expensive.
To start, Mom would take us to the Denny’s in town for breakfast. We’d drink too-small glasses of chocolate milk and eat short stacks of pancakes and sides of extra-crispy bacon and cram our pockets with jelly packets. (They made great snacks in the hotel room.) Then we’d get back in the car with our Walkmans and Beverly Cleary novels, and we’d go north to Mystic, Connecticut, or Block Island, Rhode Island, or Boston, or south to Gettysburg or Baltimore or Washington, D.C., using paper maps to find our route.
Once we’d arrived, we would stay at a Howard Johnson’s and swim in the pool and play War and Uno atop our double beds. We’d request more towels and soap from the front desk and make endless trips to buy chips and candy from the vending machines. We’d sweat our way through walking tours and pretend to read the historical markers. We’d smile for the 35mm camera, and my sisters and I would fight over who got to carry it like a bracelet on her wrist. At night there’d be salad bars with croutons — lots of croutons.
On the ride home we would fall asleep, the batteries in our Walkmans dead or dying, our books finished or splayed out on a towel to dry from a spill, our wrists and ankles covered in friendship bracelets. I’d know we were home by the dip at the base of the driveway, and then that long moment of stillness before Mom pulled the key from the ignition and we all stretched and gathered our dirty laundry and duffel bags and carried them into the house and went our separate ways — to the bathroom, the couch, the fridge, the answering machine.
There in the driveway, a sibling’s arm smashed into mine, I was warm but not too warm, and my little brother was asleep with his mouth open, and my sisters weren’t talking, and I was wearing my rabbit’s-foot necklace, and the blisters from my sandals had turned to calluses and didn’t hurt anymore, and I wasn’t even that hungry. Everything was just perfect.
Barrington, New Jersey