And In the End

When it was over, we packed up the car and started the two-day drive from sandy

southwestern Michigan back to Vermont’s Green Mountains.  The trip back would be punctuated by a fender-bender (the second of the vacation), a stop-over at a motel whose accommodations would remind me of another family vacation 35 years earlier (in Peru), and a brief flirtation with Murphy’s Law as we took a detour through Niagara Falls, NY.

The detour was ultimately more of an adventure in controlling the dog in a squirrel-infested park after a protracted search for a $10 parking spot, rather than seeing one of the wonders of the natural world.  But it was not all bad.  We did get to see the falls, and hour stood out for its lack of disasters.  But as we got in the car to fight our way back to the interstate, I wondered (again) if the best vacation would have consisted of staying home while hi

tting the pause buttons on the phone and the mail service.

Then I wondered if I was alone in my ambivalence toward the great American institution known as the Family Vacation.  After all, I can’t be the only one who looks at that week on the calendar with a combination of fear and anticipation.  Who doesn’t experience some trepidation at the thought of two days of playing bumper cars at 80mph while ignoring the bedlam in the backseat?

We took turns driving the rest of the day.  As we traveled, I wondered if we’d drive the vacation’s disasters into the dark corners of our memories.  The rest of the trip was uneventful.  I couldn’t write it down if I tried, but the calamities are clear in my mind. There were, to be sure, there were some significant bright spots on this one:  a boat ride, a day at a museum, a night out.  They do not always take center stage, but I wondered if the triumphs would be as vivid without the backdrop of the mishaps.

And, in the end, we didn’t learn a damn thing from the triumphs or the trials.  I know this because as we pulled into our driveway we were already planning the next one.  We were already laughing hysterically about the miserable hotel and the first car accident.  But, our little tribe was feeling tighter.  So, then again, maybe we did learn something.

Dispatches from the Driving Front – Fender Bender Mind Mender

A quick check of our car showed it to be in drivable condition even after being on the receiving end of a hit-and-run encounter with a tractor-trailer just inside Cleveland. We, however, were somewhat shaken and, after stopping to fill out a police report, decided to take a slower route through town. Neither of us was interested in hitting the highway again, and we thought a trek down one of Cleveland’s many main streets would help us hit the reset button on a vacation that was circling the bowl. At first, it turned out to be just what we needed. Then we got greedy.

The police station was on the west side of town, and we got on Ohio route 10 going east through the city. The west end of town is a mix of lower and middle-income homes and businesses. Poverty and blight have left their imprints everywhere here. However an influx of seemingly-recent ethnic and newer soul food restaurants hint at an impending revival. The recovery does not seem to be in overdrive, but the neighborhoods along this route bustle on a summer afternoon.

We soaked up the local color as the neighborhoods gave way to more touristy areas that had their own charms. We passed by the stream of sports fans flowing to the baseball stadium. Even after we passed the museums and traveled the city’s industrial side, we knew this self-imposed detour had been a good idea.

Then we got greedy. I saw the on ramp for the interstate but my curiosity pushed us further down the road from urbs into the suburbs. Suddenly the traffic became congestion. The quirky businesses were replaced by chains that made the area indistinguishable from so many other suburbs. The area was more prosperous and green, but the rows of shopping malls practically made this city street a parking lot.

We finally saw the signs again for the interstate and knew it was time to rejoin the highway. But there was one more sign before I started down the on ramp. As I waited through two light changes at the intersection next to the luxury apartment complex where it sat, I had plenty of time to read it: “Raising Property Expectations.” By the time the light had turned green for us, I wasn’t too sure about that.

Dispatches from the Vacation Front – A Good Ending

When my parents casually extended the offer to watch the kids last night, we jumped on it (I can count on one hand the number childless events we’ve attended since we became parents). My parents make this offer to us and to my sister each time we visit them in Michigan, and Grandkid-sitting has become something of a ritual. Grandma and Grandpa make something special for the kids, and then for dessert they commune over blueberry crisp in front of a movie.

My mom and I made made a mother-daughter day of the preparations as we went to the grocery store and the farmer’s market together. Our last stop was at the library to pick up the movie.This small-town library does not have the largest selection, but the real challenge in any selection is finding a movie that’s appropriate for both a five-year-old and a twelve-year-old.

“What about Cars?” Mom asked.

“They’ve seen it,” I answered. “Have you already seen that one?” I pointed to another DVD. She and Dad had with our neice and nephew. The next one had too many things I’m not prepared to explain to either child. The next was too violent – my twelve-year-old has suddenly developed an extreme aversion to that in his movies. Then my eye fell on “Charlotte’s Web”. I knew it had a sad ending, but a good one – for adults, and in a way I’d just discovered, for children too.

We had recently downloaded another movie with a sad ending – Iron Giant. The movie centers around a boy who befriends a seven-story robot. At the climax of this animated feature, the robot sacrifices itself for the sake of the boy. The sacrifice is not graphically portrayed, but my five-year-old instantly understood that the robot had died, and burst into tears.

Nobody likes to see their child unhappy, but when we had finished the first round of tears and hugs, we talked. We talked about the giant, about what and why people do extraordinary things for others. We talked about loyalty and real-life sacrifices people make for each other everyday. And as we talked – and cried a little more – we connected with each other on a different level and he connected with the world in a new way. It was not a happy ending, but it was a good ending.

Remembering that last good ending, I picked up Charlotte’s Web, only to find that the DVD was not in the case. I resumed the search as finding something acceptable once again trumped the quest for something truly good.


Dispatches from the Driving Front – What I Won’t Say

Our favorite part of annual Michigan trip is the National Blueberry Festival in South Haven. Van Buren county is blueberry country, so the festival is a huge deal. A Little Miss Blueberry is crowned each year. Every year artists peddling blueberry-themed crafts take over the park. Every year another generation of kids makes themselves sick at the pie-eating contest (don’t ask for any flavor other than blueberry). And all of it is kicked off with a fly-in breakfast at the local airport featuring antique planes and, you guessed it, blueberry pancakes.

This year’s festival will still be dripping with blueberries, but unlike almost every year up to this one, the berries on the pancakes and in the pies will have been picked almost a month in advance. Why? An early spring combined with the record-breaking drought created an early harvest, and this is a less detrimental version of the pattern we have seen all over the parched midwest this year.

Hearing about the drought on the news is one thing. Driving past field after field of stunted corn and shriveling vegetables is another. And while, as Wendell Berry has noted, some agrarian economists may believe we have too many people on farms, I wonder what those economists will say when the price of food begins to climb this fall. I know what I won’t be saying.

I won’t be saying that fewer farms makes us more secure as a nation. I won’t say that living detached from the source of our food and the people who produce it (at all levels) would benefit my family financially or socially. And I won’t be saying that shrinking the number of and type of farms that feed us all is progress.


Dispatches from the Vacation Front – Rural Roots Realized

When I was younger, I despised the idea of being a small town girl. For the first thirteen years of my life, we lived in a large city on the east coast which I loved. When we relocated to the suburb of a smaller city in the midwest, I thought I had started a prison sentence, and I spent the rest of my teen years planning an escape back to urban life. But what I didn’t realize – and would have forcefully denied at the time – was that I was trying to escape to the wrong place.

Our summer vacations were almost always spent in our other home near South Haven, Michigan. My grandfather was born there. My grandmother’s family had built a summer house there, and, while the dunes had swallowed that house years before I was born, we still made the sojourn to the then-barren piece of land by the lake. We camped or stayed at our favorite motel in South Haven until my grandmother found creative ways to finance the building of a new house (make sure that funny-looking painting behind the bar actually is junk before you donate it to Goodwill).

Family was the ultimate focus of those visits – our entire extended family congregated there each year – but the ambience was small town. My grandmother made every evening meal a production that began with a morning visit to the lady selling corn by the road, the proceeds kept in an honor box on a card table. Each of us has memories of following her to the butcher, the bakery, and the blueberry farm. And it was only two days ago, during our annual day trip to Chicago, that I realized this annual immersion in rural life had planted a seed.

We were all excited about the museum excursion the other day. The parking there is good, and we always find people in Chicago to be very friendly. But it is a city with all of the attendant traffic and congestion and crowds. Most of all, there is constant noise.

But we went and picked our must-see exhibits and then spent the day shepherding the kids from spot to spot. When we got in the car to start the two-hour ride home at the end of the day, the comparative silence of the now-empty parking garage was a welcome change. But it was not to last. As soon as we pulled out, we were treated to the cacophony that is Chicago traffic just after rush hour. This was to be the soundtrack much of our return trip, and by the time the landscape had changed from city to industrial tracts to suburbs and finally to farms again, we did not feel enriched. We felt drained.

We got off the interstate and rolled the windows all the way down. My husband drove slowly, and we drank in the quiet and the familiar landmarks. I felt I was seeing some of them for the first time because the mobile homes and the scraggly dune-grass and trees looked beautiful. As we turned in the driveway, I realized it was because they reminded me of the Vermont home where we’ve set down roots and that this is the place those roots first began to grow.