Post-Thanksgiving Reflections of an Expatriate Mother

Post-Thanksgiving Reflections of an Expatriate Mother

By Rachel Pieh Jones

Post Thanksgiving

Celebrations of holidays sting because the celebration ends, the families go home, we can’t hold onto it forever. We can’t keep our children in our arms and under our roofs forever.

 

I’m planning Thanksgiving dinner. It’s just me. Some people are bringing things to share, but I bare the bulk the day’s work. My family is far away. Even two of my children, 15-year old twins, are two countries away at boarding school and won’t come home until the Saturday after Thanksgiving.

So the house will fill with the smell of roasting turkey and my husband, my youngest daughter, and I will be the only family members to enjoy it and I will feel sad.

But that won’t happen until Thursday morning. There won’t be any parades to watch on television, no snow will fall. It will probably be 95 degrees.

Today, I’m writing out the menu and I’m stumped.

This year I did manage to scrounge up a turkey. Sometimes they are for sale at the nicest grocery store in town. They tend to cost about $30.00 a kilo. And they’re small. But they’re turkey.

What I’m stumped on is the stuffing.

Problem 1 is that we are inviting local friends, Muslims, and so I can’t have any pork products in the stuffing. My favorite recipe calls for sausage.

Problem 2 is that most recipes call for items I don’t have and can’t find. Mushrooms, cranberries, apricots, Granny Smith apples, celery, fresh sage leaves, sourdough bread.

How many things can I substitute in a recipe and still call it stuffing?

There won’t be any cranberries or sauce, which is fine. I don’t like either.

There won’t be a traditional bean casserole. There will be beans but they won’t be fresh and there won’t be cream of mushroom soup and there won’t be crunchy bread topping and there won’t be fried onions. Oh wait – there will be. They will just all be made from scratch (except the beans, they will come from a can or a freezer bag if the grocery store has them in stock).

Everything will be made from scratch, from pie crusts to the bread that will eventually go in the stuffing to the buns I will shape into moon-like crescents drenched in butter. I brought canned pumpkin from the US so we will have pumpkin cheesecake. Someone gave me a spare can she had brought from the US and so we will also have pumpkin chocolate chip muffins.

I will be making most of this. I may or may not cry while I make it.

I’m thankful my children are at this school two countries away. I’m thankful my husband and I have the privilege of living and working here. I’m thankful we have a turkey and all this incredible food. I’m thankful we have local friends and other American friends to celebrate the day with.

But I’m also sad. So, incredibly sad. I miss my family. I miss snow. I miss my in-laws and watching my nieces and nephews dive into Thanksgiving feasts together and cleaning up afterwards with sisters and sisters-in-law and listening to people talk about hunting season or sledding misadventures.

This Thanksgiving, the one with the pork-free, halal stuffing and the jury-rigged dishes and the sweat dripping down my back, isn’t the one I grew up with. It feels forced, faked. But if we didn’t celebrate it, I would be even more sad because I would have missed it. And therein lies my choice. Sad, or more sad? I choose sad but I don’t like the choice.

Holidays abroad are lonely. So we fill the day with lots of people and multiple pots on the stove and a constant flow of dishes to wash and we use the busyness to mask the sorrow. We use the frenzied effort to create something from nothing to hide the questions. Have we made the right choice? Is this really what I wanted when we moved away? Is this really what I still want for my family, after thirteen years abroad?

  *   *   *

Now it is Thanksgiving Day and people start to arrive. Americans who have lived in Djibouti for a year, Djiboutians who have always lived here. They come carrying mashed potatoes and bottles of Coke. The Djiboutians don’t know the word for turkey but they devour it. We’ll talk about the tradition of Thanksgiving, the convoluted history of it. We’ll ask each other what we are thankful for and my answer will be: This.

I’m thankful for this table, filled to overflowing with people who have welcomed us and who laugh with us and who don’t laugh at me when I cry while carving the turkey because my grandpa is supposed to carve the turkey but my grandpa has been gone for years now. I’m thankful that we can be thankful here, far from home, and that we are making this a home. I’m even thankful that I am sad because the sadness means I love people and it means I have people who love me, who miss me, who are thankful for me and thinking of me even when I’m not there.

The sadness that comes with celebrating holidays abroad really isn’t that different from the sadness that comes with any kind of celebrating. The reason love terrifies us is because it is so intimately intertwined with pain. The reason gratitude makes us cry is because it hurts. It hurts to be thankful for people who aren’t present. It hurts to be thankful that when I’m lonely, my local friends love me well. Celebrations of holidays sting because the celebration ends, the families go home, we can’t hold onto it forever. We can’t keep our children in our arms and under our roofs forever.

Holidays keep coming and our families age. Grandpa isn’t here anymore to carve the turkey, grandma isn’t here anymore to make Bohemian Kolaches. We have been bumped up on the generational scale. We have long ago graduated from the Kids Table at holiday dinners to the Adults Table, though we secretly believe we still belong at the Kids Table. But even our kids are barely at the Kids Table anymore. Even if my family still lived in Minnesota my kids wouldn’t watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade because they are teenagers and they sleep in too late. If we raced in a Turkey Trot 5k, they would beat me now.

No matter. Let the years roll on, we will keep holding to some traditions, like the Charlie Brown Thanksgiving Special and reading The Best Christmas Pageant Ever and they are hilarious and no one watching from the outside understands why we are laughing so hard. We have performed these traditions for so long that the only reason we love them is because we love them together. We will still invite our local friends to our celebrations and feel awed by the waves of tender thanks that roll over us throughout the day.

And now we are in the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas. There will be so many more meaningful and ridiculous traditions, more laughter and tears, more loneliness, more local friends filling in the empty spaces of our lives and hearts, more signs of time passing. And we will be thankful.

Rachel Pieh Jones lives in Djibouti with her husband and three children: 14-year old twins and a 9-year old who feel most at home when they are in Africa. Her work has been published in the New York Times, the Christian Science Monitor, FamilyFun, Babble, and Running Times. Visit her at: Djibouti Jones, her Facebook page or on Twitter @rachelpiehjones.

 

 

Too Much Stuffing

Too Much Stuffing

Thanksgiving+2009+559By Rachel Sarah

Ten years ago, on our daughter’s first Thanksgiving, my ex walked out the door on us. It had taken me a long time to move past this day, but I’d finally done it. I’d remarried and my daughter was thriving. I was pregnant with a little girl due on her 12th birthday, and my new husband, Chris, couldn’t wait to be a dad.

This year, as the holiday approached, I’d made myself a promise. I wouldn’t let the holiday snatch my heart and jerk it around again. I was, I decided, Officially Over It. As the sun flickered through our window, Chris and I snaked together under the blankets like the electrical cords tangled next to our queen-sized mattress on the living room floor. But that old angst twisted inside me where his fingers trailed.

We were remodeling what used to be Chris’ bachelor pad to turn it into our home. The place was covered in a thin layer of dust. I pushed down the lump in my throat and angrily told myself to keep it together. Don’t let your past ruin your life. Chris was 10 years older than me and had just turned 49. He’d been married once before, briefly, and thought he’d missed his chance at fatherhood, just like I thought I’d missed my chance at love again.

I twisted my wedding ring as Chris kissed me on the lips, got up, and went into the kitchen. I could hear him sharpening a knife, the blade grinding against the stone. He was in charge of the turkey today and I’d volunteered to make the stuffing, a family recipe with fresh chestnuts, leeks, chicken broth, and lots of butter.

I padded into the kitchen as the milk steamer shrieked. Chris smiled at me, and I forced myself to smile back. I didn’t want him to know how wound up I was. We’d been married for a year at this point, but had only been living together for six months. I opened the fridge, pulled out the butter, and shut the door hard. It was like I was ready to fight.

I should have seen the signs eleven years ago, when I’d met my daughter’s father on an airplane and he’d ordered his third beer before noon. Our relationship was passionate and impulsive. When our daughter was seven months old, he’d changed his mind about coming with me to celebrate Thanksgiving, telling me he was going to join his family instead. He’d escorted us to the train, given us each a quick peck on the cheek, and stepped away as the doors closed. Then he’d emptied my bank account and caught a flight to Europe, where, as far as I knew, he still was, living under the radar.

This morning, my daughter tramped into the kitchen and wrapped her arms around me. “You okay, Mommy?”

“Uh huh.” Her ability to read my emotions astounded me. After so many years together, just the two of us, she was incredibly perceptive of my moods. I hated to pretend, even though I knew she’d probably try to cover up her feelings in a few years, as all teens did.

I waited for my daughter and Chris to leave before pulling down the loaves of bread, which I’d stashed on top of the fridge the day before to get them out of the way. The truth was, some part of me didn’t want him to see that I’d come home yesterday with not one, not two, not three… but six loaves of bread. I knew he’d tell me I was overdoing it. A little part of me worried he was right.

I put a pot of chicken broth on the stove to simmer. The kitchen filled with the scent of sage. I liked the crunching sound the knife made as I drove it through the crust of olive bread.

Ten minutes later, Chris leaned in the small doorway of the kitchen and pointed to the chunks of bread scattered on every pan in the kitchen. “You’re not making all that.”. He rubbed the spot between his eyes, like the sight of the mess exhausted him. The kitchen, the only space untouched by the remodel, was his sanctuary. He was always asking me to keep it organized and clean.

“I just want to make sure we have enough.” I couldn’t look at him. I knew six loaves had been too much. Still, my fingers gripped the handle of the knife.

“Enough? We’re only six people. You’re making enough for 20.”

“You don’t have to be such a control freak.” I mumbled this, even though I was the one who wanted so badly to control everything.

“I’m going to find the cooler in the garage.” He stomped away.

“Yeah, hopefully, it’ll cool you off.” I was desperate to get a handle on this awful feeling, to stuff it down. I considered slipping out of the kitchen and walking up the hill to clear my head. Still, I’d have to come home at some point.

Someone had to eat all this stuffing.

A few minutes later, Chris was back. He glared at the four enormous metal trays of cut-up bread, now toasted. The sight of the filthy kitchen annoyed him the way some men get riled up at the sight of bumper-to-bumper traffic. “Who’s going to clean up all this mess?”

“I am.” Little did Chris know that the real mess was inside me. “You always say you feel like you’re all alone, getting everything ready. Well, I’m helping.” The hot water scalded my knuckles.

“This. Is. Not. Helping.”

I pressed my elbows into my sides, trying to make myself as small as possible. Because maybe I was going overboard. I bent over the huge metal pot, my little baby bump rubbing against the edge of the counter. I wouldn’t blame him splitting up with me. I can’t stand being with me. My pain clouded every thought.

I shoved the bread into the broth, pushing it below the surface of the boiling liquid. The chicken broth boiled angrily. I wanted to submerse myself in it and drown. Anything to stop my thoughts. He’s going to leave me. I’m going to be a single mom again. It was a spinning wheel inside my head.

Chris took a step forward. “You have to listen.”

“No, you have to–“

“Stop fighting you two.” My daughter stood in the doorway, barefoot. Her nightgown fell loosely around her knees. She swept a curl from her forehead, waiting for me to say something.

I was afraid that if I told her what was really going on, how this pain surged back every year at this time, I’d fall apart. If she thought it had anything to do with her, she’d blame herself. No matter how much it hurt, I had to hold it together for her.

“Mommy?” She didn’t blink.

I wrung my hands together and hoped she and Chris would walk away. Neither of them budged. The hot trays of stuffing steamed up the windows It was humiliating, standing there as they stared at me. Chris took two steps towards me and rested his hand on my shoulder. “I’m here, if you want to talk about it.”

I held my breath. I’m here. No man had ever said these words to me before. He was here.

“It’s just that–” I sucked in a breath. “Never mind. I can’t really talk about it.”

If I did, my shame would speak and blame me for my ex leaving ten years ago. I had to keep quiet. But this feeling hung onto me, persistent.

“Mommy?” My daughter’s eyes caught mine. She walked up and put her arms around me.

Our silence filled the kitchen, mixing with the vapor rising from the pot. For so long, I was sure something was wrong with me. It had to be my fault.

I am here. Chris pulled me into his chest. I could feel his breath on the top of my head. Maybe, I thought as I leaned into him, it was time to let this shame go. A tear slid down my cheek, and as my daughter pressed against my back, I surrendered to all of it.

Rachel Sarah is the author of Single Mom Seeking (Seal Press). She’s the proud mother of two daughters who are 12 years apart.

 

 

 

Thanksgiving Tips For Parents of College Freshmen

Thanksgiving Tips For Parents of College Freshmen

By Kathleen Volk Miller

162901555

By 11:30 a.m. on Thanksgiving morning your college student has not even gotten up to go to the bathroom. You know this because you have been downstairs banging pots and pans around since 8:00 a.m.

 

Your child is coming home for Thanksgiving, for 3 days or 5 days or a week. You haven’t seen him since parents’ weekend in late September, and what with all of your time together being in public—the school’s organized events, the restaurants, the hotel—that visit barely counts.

I’m a college professor, and your son or daughter has spent more time with me than you the past two months. If I wasn’t also a mother, maybe I wouldn’t see the fear right beside the bravado, fighting for dominance on the freshmen’s faces. I saw her on the first day, looking neither to left or right and fixing squarely on me, fussing with her coffee, because she’s allowed coffee in the classroom and so she brings it to class because she can. I’ve seen your boy start to laugh at something and then catch himself, wonder if he’s blown any kind of cool he’s built up. None of them realize the others are just as scared, no matter what we, professors or parents, tell them.

I have watched your child establish certain patterns, the coffee, the route to class. But he is nowhere near mastering the best time to do laundry or how to quickly find his ID when he comes back into the building, what pocket he should keep it in. Your freshman is still very fresh.

And now your child is coming home, with everything that home means. You pick her up at the train/bus station/airport and you drive so you have to look at the road and you aren’t able to stare at her, which you’re both afraid you will. Count to three (in your head) when you hug, or else you will lose track of time; she’ll hear you breathing her in; she’ll sense you’re not going to let go. You chat about simple facts that can be covered—who is at home, when others are arriving, the new butternut squash dish you’re making for Thanksgiving.

But then you get home and your son reaches in the back seat for the duffel of dirty laundry and you notice for the first time something different about his face—an angle, a shadow that wasn’t there before. You are trying not to stare and your kid is out, up the front steps and shouldering the door before you are fully out of the car, you are just watching like this isn’t your driveway anymore. Don’t worry; it is yours, it’s just different now.

You get in the house and exhale and see that your college kid has moved straight to the kitchen and you are thrilled—this is something you know how to do—you know how to feed your kid, so you practically bound into the kitchen, but try to hide your enthusiasm, your joy at doing something you so often resented. Assume the position you hated to find him in, just a few months ago, look casual while you prop the fridge door open on your hip, and stare inside, looking for something, and ask, “Hungry?”

The turkey sandwich is in front of her now, with salsa and mayo and lettuce, like–you forgive yourself for thinking this—like she has not had for 9 weeks. Sandwiches are always better when someone else makes them, and you are still her mother; yours are still the best.

But everything feels different in this November early dark and now you are staring at her. And you know you shouldn’t, that you have to stop, but you cannot help yourself, because look at her: The softness under her chin is gone. You cannot see that blue vein you used to stroke for hours while she nursed. Don’t worry, it is still there, it’s just under the surface.

Your other daughter finally pulls herself away from her room of devices and joins you in the kitchen. When you say, “We’ve been home 20 minutes,” she says, “I know” and holds up the flat face of her phone. You don’t know if they’ve texted or the returning daughter posted something on some form of social media. It doesn’t matter: Know that you have to leave the kitchen very soon. They begin to talk, to say what they can in front of you and you can see so much under this surface talk, waiting to be said: leave the kitchen, like a good mother. Just as much as you are thrilled with the relationship between your daughters you can’t help but sting a little, feel a little sore in a band right across your chest, because they don’t both want to share it all with you, only you, interrupting each other, sidling against each other trying to step just one millimeter closer to you, to you, to you. Like after-school time when they were at the grade school three blocks away and came in together bubbling with stories, legs, clad in pastels, tangling, pink and blue and yellow papers falling out of their backpacks. They have things to say to only each other now, and as you move up the stairs they are already laughing, a different laugh than grade school, to be sure, but laughing; hold your fist to your heart in both joy and pain and continue up and away from them.

Prepare yourself: by Wednesday night all of the high-school friends are also home, and they pull together like magnets. It’s a good thing—of course you want her to continue these friendships, despite what one mother told you about another’s daughter, despite what you believe you can predict about any of their futures. They gather at your house, but it cannot contain them all, whoever they are now, and whatever it is that compels them back outside cannot be stopped. They drive around. They text each other from two cars away in the convenience star parking lot—still posing like they did in high school, making decisions of import on whose house to converge on—and leave—next. When you hear them go out, know that they will be back. When they come back, hunker deeper under your covers, revel in the fact the kids are in their rooms, your family is breathing the same air. Rest easy.

By 11:30 a.m. on Thanksgiving morning your college student has not even gotten up to go to the bathroom. You know this because you have been downstairs banging pots and pans around since 8:00 a.m. Do not make more noise then you need to, but now, at 11:20 a.m. you do not need to try to be quiet. When they were little, the day before Thanksgiving meant watching a movie and ordering pizza, which you always joked about since your fridge was barely able to shut, the counters full. You didn’t let yourself look at the clock when he got in last night, but it was 2:45 a.m.

Keep cooking. You think you’re angry but you’re not. It’s just that you want him there, at the counter, always. He will be down soon. Yes, somehow your son’s voice is deeper. Somehow he did grow two or three inches in nine weeks. Your daughter’s face is older in a way you can’t explain. She can’t already have wrinkles, can she, but yes, something has changed around her eyes. You can hug her again when she comes into the kitchen; she’ll allow it if you count to three.

Later, when bottles of hard cider are being distributed don’t wonder how you will be judged if you hand her one. Have one yourself. Your sister will engage her in a conversation about immigration that she would never get into with you. Your son will still drink orange juice out of the carton but he will take out the trash without being told for the first time in his life. Allow the pride and pain to battle inside you like her fear and courage, every day. You have both been in training for this since the day she was born.

Kathleen Volk Miller has written for Salon, the NYTimes, Family Circle, and Philadelphia Magazine and has work forthcoming in O, the Oprah Magazine and others. She is Director of the Graduate Program in Publishing at Drexel University and co-editor of Painted Bride Quarterly.

Photo: gettyimages.com

My Thanksgiving

My Thanksgiving

By Lindsey Mead

0-19Eleven years ago, I learned what it really means to give thanks.  My father-in-law received a heart transplant two days before Thanksgiving, on my daughter’s one-month birthday and his own thirty-fifth anniversary. By Thanksgiving morning, Matt and I were shell-shocked and exhausted, but we still got in the car and drove an hour south to spend the day with my family.  The day was a blur, filled as it was with warm family arms holding Grace and gentle whispers asking us how John was doing. Grace was living up to her name: we had discovered we were pregnant (a true surprise) the day after John was diagnosed with his rare and serious illness. And now, one month to the day after her birth, a heart.

After Thanksgiving dinner, in the dark, Matt and I drove back to Boston, to Massachusetts General Hospital. John was just starting to come out of anesthesia, my mother-in-law, Marti was at the hospital, and Matt wanted to see them both. I had Grace’s car seat slung over my arm as we took the elevator to the Cardiac Intensive Care Unit (CICU) and walked through a maze of shadowy glass partitions. Despite the faint beeping of machines, there was a deep, pervasive hush; the CICU was one of those places, like a church or a library, where you automatically whispered. In contrast to the always-bright ward where John had waited for his heart, this wing seemed to be in permanent dusk. The metaphor that this presented struck me as odd given that this was where John was supposed to wake up and begin the next phase of his life.

John lay in a bed behind two sets of sealed glass doors. My mother-in-law sat beside him, robed in a sterile gown and wearing a face mask and rubber gloves. She turned when she noticed us through the glass and stood up, peeling off her gloves and lifting her mask as she hurried through the double doors. She crouched down immediately, without saying a word, and simply stared at Grace’s sleeping face. I glanced at Matt, wondering if we should say something, and he shook his head slightly as if to say, no, leave her.  Long moments later she stood up, hugged Matt tightly, and asked him if he wanted to go into the room.

“Is it okay, Mom?  I don’t want to bring extra germs in there,” Matt looked worried. “You know, from Grace or something?”

“No, it’s okay, as long as you wear the gloves and mask. Theresa will help you.” Marti nodded at the nurse who was stationed between the two sets of sealed glass doors. I noticed the dark circles under her eyes. My mother-in-law was always perfectly put together; this was about as disheveled as I had ever seen her. And she still had a silk scarf tied around her neck.

“Okay,” Matt went in to the small chamber between the two doors. He spoke briefly to Theresa and then I watched him shrug the paper robe on over his clothes and, after scrubbing his hands at a small sink on the wall, pull on rubber gloves.  Theresa helped him adjust the paper mask over his face and then stood back, looking him over, and then nodded her okay.  Hesitantly, as though he was stepping onto the moon, he walked through the second set of doors to his father’s bedside.  Even through two thick panes of glass I could see trepidation in his hazel eyes above his paper mask.

“He’s just starting to wake up,” Marti murmured at me, not taking her eyes off of the two men in the room in front of us.  Matt sat down on the stool on wheels that Marti had vacated, which was to the right of John’s head, and looked down at him.  He then looked over at the glass wall and gestured at me, holding his hands up in the general shape and size of the car seat. “Oh!  Oh!” I leaned over and picked up Grace’s car seat, holding it up so that John, had he been looking, could have seen it. Matt gave me a thumbs-up sign and turned back to his dad.

“Is he awake? Could he see that?” I asked Marti as I lowered Grace in her blue plastic bucket to the floor.

“I don’t know. He’s been in and out of consciousness, I’m not sure what he can see.”

“Wait,” I said, kneeling down and unbuckling Grace, trying not to wake her as I pulled her gently out of the plastic bucket.  Squatting, I held her against my shoulder and felt her moving gently, her head turning side to side, her little nose pushing against my neck. A waft of her baby smell came over me and I closed my eyes briefly, still. Then I stood up again, holding her in front of my face, knocking gently on the glass so that Matt turned to see. I saw his eyes crinkle in what must have been a smile beneath his mask, and he turned to his father and tapped him on the shoulder. I looked over at Marti who was beaming, looking not at Grace but at John. We stood that way for several long moments before Grace began to squawk and I lowered her back into her car seat.  I’ll never know what John saw because he can’t remember anything about those days. But I will never forget that Thanksgiving.

 

Illustration by Christine Juneau

Lindsey Mead is a mother and writer who lives outside of Boston.  Her work has been published and anthologized in a variety of print and online sources including the Huffington Post, the Princeton Alumni Weekly, Torn: True Stories of Kids, Career, and the Conflict of Modern Motherhood, and Literary Mama.  She blogs at A Design So Vast and is also on facebook and twitter

 

 

Family Travels, and Our Apologies to New Jersey

Family Travels, and Our Apologies to New Jersey

IMG_2906Like so many families this week, ours will hit the road. We kind of know just how many families, because we have to drive through New Jersey with about three-quarters of them. Thanksgiving in Philadelphia at my mom and stepdad’s house is not just a family tradition, it’s one of the specific reasons we bought our van.

Because, we were, most definitely van avoiders. Although we spent a dozen years in not one but two pretty big vehicles—a Volvo station wagon and a Ford Explorer, we clung to the no-vanness of our lives. The van, to us, felt like a white flag of surrender, although what, exactly we’d imagined we hadn’t already surrendered to, I’m no longer able to pinpoint. It was more a feeling, since we certainly had already ceded our vehicles to baby buckets and boosters and cracker crumbs and Playmobil figures wedged between the seats. The van felt like some final fall from the grace of how we’d started our parenting years, in those cars.

The first guy liked Alice in Wonderland and never met a vehicle he could work up even a little “vroom” for so when the second guy came, the transportation/construction phenomenon hit our family in a most unexpected tsunami of so many wheels. The best line of his little toddler life, uttered from the backseat whilst chained in five-point harnesses: “Zeez, when we grow up, you take the Volvo, I’ll have the ‘Splorer.” His big brother nodded rather dumbly. He couldn’t have told you the makes of our two green vehicles. I don’t know that he knew they were both green or practically that we had two of them.

However, four children and two parents cannot go to Philadelphia with luggage in a Volvo station wagon. I mean, I guess technically they could if they were willing to have one kid ride with just that much luggage in the third seat facing backwards for all those hours and hours. Maybe, they could get a Thule bin atop the wagon to hold the stuff, but how do those things even work? I live in Thule-land (it’s like Vermont, only it’s Western Massachusetts) and I just cannot comprehend them. The stroller alone would have been our nonstarter. And the big kids and their friends were getting way too big to fold their lengthening legs into pretzel form enough for that smaller, third seat anyway, which was a problem for carpools. This is all to say that we can blame it on the baby’s arrival and whatever—we made it to the minivan, the you-can’t-avoid-it-moment-of-truth.

I’ll be totally honest here about two things and that van. One, it’s a super fine vehicle. It drives well; it’s got precisely fourteen cup-holders, which has become my shorthand version to explain everything that’s wrong and right about our American society these days, and it’s so much better for carpools than the alternative would have been. Plus, we have heated seats and smartly opted for leather not fabric. I will get to that last bit soon. Two, it’s very much not cool and I do not for the life of me understand why anyone would willingly get one if it wasn’t a necessity. I do not love driving it alone or with one or two others. I feel wasteful, although the van gets better gas mileage than either the Explorer or the Volvo did. Our second car is now a Honda Civic, and although we didn’t spring for a hybrid, it does get good gas mileage and for all this I’m telling you about the cars we don’t drive all that much actually.

To bring all this seeming meander back to the point, which is that we’ll take a road trip to Philly, I want to say that our pinnacle of a road trip disaster occurred in this van on the way to Philadelphia with four kids in tow. It’s a story I have to remember at this time each year, because I can then tell myself the drive can’t be worse than the one we already had and thus I screw up my courage—and go. Picture two parents and four kids in a van late on a Tuesday night and picture that van hitting the standstill of the George Washington Bridge. Even before you get there, you see its majestic self ahead and you are awed—but then you are stalled and you rue it just as sure as you are amazed by all these bridges New York City’s got going around it. It’s about 11:30 PM. You have to wonder why are you stalled to a standstill on the GW Bridge at nearly midnight not the night before Thanksgiving anyway. You do wonder that, especially a minute later.

A minute later is the perfect time for your second guy, then in fifth grade, to throw up. He’s in the third row, of course. You cannot go to him. He’s stoic enough but then the next guy, the kindergartner, pees in his sleep—and wakes up. So the toddler wakes up, too, and cries because it’s the middle of the night and she’s a toddler and no one can do more than hand her a bottle, which the kindergartner—a.k.a. toddler whisperer—does. And the seventh grader, the one who hasn’t thrown up or peed or been woken up, is generally freaked out by the whole mess. In my memory, he’s the loudest of all.

Anyway, that’s that. It’s a moment. It’s the moment when the parents start to laugh that punch drunk David Bryne-channeling laugh of how (the hell) did we get here? And we do mean, here, as in on the George Washington Bridge stuck with this vomit and pee and these tears and this freak out and us. How did we become the people in the van, the parents of four, the children of more than four altogether, the sandwich generation, the whole freaking thing?

Obviously, there were no answers just then. Suffice to say that we’ve never found the Vince Lombardi rest stop on the New Jersey Turnpike a more welcome sight before or after that night. What ensued: a bunch of cleanup—and a (poopy) diaper change, of course. And on we went. The rest of the ride (and for days, really) we repeated to one another how glad we were to have shelled out a little more for the leather seats. Our lyric choice may not have been quite apt. Perhaps, the better way to describe family road trips in vans with debacles and New Jersey to larger family gatherings has a little more “road to nowhere” to recommend. You do need music on the road that much is for sure. And, in fact you do need to earn a few badges of honor here and there, if only to have some stories you can tell forevermore. Without those, you wouldn’t know you’d truly made yourselves into a family.