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.

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This entry was written by Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser

About the author: Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times, Brain, Child Magazine, and Salon, amongst others. Follow her on twitter–@standshadows.

Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser

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2 thoughts on “Family Travels, and Our Apologies to New Jersey

  1. Nina

    So well told, Sarah. I yelled “NOOOOO!” in my head when the first one threw up. We travel via minivan everywhere, including to see my parents in Chicago. Some years are easier than others. This year with the two-year-old I’m dreading it.

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