by Maria Schulz
Spending a few days—or a few weeks—together with your family is one of those Summer rites of passage. It’s what some call “Quality Time” while others call it “that thing we have to do because Mom and Dad said so.” If you’re lucky enough, you might escape to Europe or the Caribbean.
For some families, Summer Vacation takes place a lot closer to home. This was the case when I was a kid, since flying my entire family anywhere was way too expensive. Maybe that’s why the phrase “Summer Vacation” sometimes fills me with joy and excitement…or dread and terror.
A good example of this is the one and only family vacation my parents took us on when I was a small child. It was the early 1970s, and going anywhere with everyone (everyone being my parents, 7 kids, and my grandmother) constituted an epic journey, kind of like The Odyssey. Only in our case, there were no heroes, it seemed to take a lot longer than 10 years for us to reach our destination, and we didn’t get to Ithaca at the end.
Any parent will tell you, it’s impossible to keep everyone happy. Now factor in 10 people, a hundred “valises” (as my grandmother called our suitcases) and one Buick station wagon.
The front bench seat included my Dad (who of course drove), my Mom, and my brother Chris. I might have had a shot at the front bench seat if it weren’t for the fact that Chris fell off a neighbor’s fence a few days before we left and broke his collarbone. So, he got to sit up front with my parents – that lucky stiff. Stiff was a good way to describe him, since I’m sure he wanted to kill himself every time my father hit a bump or pot hole.
The second bench seat featured my grandmother and brothers Jude, Tony and Louie. None of my brothers were small people at this time (they were teenagers) and my grandmother, while tiny in height, was not exactly Twiggy. The four of them were crammed in that tiny bench seat for hours while my father drove to what I only imagined was the moon, which had to be just as far.
So where did I sit? Oh well, this is the best part. My brothers Paul, Joe and I sat all the way in the back of the station wagon, along with the 5 suitcases.
Somehow, we crammed ourselves in around the luggage, and we thought we were the lucky ones. That’s because the window in the back was open and afforded the biggest rush of fresh air to be had in the entire vehicle.
I am surprised my parents didn’t think of tying any of us onto the roof for a bit of extra room.
We left the crammed, hot streets of Queens for the wide open, broiling hot streets of Pennsylvania. Our epic journey included fights over the radio station that went something like this:
“C’mon Dad! Can’t we listen to some rock-n-roll?” Jude said.
“Please, Louie. Let them listen to a few songs that they like,” Mom said.
“Sure. We can listen to one or two songs,” Dad replied. He must’ve been feeling especially generous that day.
Things seemed to be looking up as we all sang along to Brown Sugar by the Rolling Stones. But then, my grandmother chimed in before we even got through Me and Bobby McGee by Janis Joplin.
“Louie,” my grandmother said, “please put on something else. I cannot stand this song.”
“Okay, Ma.” My father switched the station back to one that played All Frank Sinatra (with a sprinkling of Dean Martin) all the time, and my grandmother was happy.
Never mind that the 7 small people were bored out of their minds. That was inconsequential. If for some reason your parents listened to you, it was just some sort of freakish occurrence that you should never, ever expect to see happen again in your lifetime. In many ways, it was sort of like witnessing Halley’s Comet.
Meanwhile, I had problems of my own to contend with. Being trapped in a small space with Paul and Joey for any amount of time was not what I would consider the most fun ever. In fact, it was something along the lines of my worst nightmare.
Paul and Joey loved to tease me. They were relentless in their pursuit of finding the perfect way to make me want to jump out the back window and run in the exact opposite direction from our car. Endless chants of “You’re fat!” “You’re stupid!” “You’re just a dumb girl” and more charming comments filled my little head.
Eventually, they got tired of making fun of me and turned on one another. Their comments weren’t much different. “You’re fat!” “You’re stupid!” “You’re dumb” rained out for another 50 miles. The dialog wasn’t very good, but at least this was live theater I could really enjoy.
In the row ahead of us, I could see my grandmother cupping her head in that way she always did when she was around us. I’m not sure who thought it would be a good idea to have her join us. My grandfather had died a few months before, and the adults in the family decided that the thing she needed most to make her miss my grandfather less was to be trapped in a car with the 9 of us for 10 hours.
Remember the 7 stages of grief? My grandmother wouldn’t be allowed to wallow in shock and denial or pain and loneliness for the next 2 weeks. What she was really going to be immersed in for a while was Anger and Bargaining. Like, “I’m so mad at you for leaving me trapped in this station wagon with these 9 idiots,” and “If you just come back, I will make you spaghetti and meatballs every night, plus that apple pie you love so much.”
Occasionally, my father would slam on the brakes, giving my older brothers a chance to laugh as Chris cried out in pain. Meanwhile, I was battling the worst Charlie horse of my life and trying to find one square inch of space to stretch my leg out.
“Maria, get your leg back inside the window!” my father screamed.
I lay there, crouched against the very back door, in a puddle of sweat. My muscles were screaming: “STAND UP! MOVE AROUND! FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, DON’T JUST LIE THERE IN A PRETZEL SHAPE ANYMORE! WE ARE DYING HERE!”
Plus, I’m pretty sure I weighed about 20 pounds less thanks to the extreme water loss I was suffering in the back of our 150-degree wagon.
Somewhere around hour 5, my parents decided it was time to stop for something to eat. I was overjoyed because:
- I hoped to stretch my legs and un-kink the new knot that had formed in my calf muscle before it stayed there forever
- I hadn’t eaten that morning because there was no milk and we were out of Count Chocula
- Perhaps the concrete that was baking in the sun would be cooler than the back of our station wagon
- If I got really lucky, maybe another family with a bigger car would let me drive away with them.
As I tried to scramble out of the back car window, my father yelled, “No one move! Only Jude, Tony and Louie are going into the deli to get sandwiches.”
So we sat and watched as my brothers ran into the deli and came out with some heroes and drinks.
Remember, this was the 1970s. No one turned around and said, “Maria, what would you like to eat?” Instead, my brothers just ran in and got some sandwiches (choosing what they’d like to eat) and threw some my way.
It’s just as well. Whenever my brothers and parents would turn to me and ask me to make a decision, I would be gripped by the inability to choose. What if I said turkey, but someone else got baloney, and I didn’t want my turkey anymore? Would they switch with me? Could I get ham? What if all they had was headcheese and olive loaf?
My brothers were back in the car and we were down the road before I had even made up my mind what I wanted. I munched on a baloney sandwich and some apple juice, and then lay in a puddle of sweat with my upset stomach. After what seemed like eons, I watched the New York landscape transform into the sweet, verdant pastures of Pennsylvania.
Now, let me tell you: New York is hot in July, but it’s nothing compared with Pennsylvania. Vacationing in Pennsylvania during the months of July and August is the most fun you’ll ever have when you haven’t just lit yourself on fire. There were times when I thought we had actually driven to the surface of the sun.
I didn’t care though, because the resort we were staying at had a pool. A pool! We didn’t even have an open fire hydrant on my block, let alone a pool. This was big news.
My blue and white nautical bathing suit was ready and waiting in my valise, along with my pail and shovel. My mother had bought enough Coppertone to make sure we all got our deep, dark tans. We were set! There was no way that the heat would bother us!
Except for one thing: the pool wouldn’t open for another week.
“Oh, did I forget to mention that?” Dad said.
We staggered into our bungalow, which featured 2 bedrooms for the 10 of us. There was a full size bed and a rollaway bed in the master bedroom, which was about the size of a large refrigerator box. Then there were two tiny twin beds in the second bedroom, which was like a glorified closet.
The living room looked like it would barely contain the four or five young bodies about to be sprawled out in it, while the kitchen had a table that sat 6 people. I had a feeling a couple of my brothers and I would be eating alone in a second shift in the near future.
I may have been young, but it didn’t take me long to figure out that my parents would get the big bed, and my grandmother would get one of the small beds. That meant that the rollaway was up for grabs, and 4 or 5 people were going to be sleeping on the couch and/or floor out in the living room. Please, please, please…let me get a bed, let me get a bed, let me get the bed….
“Chris and Maria will sleep in our room.” Mom said.
My joy was so complete (yay! No floor for me!) that I don’t really remember where the others slept. All I know is that it wouldn’t be me talking about how hard that floor was for the next two weeks.
My joy was short-lived, however, when it began to rain…and didn’t stop. It rained for 7 straight days. We were trapped in that bungalow like the birdman of Alcatraz. There was only one television in the living room, so we were forced to watch TV together all day long.
That meant that I couldn’t get up at the crack of dawn to run downstairs for a solid hour of my pals Big Bird, Oscar the Grouch and Cookie Monster on Sesame Street. You couldn’t watch anything until my brothers were all up, and they were teenagers. They slept later than 6 am since they had probably been up until 3 am.
Then, later in the afternoon, you’d be forced to sit through hours of The Galloping Gourmet (who I actually liked), The Mike Douglas Show, The Dinah Shore Show, and the local news.
It was as if Bugs Bunny, Magilla Gorilla and Richochet Rabbit all went into the Witness Protection Program. I feared I would never see any of them ever again. That rainy week was torture.
During this time, my grandmother taught my brothers and me how to play 500 Rummy, Spit, and 21. When she grew tired of us, we built houses of cards that became more intricate the longer we were trapped there. Our favorite part was knocking them down and starting all over again.
When my brothers grew tired of me, they would say, “want to play 52 pickup?” After I said “yes” with great enthusiasm, they threw the cards all over the place and said, “now go pick them up.”
To my parents’ credit, they did actually take us on a trip or two to break up the monotony. We were all thrown back into the station wagon and taken for a ride a good distance away, where the sun actually was shining. They let us out in a park that had wild animals (other than us) and fun slides, swings, and monkey bars. We ran around together and even had fun. I remember my grandmother laughing. It was a good day.
Back at the bungalow, the rain finally ended long enough to allow us to venture outside. The humidity lifted and although it just as broiling hot as it was the last time, we found lots of fun things to do on the property.
We swam in the pool, where my Dad put me on his back and ferried me around. Poor Chris had to stand by the side of the water because of his cast, but then Dad pulled him onto his shoulders and gave him a ride. Afterwards, I played on the side with Chris with our buckets and shovels. It takes a lot of work to shovel water into a bucket, and this kept us busy for hours.
At one point, my mother stepped on a wasp and was screaming in pain. An older lady instructed Chris and me to run and get mud, and place it on my mother’s foot. The cold mud helped ease the pain and the tears dried on my mother’s face until the lady was able to pull the stinger out. The operation was a success, and thankfully, the patient didn’t die!
Later, my brothers and I played on the grounds. For some reason, there were fake “torture” devices like a head press and the kind of restraining device that lifts up halfway, just enough for you to place your head and two arms in, while the “jail keeper” puts it down and imprisons you there.
I remember putting Paul in the head press and making believe I was going to crush his head. After thinking about those many hours being stuck in the back of the car with him and wishing I could smack him one, there was no need to act. I really did want to crush his head. All in all, these were good times!
The second, rain-free week went by in a flash. Suddenly, it was Saturday, and as the rain poured outside, my mother woke me gently and said, “it’s time to go.”
Thankfully, (for you and for me), I managed to block out the next 7 or so hours, until we pulled up in Bayside. The sun was shining and all of our friends were outside playing. My parents opened that car door and we were released, like a pile of screaming banshees.
My Uncle came and picked up my grandmother, who we kissed goodbye. We were mutually thrilled to be done with each other…for now.
We had so much fun, we never went on another family vacation again.
For some reason, I remember taking a ride to a local ice cream store and bringing back big tubs of freshly made ice cream, which we drizzled over cake. This could have actually happened, or it could have been a heat-induced fever dream because it was so darn hot. Either way, here are two recipes for ice cream cake (one is decadent, and one is a little bit healthier – with nutritional information beside the recipe):
So, Hungry Lifers, my question to you is: what’s your favorite Summer Vacation memory? Please leave a comment below. Thanks!