My mother’s father lived in Cooke County Texas, 50 miles or so from Dallas. He had retired there after he left the Navy, and bought some land just up the road from his own parents. He lived in a doublewide trailer, with a lean-to addition tacked on the back that was a combination TV room and guest room, as that was where the foldout couch lived, and so thus where I lived when I stayed with them.
There were times the dual roles of this addition – TV room and guest room – were at odds with each other. God help you if you were tired and wanted to go to bed while Walker, Texas Ranger was on. You might as well just settle in because you were going to be there a while.
The annual visit there was our default vacation plan – every summer of my childhood we would load up whatever car we were driving that year with sandwiches and thermoses of coffee and bags of snacks and we would hit the road to visit PaPaw and Granny Pat. Dad would work all day the day we would leave, and then come home and pack and load up the car. They planned our departure to be somewhere around 8 PM, and in those days of 55 MPH speed limits, we would roll into PaPaw’s around 6 AM.
Dad liked to drive at night when there were three kids in the car because we would rapidly fall asleep and he and mom would take turns driving in relative silence, with the windows down and the cool night and the radio fading in and out of range as you drove west into the night.
I loved those trips. You would sit in the backseat of the station wagon – the passenger side was my favorite because that let me watch the scenery better – from where you could see the landscape change from urban lights to Delta fields, clothed in utter darkness pierced only by lights twinkling in the distance, signifying a lone farmer’s home on the far edge of the rice field. You cross the Mississippi River in Memphis, and since the AC never worked on our cars, the windows were down and the bridge framework combined with the doppler effect to make its own sort of music.
On either side of the bridge, the river rolled under you but from where you sat, it was just darkness – endless darkness on either side. Around Little Rock I would fall asleep, my resolution to stay awake the whole trip forgotten and my eyes would surrender. I would wake up when we stopped at the truck stop in Texarkana, where Dad would refill his thermos and I would go to the bathroom. That was the first place I ever saw condom machines in the bathroom, and that led 9-year-old me to look up the words French Tickler in the dictionary as a result.
But after Texarkana, I was out again and would stay out until usually not far from their house. We would be on a lonely road, with horse farms on either side of the road, and scrub oaks punctuating the fields to give the livestock shade to rest under on the hot days. And it was that liminal time, neither dark nor dawn, where the brightness can be perceived but it’s not yet sunrise, giving everything a honeyed glow.
And we would pull into the driveway and all of us would pile out and Dad would stretch like a cat and Mom would make sure the kids were all up and PaPaw would come out onto the patio by the driveway and ask how our trip was and Dad would remark how many hours and minutes it took as if we were in a race, and PaPaw would call Mom “Tadpole” and give her a hug and we kids would be swamped with hugs and the attention of his Border Collies and we would take our bags inside.
Granny Pat was already up as well, and they had coffee going, and she would make breakfast – always sausage patties and scrambled eggs and whop-um biscuits – and we would eat our fill, and then Dad would lay down for a nap.
The rest of the trip would vary, but the arrival was always special. They must have set the alarm for enough time to prepare for our showing up, in those days before ubiquitous cell phones, back when you just told someone when you would show up and that was it.
And the knowledge that people love you and have missed you and have prepared for your arrival and are waiting for you to show up? There is no feeling like that in the world.