Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Destination: Hell

The perils of a family vacation

By Margaret Renkl

JULY 26, 1999:  Last week, sitting dead still on an interstate highway with three furious kids and a full bladder, I began to consider a great irony of marriage: The qualities you worship in a lover are often the very characteristics that later incline you to murder a mate.

Take my husband. He's a handsome guy, a smart guy, and he tells good stories. He's also generous and kindhearted, and he reads poetry for fun. It's true that few women judge a man on such a basis, but for me this last quality was nonnegotiable. By the time I met my husband, I'd suffered such misfortune at the hands of insensitive, inarticulate clods that I devised an acid test for potential dates: If a guy couldn't recite from memory the line following "When in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes..." from Shakespeare's sonnet, I kept walking. The man I married knew the words that came next.

At the time I was sharing a house with my brother, and my future husband's own younger brother lived just a couple of blocks away. As I watched my spouse-to-be bail his baby brother out of a number of financial and familial messes that year, I began to feel something like the hand of Providence, a little nudge from up high pointing me toward the one man I had ever met who understood what family is supposed to mean.

And that, in the end, was why I married him. Not because he knew Shakespeare's sonnets by heart, not because he was handsome and witty and unfailingly kind. I married him because he loved his family as much as I loved mine. A man like that, I thought, was a good bet for the long haul.

What I wasn't imagining was the literally long haul we would have to make every three months--to Georgia, to Florida, to South Carolina, to all the various places in which his huge and scattered clan lives--because this man who loved his family as much as I loved mine actually wanted to spend some time with that family on a regular basis.

At first it was OK. Long trips were a chance to catch up after weeks of unrelenting work. We talked about politics, about art, about the disastrous love affairs of our friends--all those people who weren't as lucky as we were. Most of all, we talked about our future, about the places we would go, about the children who would one day share our journey.

What we didn't know is that children dislike journeys. No one in my own immediate family lives more than three hours away from Nashville, but our kids are capable of making every one of those hours an exercise in wretchedness. Two of the children aren't old enough yet to conceive of either distance or time, so it falls to the oldest child to whine the classic parent-torture line, "Are we there yet?" The other two, stuck in their car seats for what in baby time must seem like eternity, just cry. They squeal and wail and reach out pathetically with their chubby little arms, begging for deliverance from the straitjacket they've been strapped into for longer than the total amount of time they've willingly held still since first becoming ambulatory.

So trips to visit my family are bad, but with foresight and planning--i.e., if I've packed enough candy and brand-new toys to be able to stick something novel or tasty into their greedy hands and mouths at least once every 90 seconds for the entire three hours we're on the road--such rides are merely purgatorial. Emerging from them, one feels almost renewed--beat up, yes, but cleansed and purified by suffering, all dross burned away.

Going to visit my in-laws is a different thing altogether: In the democratic interest of centrality, the places where the far-flung group agrees to gather are always at least a six-hour drive for us. A trip like that is not purgatorial; it's a tour through the darkest, flame-licked reaches of hell.

"It's only six hours," my friends always remind me when I succumb to dread. "If it gets really horrible, you can always drive at night."

But my kids won't sleep in the car. Two of them attempt to, but the seat belts prevent them from turning over onto their tummies, their preferred position for sleep, and they wake up after 15 minutes more irritable than ever. The baby won't even try to sleep. He just gets madder and madder and screams harder and harder, until his face turns dark-red and little blood vessels begin to break in the translucent skin beneath his clouded eyes.

This year our family reunion was a joint venture involving every in-law on both sides, and it had us driving down I-40 during a day-long rainstorm at peak construction season. What should have been a hellacious six-hour drive became a hallucinatory nine-hour excursion into some heretofore unknown world of abject torment. At its absolute nadir, our car was sitting completely motionless on the steepest incline of an over-the-mountain stretch of interstate, engulfed in the diesel fumes of the idling 18-wheelers all around us. There was no end in sight to the stretch of cars winding into the gray clouds above, when a trucker leaned out his window and yelled that there'd been a calamitous wreck up ahead; it could be hours before emergency vehicles got the road cleared.

I was sitting in the farthest-back seat of our minivan beside a howling baby, but I still heard that trucker's every word. And in that instant I began to hate the man I had married. I began to hate his bright cheer-up talk ("Well, at least we can unbuckle and stretch our legs, kids; it looks like we're going to be here for a while"), and his stupid little highway games ("I spy something red and very loud, and it's not your baby brother"), and his persistent conviction that as soon as we were safely in the bosom of our loving family, it would all be worth it.

Sitting there in the backseat beside the scarlet baby who was by that time rejecting even whole handfuls of candy, I stared at the hairs on the back of my husband's neck as he tried to peer ahead into the pouring rain. Suddenly, I urgently wanted to pick up all three of my knapsacks full of lacing beads and sewing cards and viewmaster reels and coloring books and lollipops--I wanted to gather them into one big 80-pound weight of familial responsibility and hurl it into the back of my husband's dutiful head.

I didn't do it. Miraculously, it stopped raining soon after that; the car started moving, and our big boy invented a peekaboo game that made the baby laugh. When we finally arrived, all the relatives threw their arms around us and kissed us, held the children out at arm's length and remarked on how they beautiful they were and how they'd grown, then hugged us and kissed us some more. They led us into the dining room and sat us down to a delicious supper they'd kept hot, and my husband reached under the table and held my hand.

And then, looking at the faces of all the people I love, at the baby happily eating bread off his grandfather's plate while everyone laughs at an earnest story the toddler is telling his older brother, I finally recalled--as I always do despite the weeks of dread and the days of packing and the hours of unspeakable agony on the road--what I knew when I first met the man I married: "Thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings/That then I scorn to change my state with kings."

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