The Road Trip: Finding Family

We recently endured one of the most classic of family tests of triumph versus tragedy: the Road Trip. We drove the eight hours to Arkansas on a Thursday, returning on a Sunday, for the ultimate road trip versus “vacation” ratio. (Although “vacation” is purely a misnomer when traveling with young children.)

My husband and I consider ourselves road trip masters. We pack up the quintessential minivan, loaded with bags of snacks including lunch because it’s not worth the time to stop. We provide water, but only to the point of minimal hydration to cut down on bathroom breaks. We have been known to make just one restroom stop in 8 hours of driving, setting that as the bar for each road trip since. We don’t even have those fancy movie players installed in the seats – genuinely “roughing it” with plain iPads without WiFi (and not even one per kid).

The sole purpose for all of our road trips to date has been our families. Like many families now, we live several hours of driving and flying from each set of our parents. My 97-year-old grandmother had shown some recent health scares, and this was my children’s only opportunity to meet a living great grandparent.

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We drove from our congested, urban streets into hours of flat, empty two-lane roads, transitioning from our reality to another, from our tiny family unit to a branch of extended family unknown to my children.

After our first day in Arkansas, my 8-year-old announced she wanted to live there forever. I have a theory it was because of the free desserts at lunch at my grandmother’s assisted living home, but I wonder if there was a deeper sense she had of the family connection that is often missing in our modern world of spread out families. Despite recent growth, Jonesboro, Arkansas still has the feel of that Southern intimacy, especially compared to our current lifestyle in one of the country’s largest cities. 

My children had the opportunity to see pictures of my grandfather’s World War II memorabilia, including pictures of his medals and planes he had flown as a pilot, that made his memory an actual person rather than just a name. They met an aunt and uncle, cousins, and even a great-great aunt, all fascinating to them with Southern drawls and relations to their Mommy. Although my grandmother’s failing hearing and vision, and limited mobility, meant she was not highly engaging to young children, they were able to talk to and hug a generation they did not even know existed.

It doesn’t matter that we have pictures of my grandparents on our walls at home, this part of their own history was not real until my children sat with the oldest person they have ever met. My grandmother said my children would never remember her, but I promised her they would – that there was only one “Mama Hazel.” When all of us went to dinner each night with my parents, that lightbulb went off that Mama Hazel was their grandfather’s Mommy, meaning no matter how old we are, we always have Mommies.

On our last morning as we ate at the dining hall surrounded by geriatric residents, my 3-year-old starting asking about “Papa Buell” even though this great grandfather of his died two years ago. He wanted to know why he wasn’t there too. His sisters explained that Papa Buell died because he was very old, and Mama Hazel would probably die soon too because she was the same age now that Papa Buell was when he died. As his little brain processed this abstract nature of life and death, my son announced his dreams to fly airplanes too and I witnessed how history and heritage do stay alive.

So despite our first “Are we there yet?” at 15 minutes into day one, the 3-year-old repeatedly whining, “this is taking a long time,” constant snack requests, inopportune “I have to poop” with no roadside stop in sight, and boredom-inspired bickering with nowhere to walk away, we persevered in the spirit of family. Not just our little family of five that some days feels like it’s all we can see in our tunnel vision of daily life, but the spirit of family within us from the imprints of all generations that came before that remind us we are so much bigger than ourselves.