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“If I have to stop this car, you are REALLY going to get it!”
It was an age-old warning, and it had almost no impact on my sister’s children. They weighed the real risk of punishment against the sheer joy of annoying each other, and went right back to bickering.
My own mother had made the same threat millions of times, usually with one hand on the steering wheel and the other swinging wildly across the backseat while my sisters and I dodged, ducked and shoved each other in an effort to stay out of the way.
To the best of my recollection, she brought the car to a complete stop just once. It was Christmas, and we were headed from one grandmother’s house in New Market, Iowa to the other’s in Phoenix, Arizona. To make the trip in one shot, my parents took turns driving. My dad drove the long, but silent, hours of the night. My mom took the day shift, navigating traffic and keeping the peace while he slept.
We had an ordinary 4-door Buick and the three of us always rode in the back. In our family, you did not attain front seat status until you were old enough to drive the car. Being the youngest, my little sister did not merit a window; instead, she sat squished between my sister and me. We had been on the road for about five minutes before she fell asleep, whereby my older sister and I decided to pass the time by shoving her back and forth between us.
“She’s drooling on me!” (Shove)
“Ewww…. Get her off me! I don’t want her on my side of the car!” (Shove)
“Stop looking at me! Mom, she’s looking at me!” (Shove)
“Am not!” (Shove)
Naturally, this caused my little sister to wake up and begin to whine about how we weren’t sharing the backseat.
When my little sister’s voice reached a pitch that would shatter glass, my mother swerved off to the side of the road, tires squealing, and whipped her head around to face us. The three of us froze in mid-argument, our eyes wide, our breath held in our trembling chests.
We had done it. We had gone too far.
We were, officially, in Big Trouble.
“Listen to me. I am not dealing with this all the way to Arizona. You will conduct yourselves like normal, civilized human beings. You are sisters, and you love each other. Now, act like it or I will make you hold hands and hug each other for the next 1,000 miles. AM I making myself PERFECTLY clear? Do you understand me?”
We nodded in unison. We got it. She wanted peace and quiet. Barring that, she wanted us to sing along with the radio and play travel games, like “I Spy”. In short, she wanted us to get along, even if only for one day.
We knew what she wanted. We just couldn’t do it.
She was asking for nothing short of a miracle. We were teenagers. My dad used to say he would rather be locked in the trunk with a rabid wolverine than sit in the same room with the three of us. We could barely manage to live in the same house; we certainly could not ride in the car together. However, my mother seemed to believe that trapping us in a vehicle and holding us captive for a day and a half while tearing across thousands of miles of barren countryside would help us reconnect.
We did not share this view. In our opinion, making us sit within an inch of each other for 27 hours while forcing us to listen to an endless stream of Conway Twitty, Neil Diamond and Barry Manilow was practically a form of child abuse.
As my mom returned to the road, we sat in stony silence. In no time at all, my baby sister fell back to sleep and began, once again, to sprawl across the seat. My older sister pushed her limbs back across the invisible line that defined her share of the seat and stared out the window; eventually, she drifted off, as well. I watched them sleep, resting serenely next to each other for the first time in weeks, and I thought maybe my mom was right after all.
If you are lucky, your life as a family is one long trip, and, like it or not, you are all in it together. Peace doesn’t just happen. You have to search for it. And if you look hard enough, sometimes you’ll find it sitting in the backseat of a car with your sisters snoozing right beside you.
Lisa Parris lives in Richmond.