Each of my parents had an unwritten list of essentials to take when our family — of, holy cow, eight — left the southern Illinois dairy farm of my youth on our annual August vacation.
For example, my mother never crossed the state line without a wide-mouth quart jar filled with soapy water and a washcloth so she could keep her children “presentable,” presumably in case of a car crash.
I can’t count the number of times my face was scrubbed with a soapy, cold washcloth from an upcycled mayonnaise jar.
Also, Mom always packed an oilcloth tablecloth just in case we stopped to eat in the middle of nowhere after leaving home in the middle of the night to arrive in the middle of Missouri or Kentucky or Tennessee two hours early.
But there was never really any “just in case.” Every year on the first morning of vacation, we’d stop at some park for a “light breakfast” packed by Mom. Light meant everything but the fattened calf: two kinds of breakfast rolls and coffee cake, hard boiled eggs, summer sausage, cheese, a thermos of coffee, a jar of milk, jelly, butter, and silverware.
What, you never took your silverware on vacation?
Every year it happened in the same way: Before the car even came to a complete stop, Mom would pop out of the car’s front seat with the tablecloth in one hand and the quart jar of soapy water in the other.
Since we often vacationed with my grandparents, Grandma usually arrived a few minutes later to perform the same tablecloth-mayonnaise jar move within seconds of Mom’s.
For his part, Dad never left for vacation without his fishing tackle in top condition. He’d spend one night the week before slowly clearing his tackle box of dried minnows from the previous year and “rewrapping” — putting new fishing line on — his best spinning reels.
It was a religious experience to him because, like baptism, this singular immersion in all things fish foretold of salvation — a week’s reprieve, anyway — from 100 Holsteins, three hired men and endless acres of tall corn and weedy soybeans unmowed and set-aside .
Almost as spiritual was Dad reacquainting himself with his most sacred possession, an early 1950s, 5 horsepower Johnson outboard motor that would putt-putt him in a sodden, 16-foot wooden fishing boat around some state park lake in search of his great white whale , a bucketful of black crappie.
Getting it ready meant attaching it to a 55-gallon oil drum that he had cut the top out and filled with water. After fiddling with this knob and that valve, he’d pull the rope and–blub, blub, blub–it would fire and his wide “I’m a kid again” smile would appear.
My four brothers and I had a ritual, too; we’d fight over what clothes to take because we five had to share one suitcase. Mom often settled the civil war by reminding us that whatever we packed had to be “washed in the lake” because she was not doing laundry on vacation. That limited our already limited wardrobe to cut-off jeans and flip-flops.
I don’t remember packing any cooler other than the flimsy Styrofoam ones that had a lifespan shorter than a mosquito. I do remember Dad buying blocks of ice for some cooler–maybe it was a tub–that carried the week’s necessities like milk for us, butter for Mom, and Busch Bavarian for himself.
The very best part of every vacation, however, was the evening of the final day. About an hour before arriving home, Dad would pull into some drive-in diner and order hamburgers, french fries, and chocolate milkshakes for everyone. What a treat.
Maybe the most remarkable ritual of all was the fact that we — eight of us in one stuffed, stuffy station wagon — even went on a week’s vacation every August. I had few farm friends that could make the same claim. How did Mom and Dad do it?
If you asked them, I’m pretty sure the answer would begin with, “Well, get yourself a wide-mouth mayonnaise jar…”
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