For me, one of the things that always comes to mind is my parents, my sister, and I all gathering around the table for dinner. Growing up, we were always busy with something. I had countless baseball practices and games in the spring and summer, football practice in the fall, and basketball in the winter. My sister played softball, ran track, was a cheerleader and in band. With the changing seasons came changing obligations. Not to mention the fact my dad often worked 12 hour days six or seven days a week to keep our family afloat. But, regardless of how busy we were, my mom always seemed to find the time to cook a delicious meal, and gather her family around the table for dinner. Sure, it didn't happen every single night. And yes, we ate enough meat loaf and hamburger-potato casserole to last a lifetime. But, despite all the great experiences I had with my family (and my family is fantastic), I remember dinner time above all else. I surely didn't realize how profoundly that hour each evening would impact me now, and I'm sure I complained about the salisbury steak or taco salad on multiple occasions. But, sitting around the table and sharing the goings-on in each of our lives is something I will cherish forever.
Family. Has a nice ring to it, and it makes a lot of us think of home and smile. If you add just one little word to it, though, it takes on a whole new meaning.
Family vacation. Changes things a bit, doesn't it? Now, I love my family and we've had some great vacations over the years. But family vacations can be like the perfect storm. Most families take them so they can get away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. So they can spend some time together, getting to know one another better, making memories. Then, seven days later, the family goes home together and cannot wait to get anywhere else. It gets bothersome being cooped up together, always having to do what everyone else wants to do...No freedom at all except for a set of head phones. And that's all before you cross the Alabama line.
Don't get me wrong...I love my family, and I loved going on vacation with them when I was a kid. But you know just as well as I do, when you mix two teenagers (one in college, and one on the verge) with their parents, and throw in a 12-hour drive...Well, it can be a volatile mix.
It was early August, 2003. I was just a few weeks away from starting my freshman year at UK, and to say I was ready to get out of the house would be a gross understatement. I was so close to freedom I could taste it. That whole summer, all I thought about was getting to Lexington.
My mom, on the other hand, had a totally different view. To her, she was losing her baby boy and would be left with an empty nest for the first time in 20 years. I can understand her anxiety now, and to an extent, I could then. But, that didn't change how ready I was for the next chapter in my life. But, anyway, Mom decided it would be a good idea to plan one last family vacation before I moved to Lexington.
So, we all piled in the car and headed for beautiful Gulf Shores, Alabama. Mom had booked a great condo right on the beach...It really was a beautiful place. But, this story isn't about the sparkling white sand, or the crystal clear water. This story is about...You guessed it...Family dinner.
If you know my mom, you know how hilarious she is with all of her little quirks. Just as some examples, my mom still wears a sun visor. She can't pronounce "shrimp" (srimp), "milk" (milnk), or "Cracker Barrel" (Crackle Barrel) properly. When describing the sound of something, regardless if she's talking about a car backfiring or a small pebble being dropped off of a bridge into a creek, her sound effect is the same. It sounds something like "chi-comp!" She eats ketchup on saltines and cheese, and has the most hilarious collection of night gowns this side of the 10:00 news. She's a character.
When on vacation, though, my mother turns into Mr. Bumble from Oliver Twist.
For some reason, my mom feels it is necessary to skip lunch if one is to eat dinner that night. This is especially true while on vacation. We had stopped for breakfast around 5:00 AM, and by about noon, Lensey and I were starving. Dad had to be, and why he didn't agree with us, I don't know. But he didn't.
I begged Mom to let us go get some lunch. She said, "Why? We're going to dinner tonight, just eat then. Besides, we've got crackers and Snickers you can have to tide you over."
By Snickers, she meant the mini Snickers that aren't even a whole bite. Not even the Fun Size kind. We hadn't even gone to the grocery yet, so there was no lunch meat or bread. Snickers and crackers were it, and trust me...They can only hold you over so long.
So, finally that evening we got ready and went to eat an actual meal. By the end of the 14 hours between meals, the hashbrowns and waffle were long gone.
Since we were on vacation at the beach, it sort of goes without saying you would want to eat good, fresh seafood. So, we stopped at a place that looked like a fun place to eat...Great atmosphere, sort of small, but obviously popular. The hole in the wall places are always the best. And it was.
For the people that were eating, at least. The projected wait time was somewhere around an hour. We waited for about fifteen minutes, hoping that things would be faster than expected before my dad, in his infinite wisdom, decided we should try another place. I didn't want to wait, either, so I was happy to move on. I didn't know how much I would regret that.
The next place, another seafood joint, looked amazing. Had a similar feel to the first place, great nicknacks on the walls, and the smell from the kitchen was fantastic. Wait time: Hour and a half. Dad, once again, said we're leaving.
Now, retelling this story doesn't really do it justice. You have to take into account travel time, and my dad's driving pace. If people drive slower when they get older, then my dad will soon be idling down the interstate. He's definitely not known for his speed on the roadways. So, although we had only been to two places that were relatively close to one another, it had already been about an hour since we left the hotel.
So, we started driving up and down the beach front road where there were literally countless seafood places. But, just like the others, every place was packed to the gills with people waiting outside. We passed at least five places where Dad wouldn't even stop, because you could tell there would be a long wait. Some of the places we passed two and three times. It was like rubbing salt in an open wound.
By this point, you can imagine the scene taking place inside our 2002 Ford Windstar. The hunger had taken over, and we were bickering back and forth.
"Just pull it in somewhere, Dad! God, we could've been done eating by now!" -Me
"Well! You want to wait forever?" -Dad
"I don't even care at this point! I just want some food! We've passed this place seven times!"
"Seriously, hon, just pick somewhere." -Mom, always the peacemaker.
"We'll find a place in a minute!" -Dad
He didn't lie. We finally found a place just before 9:00 PM. About two hours after we had left the hotel, and about 16 hours since our last meal, we sat down at a beautiful Dairy Queen to dive into chicken strip baskets and cheeseburgers. Isn't that what vacation is all about? Exotic foods that you just can't experience at home. Gotta love it.
I tell this story often, and have probably not seen anyone laugh as hard at it as Jackie did one night when I told it. And, admittedly, without the pleasure of impersonating the bickering, the story loses some of it's luster. But, despite how miserable it was to drive around for two hours finally to settle on Dairy Queen, it is a great story to tell.
As my mom always says, "Making memories." Memories, indeed.