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When There’s No Holiday Road Trip

Give me a Denny’s restaurant booth. Make it one in the middle of Pennsylvania, somewhere just off Route 80. There should be cardboard and tinsel Christmas decorations, a fake tree with multi-colored mini lights, and a stack of plastic-coated menus with inserts about over-the-top holiday pancakes.

Because that means I’m on my way back home.

The 400-plus miles from Cleveland to New Jersey are unremarkable. It’s pretty much a straight line across Pennsylvania, occasionally ascending and descending the soft, millennia-rounded Appalachian mountains. There are no big cities on the route, just fields, woods, and farms. There are no dramatic landmarks—though traversing the Delaware Water Gap into New Jersey, our modern crossing of the Delaware River at Christmas, is gently scenic.

Yes, there’s the main event of actually being back home—the smells and tastes of my childhood, my kids hugging Grandma and Papa and running off with cousins, the easy comfort (and simple friction) of being with people who know exactly who each other are. But the going home? That has a quotidian beauty all its own, too.

Disorganized teen mini-course

The road trip is about small moments, occasional boredom, and the company of the people we travel with. Just like everyday life, I guess. Sometimes, it’s punctuated by the unusual. Over two decades, we’ve been caught in snowstorms, tornado warnings, and multi-hour traffic jams. Once, we were stranded with small kids and a dead car battery. We had trouble finding a mechanic to help, since it was both Thanksgiving week and the start of deer season. Everyone in Pennsylvania, it seemed, had taken off to hunt.

The trouble with a year-long pandemic is that it is neither of these things: not the well-worn everyday nor the short-term hiccup that, in time, might become an amusing anecdote.

It’s more like grief, a soaked-in wrongness that requires us to continue to do the ordinary things while it trails heavily on and on without any clear and certain endpoint.

I suppose that’s why I’m lately thinking a lot about that holiday road trip to New Jersey. That mundane journey isn’t just the promise of a normal, joyous holiday together with loved ones—because there’s no promise of that in 2020—but it’s also the reminder of other kinds of ordinary days we’re missing right now. Even if the trip was long or taxing, it didn’t drag on forever. We always knew how many more miles we had to go, at least.

My kids are in or near the teen years now, and I don’t remember a lot of details from those years of driving. I have a vague sense that there were many stops to nurse babies and many, many miles of hoping and praying that small children would nap in the car. (They usually didn’t.)

The few snippets of clear memory are prosaic bits of little-kid caretaking, too. The child with the messy emergency potty stop which happened, naturally, at Exit 199, which is marked by a big sign that alarmingly proclaims “No Services.” A mid-Pennsylvania mall where we let an antsy toddler run and run. The bathroom stops made tricky by a child’s fear of automatic-flush toilets and overzealous hand dryers. The Walmart visit to purchase inane children’s CDs that the children loved and the parents hated slightly less than we hated hearing the children cry.

Taken together, it all sounds rather miserable. But it really wasn’t, and I swear it’s not some older-lady-enjoy-them-it-goes-so-fast nonsense.

There was just something about being on the road that was reassuring.

At home, my younger self was so vigilant about getting parenting right that I was sometimes too busy worrying or monitoring or planning or caretaking to fully enjoy it. My younger self was often so worn out from relentless parenting that I longed to have just a day, just an hour, just ten minutes to myself. Somehow, that seemed to fall away on the road. We were a family on a mission, with a task for the day, a beginning and an endpoint. It just had to be done, so we did it. And somehow that clarity helped cut through the angst.

As the kids got older, the holiday road trip got easier. There were games in the car—word games, travel bingo. There were the audiobooks that we listened to together. And then there were the blessed times that the kids were all on screens and I could listen to, as my children call them, “Mom’s boring podcasts.”

And, of course, there were the many Route 80 Denny’s, which we unironically love for their good food and comfortingly predictable décor, no matter which one we stopped at. I’d let the children tell the waitress their own breakfast-for-lunch orders, we’d play cards while we waited for our food, and old folks would inevitably wave hello to my trio.

Peaceful, predictable, reassuring.

Even at Denny’s, the occasional excitement would sometimes wriggle its way in. Once, one of the children put a few coins in the claw machine, which promised to let the user keep trying until the claw successfully delivered a piece of candy. Like a spoiling grandparent, though, this particular machine didn’t know when to say no.

“Remember, Mom, when the claw machine just kept going and going and giving us candy over and over?” one of my kids recently reminisced. “And you made us stop.”

Yes, that sounds like me. That sounds like a typical mother, a pack of excitable children, and the kind of beautiful boring day when we were together, when we could touch an arcade game, when we could go to a restaurant, when we could see our family, when we could hop in the minivan and drive and drive and drive, and when no matter how long it took, there was an end in sight.

Sharon Holbrook is managing editor of Your Teen. Sign up for her new and captivating newsletter. 

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