“Come on girls. Get you stuff loaded. I wanted to be on the road by 5:00 and it’s already 6:30.”
“Dad, why do we have to leave so early?”
“Because it’s a long drive and I want to make it before tonight.”
“Can we take our pillows?”
“You’ve got everything else in the house, why not? I just hope the tires don’t pop.”
It was our annual Christmas trip from Texas to Mississippi. Nobody from Mississippi travels, so if you leave the state, you are the one who must travel back for a visit. Many years ago my father started moving us around. We lived long distances from the Magnolia State, but we made at least one pilgrimage a year back to the old home place.
When I was a child, prior to our becoming the family gypsies, we rarely traveled more than forty miles in one day. To travel that distance in Mississippi one had to pack a bag for an overnight stay. As an adult, I chose to carry on the gypsy tradition that my dad started. I bought a custom van with four captain’s chairs, rear radio, TV, VCR, and a seat that made into a bed. I knew that we would be traveling. My relatives would often ask, “Why’d Y’all leave?” They never considered that life in another place could be any better than it was in Mississippi. I sometimes envied their simple, uncluttered lives. I never really answered their question.
With the van loaded with traveling gear, and gifts for the family, we set out on our eastward journey. During the week prior to our leaving, I had developed a dry hacking cough. It was a nuisance, but not something that would stop our trip.
Our first obstacle was to make it safely out of Houston. No racing driver ever needed more skill. Driving a full sized Chevy Van at 70 plus miles per hour in six lanes of traffic bounded by concrete barriers was a test for even the most seasoned driver. My stress level was at a peak. Several times I yelled, “Prepare my bazooka!” as other drivers entered my personal driving space. My girls, who once laughed at my antics, just rolled their eyes and gave me that “oh please dad” look.
After we cleared the sprawl of the megaplex and crossed into the Bayou State, I settled down and put my mind on cruise control for the long quiet stretches of highway through the swampland of south Louisiana. I recalled the trips that we made as children with my father at the wheel of our big Buick. He was less animated than I, but not one to be trifled with. My sister and I often fought it out in the back seat as we traveled, but not so loud as to disturb dad. While in my driving dream state, I also remembered the day long walks through the woods with my grandfather as he searched for the perfect Christmas tree. If he couldn’t find a tree with the proper shape, he created it. He cut limbs off of other trees and strategically placed them in holes he drilled in the trunk of the one he had selected. The tree was then trimmed with bubbling tube lights, big multi-colored strings of bulbs, candy canes, tinsel, metallic ornaments, and silver icicles. The house was full of delicious smells. There were apples, oranges, Brazil nuts, Hazel nuts, and colorful hard candies. The old side board was loaded with fruit cake, German chocolate cake, coconut cake, and pecan pie. The best place to visit with my grandmother was in the kitchen. Christmas was a magical time.
Our final destination on this trip was my sister’s house. Since my grandparents died, we met there. She was the only one of my siblings who still lived in Mississippi. The rest of us were continuing the gypsy tradition. We broke our trip up in segments with short coffee stops at the homes of a few old college buddies who had settled in south Louisiana. Frequent stops are a given when traveling with girls.
As the sun descended behind the van, we passed the Mississippi welcome center, and drove into the unchanging time warp of the “state lost in time”. The tall pine trees shaded everything with their green shadows even in the winter months. We soon arrived at the winding driveway to my sister’s house. She had outdone herself again. Tradition is important to those who choose to remain in the slower paced world of the Deep South. Her house was filled with colorful markers of the season, the big Christmas tree, a Christmas card display, nativity scenes, wreaths, and a side board filled with culinary delights. It was the eve of the big day, and everyone joined in for food and fellowship.
I, however, was out of gas. I excused myself and went to bed early. The cough was unrelenting. I could hear the others talking and laughing deep into the night as I tried to get to sleep. I awoke to the smells of coffee, and breakfast cooking. Christmas morning – the kids were up early. My brow was hot. My head pounded and spun when I tried to lift it from the pillow. I felt like sand had been poured into my eye sockets during the night. My appetite was gone – possibly the clearest indicator that my condition was worsening. I heard the gift wrap tearing, followed by squeals of delight, as the kids opened their presents. I lay perfectly still not wanting to move. Finally, after everyone else had finished, I stumbled down the hall and into the den to open my presents. I wanted to die. I acknowledged with gratitude the gift givers, but quietly leaned over and told my wife to load the van. If I was going meet my maker, I wanted to do so from my own bed. The girls were understandably disappointed when their mother told them we were leaving. They hated these long trips, and we had just arrived.
. I labored to put on enough clothing to keep from being an embarrassment to them when we made our travel stops. I pushed the button at the back of the van that lowered the rear seat into a bed. I threw in two pillows and a blanket, and gave my wife the “Forward Ho!” with my last ounce of energy. She drove through the quiet little downtown and onto the interstate highway nosing the big van into the westbound lane. It was Christmas morning and traffic was light. I shivered underneath my blanket as chills highlighted every hair follicle on my body. The aft seat was right above the rear axle and after we crossed into Louisiana my pounding head was buffeted with the steady “Plop – Plop” of the tires as they rolled over the oversized expansion joints in the highway. Even when you’re feeling good, a road trip on a Louisiana interstate is rougher than a Conestoga wagon rumbling down the Santa Fe Trail. This trip seemed to last for ever.
I spent several days recovering after I got home. As soon as I was able to sit up and take nourishment, the telephone started to ring. Call after call came in commenting on my present to family and friends. They referred to it as the gift that never stopped giving. The dry hacking cough that punctuated their conversation gave away their meaning. I had infected almost the entire population of south Louisiana and Mississippi with the flu.
Future invitations to family gatherings were always made by telephone, shortly before the event took place, and always included a question as to whether or not I had a cough or any other symptoms of illness.