Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Present


“Come on girls. Get you stuff loaded. I want 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 is 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 continue the gypsy tradition my dad started. I bought a custom van with four captain’s chairs, rear radio, TV, VCR, and a rear bench seat that made into a bed. I knew we would be traveling.

My relatives often ask, “Why’d y’all leave?”

They never consider that life in another place could be any better than it is in Mississippi. I sometimes envy their simple, uncluttered lives. I never really answer 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 develop a dry hacking cough. It is a nuisance, but not something likely to postpone our trip.

Our first obstacle is 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 is a test for even the most seasoned driver. My stress level is at a peak. Several times I yell, “Prepare my bazooka!” as other drivers enter my personal driving space. My girls, who once laughed at my antics, just roll their eyes and give me that “oh please dad” look.

After we clear the sprawl of the megaplex and cross into the Bayou State, I settle down and put my mind on cruise control for the long quiet stretches of highway through the swampland of south Louisiana. I recall the trips 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 remember 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 is my sister’s house. Since my grandparents died, we meet there. She is the only one of my siblings who still lives in Mississippi. The rest of us are 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 settled in south Louisiana. Frequent stops are a given when traveling with girls.

As the sun descends behind the van, we pass the Mississippi welcome center, and drive into the unchanging time warp of the “state lost in time”. The tall pine trees shade everything with their green shadows even in the winter months. We soon arrive at the winding driveway to my sister’s house. She has outdone herself again. Tradition is important to those who choose to remain in the slower paced world of the Deep South. Her house is 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 is the eve of the big day, and everyone joins in for food and fellowship.

I, however, am out of gas. I excuse myself and go to bed early. The cough is unrelenting. I can hear the others talking and laughing deep into the night as I try to get to sleep. I awake to the smells of coffee, and breakfast cooking. Christmas morning – the kids were up early. My brow is hot. My head pounds and spins when I try to lift it from the pillow. I feel like sand has been poured into my eye sockets during the night. My appetite is gone – possibly the clearest indicator that my condition is worsening. I hear the gift wrap tearing, followed by squeals of delight, as the kids open their presents. I lie perfectly still, not wanting to move. Finally, after everyone else has finished, I stumble down the hall and into the den to open my presents. I want to die. I acknowledge with gratitude the gift givers, but quietly lean over and tell my wife to load the van. If I’m going meet my maker, I want to do so in my own bed. The girls are understandably disappointed when their mother tells them we are leaving. They hate these long trips, and we just arrived.

I labor to put on enough clothing to keep from being an embarrassment to them when we make our travel stops. I push the button at the back of the van lowering the rear seat into a bed. I throw in two pillows and a blanket, and give my wife the “Forward Ho!” with my last ounce of energy. She drives through the quiet little downtown and onto the interstate highway nosing the big van into the westbound lane. It is Christmas morning and traffic is light. I shiver underneath my blanket as chills highlight every hair follicle on my body. The aft seat is right above the rear axle and after we cross into Louisiana my pounding head is buffeted with the steady “Plop – Plop” of the tires as they roll 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 seems to last for ever.

I spend several days recovering after I get home. As soon as I am able to sit up and take nourishment, the telephone starts to ring. Call after call comes in commenting on my present to family and friends. They refer to it as the gift that never stops giving. The dry hacking cough punctuating their conversation gives away their meaning. I infected almost the entire population of south Louisiana and Mississippi with the flu.

Now invitations to family gatherings are made by telephone shortly before the event takes place, and always include a question as to whether or not I have a cough or any other symptoms of illness.

Dennis Price

I've been trying for some time to develop a lifestyle that doesn't require my presence. -
Garry Trudeau