When your family lives far away, you have three choices for the holidays: go to them, have them come to you, or stay home without your family. Frankly, all three choices suck. Number two is not an option for me due to old people, young children, and people with full-time jobs being less portable than I am. I have tried option three, and I do not like being alone on the holidays. Right now, on an ordinary Tuesday with Annie, it’s fine. But Christmas or Thanksgiving? A little turkey loaf for one? How sad is that? Too sad.
So that leaves option one: I go to them. That means another long drive to California. Why not fly? Have you heard about the airports during the holidays? The train is a little better, but expensive, overbooked during the holidays, and it never arrives on time. Also, I need a car when I get to San Jose to drive my dad to my brother’s place, which is three hours from where he lives—unless you take a wrong turn which I did last week. Oooh, you should have heard my father’s reaction to that. Anyway, we made it.
I hate leaving home. I hate leaving Annie especially in the winter, but she doesn’t travel well. The last thing I need on the wet winding roads of winter is a giant dog in my face, a dog that I can’t leave anywhere to eat, walk or visit family members with cats, a dog that is definitely not going to let me take a much-needed nap at a rest stop while other dogs are perusing the “dog area” nearby. So Annie stays home. She’s such a nervous Nelly that I gave up on the kennel. All those other dogs freak her out, plus I discovered they don’t give the dogs any exercise. Eight days in a cage. Not for my baby. So I hire a dog sitter, who is wonderful, but spendy and who is not here during the long cold nights when Annie sleeps in her crate in the laundry room, quivering when it thunders during yet another storm.
It’s not just the dog, of course. I also leave my work, my piano, and all the comforts of home, such as bathtub, TV, Internet, and food of my own choosing. If I lived nearby, I could just go for a day and come home to sleep in my own bed, but no, I moved to Oregon, so I have to pay the price.
Sometimes it physically hurts to detach from my home and my dog, but once I get on the road, I love the first day of the trip. Oregon is so beautiful, and it feels great out on the open road, music playing, mountains and pastures flying by, towns to explore, restaurants to enjoy.
The second day is not as much fun. The “Bay Area” seems to expand more with every trip. This time, the traffic backup started at Dunnigan and hit a peak at Vacaville, where I endeavored to get lunch and found all roads so clogged with traffic it was nearly impossible to get to a restaurant or to get back on the freeway afterward. In fact, by the time I finished driving in circles and managed to get back on I-5, I was in tears and feeling sorry for myself. Too hard. All alone. Why don’t they come see me? Now I need a bathroom and there’s no place to stop. Etc.
The traffic in the Bay Area is horrific. So many cars driving so fast, zipping in and out of lanes with no warning, clogging up to stop and go, breathing smog, my hands, elbows and shoulders aching from white-knuckling it for a hundred miles. This is why we moved to Oregon! I had left Mt. Shasta at 8 a.m. and should have been at Dad’s house by 2:00. It was nearly 4:00 when I parked in his driveway and oozed out of the car with knees threatening to give out. Dad immediately started nonstop talking, and the visit was on. So good to see him, so hard to get there.
Saying goodbye at the end of the trip makes me cry again. Dad is 94 ½. I don’t know how many more visits we’ll have, how many more times he’ll be waiting for me to call when I get home, how long before he can’t live on his own. The guilt sits on my shoulders like wet cement as I head east on Stevens Creek Boulevard to the freeway, conscious of the now-empty passenger seat beside me.
I’ve been doing this for 20 years, and it gets harder all the time.
So why don’t I move back and reunite with father, dog and family? Money is a big part of it. I can no longer afford to live where I grew up. The cost of living is insane. Those 65-year-old tract homes on Dad’s street are selling for a million dollars. A million dollars! A studio apartment, if you can find one, costs more than my mortgage on this four-bedroom house with its massive woodsy yard. Yes, I could stand less rain and fewer gray days, but I don’t want to deal with the traffic and crowds in San Jose. My brother, living on a hill near Yosemite, feels the same way. Dad says he likes both of the places where we live, but he’s not going to leave his house until he has to, preferably never.
So I drive and drive and drive. I swear I’ll never do it again. I take the coast route when it’s snowing in the Siskyous and it takes forever. Miles of winding roads with rain making it hard to see. I pass all kinds of vacation destinations but can’t stop because I need to get to my destination before the traffic, before it gets dark, before Dad panics. Maybe someday, I promise myself, but not now.
I spent $900 on my car before I left. New brakes, everything checked, fluids topped off. The service guy said I needed new tires, but I didn’t get them. I hoped these would last another trip, and they did, thank God.
So was it all misery? No. I had a great time at my brother’s house. I enjoyed listening to Dad’s stories and just being with him. It was wonderful seeing the sun. I ate delicious foods and saw gorgeous sights, including a rainbow over the mountains and another one extending into the ocean. I got away from all of my usual chores and worries and felt my mind open up to new ideas and possibilities. I ate a marionberry muffin in Gold Beach and wrote a poem near Roseburg. I got to hold Riley, my 5-month-old great niece and feel her tiny fingers gripping my big hands. I got to talk face-to-face instead of Facebook to Facebook with my niece and nephew, my brother and sister-in-law, and her extended family. I ate a ton of pumpkin pie. I played the 1880s cabinet grand piano at Dad’s house, feeling its mighty power under my fingers. Memories came flooding back, and I slept better in my old bedroom than I sleep here at home.
The day before Thanksgiving, a writer friend had surgery for a brain tumor. The doctors couldn’t take it all out but hoped to buy him a year, maybe two if he is lucky. This is a man at the height of his career, a brilliant writer, beloved teacher, devoted father and husband. Suddenly he has to quit his job and doesn’t know what he’ll be able to do in the short time left before he dies.
None of us knows what’s going to happen. So we hit the road and take what it brings, whether it’s rain and bald tires or a giant slice of pumpkin pie and a chance to hold a baby.
How about you? Do you travel for the holidays? Are Christmas and Thanksgiving always at the same places or do you trade off? How do you make the travel tolerable? Any experiences you’d like to share? Please comment and let us know.