Most of my childhood adventures included my maternal grandparents, who lived with us most of our lives. My paternal grandparents lived in Buffalo, NY, and it was rare that we had a chance to see them. I think that is why this particular trip holds a special place in my heart. I felt sad not knowing who these grandparents were. I would get cards and calls from them, and never for one moment did I doubt their love for me.
But to be able to visit them and get to know them was something I remember being very excited about—more than the places that we planned to see when we got there. My aunt, uncle and cousins also lived there, and it was exciting to me to find out what it would be like to have a “big sister” instead of just be one.
Let me tell you—that was one long car ride.
And with 3 young girls in the back seat, you bet it was a true-to-life “Are we there yet?” kind of trip. But it was also a fun experience for me, and I didn’t mind it so much. We would play all kinds of games, like
“I Spy”, see how many states we can find with the other cars’ license plates and find words on road signs for every letter of the alphabet. We read and colored and amused ourselves. And I am about to get all old school and say “back when I was young, we didn’t have DVD players or ipods to pass the time.”
Nope. We survived with what we had. We sang together as a family, told stories and made up games. To me, that is such a wonderful way to spend a car trip—because bonding happens when you interact with
others, not when you do your own thing. And I have taken that with me on road trips today. I try to
stay present to those in my car and connect with them. I mean—what fun is it to ignore each other? I spying a license plate from Kansas was much more fun than taking a nap.
But maybe that’s just me!
I think what stands out the most about our road trip is my little sister and her innocent curiosity. As we drove towards our destination, she genuinely looked confused when my parents announced we had arrived in Buffalo at long last. Baffled, her curious little voice peeped up: “But Mommy, I don’t see any
Buffalo.” To this day, that has to be the cutest thing my sister ever said. Not quite sure she ever understood that it was a place, and not a herd.
Once we arrived, it was a bit of a culture shock for me. I didn’t get how somewhere else in New York, or even my family, could be so different from us. My cousin asked me if I wanted “Pop” and it took me quite some time to figure out that she meant soda. Beer was all around, and it flowed. As the daughter of a recovering alcoholic, that was something foreign to me. Alcohol wasn’t even allowed at our family parties; it was forbidden out of respect for my dad and his commitment to sobriety. So it was very confusing to a young girl to witness people acting so funny, and getting in fights, all because of these glass bottles we couldn’t drink out of.
I mean, I had some level of understanding from my earlier years when my dad wasn’t in recovery, but it was hidden from me as much as possible. Here, it was out in the open, and for the first time, I was outside of my protective bubble. And I truly got then and there why we were so strict about alcohol in the house and at parties. It was not a pretty situation.
But in the daylight, things were different, and I had the chance to spend some alone time with my grandma. I remember going over to her house, right across the street from my aunt, and sitting with
her in the swing that my grandfather built by hand. It was just me and her and we talked and talked for hours. I can’t remember the conversation, but I could remember the feeling. It was the one and
only time I remember being with her—I was only a one-year-old the first time—and I remember feeling this strong connection and this bond of love with her.
I adored her, and thought she was so beautiful. She had this perfect white hair (now I know it was a wig), bronzed, young looking skin and very kind eyes. She was very gentle when she spoke to me, but I felt the strength of the woman she was inside. I will never forget that moment for as long as I live. I didn’t need to see her everyday to know I was special—that all of us girls were special to her.
Proximity didn’t determine how much or how little we were loved; the heart did.
I don’t remember much of my grandfather from this trip, but I do remember him from his visits to us after Grandma passed. I knew he was a hard worker, and that he had parts of his fingers cut off
from an accident at work. I knew that he had tattoos on his toes that made me giggle as a younger child. And I remember him calling us “hunsy bunnies” as a term of affection. I didn’t feel as close to him as I did to my grandmother, but I think that’s only because I naturally gravitated towards the strong women of the family. Even then I knew I was just like them.
Not all of my family encounters were as pleasant, unfortunately. On this trip, I also met my official Godfather. I had high expectations; after all, I saw how my other uncle was so wonderful to my sister as her Godfather, so I thought now that he would see me in person, I would feel that bond that was missing in my life.
But I didn’t. All I got was a “I will get you anything in the world you want. If you want a parrot, I will buy you a parrot.” I never did get that parrot. Or a card, or a phone call, or any kind of acknowledgement after that. I believe that was my first real heartbreak from a man. It hurt my heart on many levels. I was still just a child and didn’t understand what I had done so wrong to make him not like me or want to be a part of my life.
Was I not good enough, not pretty enough, not fun enough?
It was hard for my young mind to grasp the complexities of human nature, and that there was much more to this story that had nothing to do with me. Years later, I would learn he had passed, leaving me with this single memory of a man who was supposed to be one of my most special life guardians. By then, I had already come to terms with our lack of connection, and felt nothing but pity for a man who I
heard had apparently led a very tragic life. Perspective and age are truly master conduits for compassion and healing.
Thankfully, the hurt I felt from my uncle’s “rejection” on that trip was short-lived, as my parents took us to see Niagara Falls. I remember feeling awe-stricken by the falls and wanting to go over them in a barrel like they did in the cartoons. Obviously, that didn’t happen. But we did get to explore Toronto and get a taste of Canada, and I remember thinking that seeing another country’s money was the coolest thing ever. My first exposure to another world, and I loved every moment of it. I wanted to learn more, and was fascinated by it all.
Looking back on this particular trip is bittersweet. It gave me some beautiful and painful family memories that I will never forget. But it also opened up my love of exploring other cultures—
and of road trips. And thanks to my little sis, it taught me that you can’t take everything literally.
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