This is my dad.
He loves jam, tea, and little pastries. He loves A Prairie Home Companion, jokes about Lutherans, and pickle relish. He loves to pretend he doesn’t like cats. He loves rural county fairs, Jerome K. Jerome, and maps. He likes comfortable shoes, button-down shirts, and having a sensible hat. He loves Chautauqua.
I don’t know if he loves to travel.
My dad is a lighting engineer. When people ask what my dad does, why he travels so much, I say he designs lighting. I tell them about the Chain Bridge in Budapest, how that was my dad. (For Cbus-ers, it’s the one painted on the outside wall of the ‘Dube.) He teaches; he goes to conferences; he presents papers. He hobnobs.
What this means, though, is that he travels. Constantly. It’s common for him to be gone 15+ days out of a month. When I was a child, he would take the family along on any trips that occurred over the summers. He would add a few vacation days to his itinerary and fit in some sightseeing. If the destination was within the states, we would drive, his vacation used for the journey. Once there, of course, he’d be stuck in meetings while his family explored, but he’d meet us for breakfast or dinner when he could, and we’d have the traveling days.
After my sister left home, I went to school, and my mother died, he traveled alone. We went with him when we could. My sister went with him on business to Catalina Island; I went with him to Scotland, skipping several weeks in the middle of spring semester. Our phone calls were a rundown on where he was going and when. Occasionally I felt a nagging sadness about my dad traveling alone. But that was uncomfortable, so I generally pictured him at home with his mug warmer and laptop.
When I traveled with my dad, he was the lightening rod for all the bumps and bruises of the road. He planned the route; he did the bulk of the driving. He carried the money (and still does, which irks my stepmother to no end); he kept receipts. He dealt with train conductors, taxi drivers, hotel clerks. He found us food; he found us bathrooms, often urgently. He–my gentle-spoken, soft-cheeked father–snarled at the gypsies that surrounded us at the Milano Centrale train station and shoved them away from his children, knocking their folded cardboard away. I’d never seen him raise his hands to another person.
My parents both loved the Blue Ridge, so we’d frequently take whatever route would allow us to spend a day or two along the Parkway. I remember standing at one of the scenic overlooks, my dad taking photos of the storm clouds tumbling towards us. I heard a strange buzz, like an angry honeybee, and said it seemed weird to have bees at that elevation. Then my father shoved me backwards into the road.
Half pushing, half pulling, he hustled me back to the car, just as the rain started. My mother and sister, having stayed in the car, laughed as he shoved me into the back seat. What did you do? I protested that I hadn’t done anything, Dad just flipped.
He slid damply into the front seat; my mother reached over and smoothed his hair. What did she do? she asked. I didn’t do anything, I howled. He turned around. That soda can by your foot, he said, was buzzing. That was the sound of the can gathering a charge in advance of a lightning strike. Then he turned back to the steering wheel and we drove through the mountains in the rain.
And that’s one of the hard parts, isn’t it, about traveling with the kids? You must be stronger, braver, more prepared, more aware. You must find safe hotels and clean bathrooms. You must know how to change money, talk to taxi drivers, read a map. You must know that bees don’t swarm on a mountaintop in a storm; you must know you’re the tallest thing around.