October 2021
Leaves from My Notebook
by
Elaine Greensmith Jordan

Navigator

Driving with Daddy

My parents made a decision that our family would take no more long vacation car-trips, especially with a child who stands behind the driver of the car and asks questions throughout the entire trip: “When are we going to get there?” “Will I like that place?” “Tell me if they have bears!”

Collage of Elaine and her father by Cheryl Berry.

That was me. I enjoyed narrating the trip for my sister and parents. I asked important questions. Back before seat belts it was normal for a child like me to stand in front of the back seat, my head next to my father’s in the driver’s seat, and make sure everything went as planned. I had the best view, and I liked being so near my father. “What’s in that truck?” “Why is California so long?”

From my vantage point next to my father I could spot the best restaurants. I could read the Burma-Shave signs aloud. I could point out the horses and cows we passed. My father taught me to recognize crops, too. He’d been a picker as a boy, so I could pronounce the names of the vegetables growing in the fields we passed — broccoli, onions —and even the different nut trees of the California heartland. I commented on everything, and made suggestions: “They have alligators there! Let’s stop!” Frequently I’d see cars abandoned beside the highway with steaming radiators or broken tires. They needed to be mentioned. People were in distress!

After the trip to Yosemite National Park I was never again taken on a long ride into the beauties of nature, never again taken on a California driving adventure. Sadly, we would no longer motor north through central California fields, the view enhanced by my narration. Making excuses, my parents told me they were the kind of people who tired easily when traveling with me and my sister for a long time in the car, as if they had a character flaw. Not till much later did I appreciate their kindness in not mentioning their exasperated weariness with my constant narration.

Languishing at home, I had few chances to narrate anything exciting. At our house, in our humdrum life in a California suburb, we had no drama —no rusty, broken cars, no murders, no screaming ladies. I had to depend on scary movies for excitement.

My friends would hop in the family car and go long distances to see cousins and grandmas. My parents wouldn’t consider it. They had long ago given up driving us to visit Dad’s six sisters or my grandmother, who had a parrot in the backyard — a parrot that talked to Grandma! By careful listening I found out that some of our relatives begged my father for money. Others got on my mother’s nerves. Mother could be judgmental like that; she had enough to worry about, she said, without all the complaints of relatives. So after those early trips we never ventured long distances away from home in a car.

I had an aunt who was a lounge singer. She was a fun relative, and she knew Peggy Lee! I loved to visit her before the crackdown. She lived in a rowhouse in San Francisco with a husband who played the trumpet. The trumpet! He looked so marvelous with that trumpet, as if he could be in the movies. But San Francisco was a long way from where we lived in southern California, and so I was deprived of the adventure of a visit with celebrities.

Instead of driving through the glories of California’s central valley, or into the Bay Area with Alcatraz and the Golden Gate bridge, we’d vacation at a Sunset Beach rental, a two-hour drive from our home. We’d settle into a cottage on the shore and not go near the car. My sister and I rode huge inflated pillows on the ocean waves all day, coming in at night too tired to breathe — although I liked to sing in the shower.

Looking back, I can see that my parents would have had to use force to stop my chatter about the wonders of the road if we continued to visit Uncle Frank and his trumpet or even Grandma’s parrot. If they’d stifled my commentary, my spirit would have been crushed; I’d have withered, never becoming the drama queen I was destined to be. In place of a ride north, my parents made the right decision to go to the beach at vacation time.

I accepted the change. Singing “Home on the Range” in a shower is almost as fun as narrating the passing view from inside an Oldsmobile.

Elaine Jordan, author of Mrs. Ogg Played the Harp, is a local editor who’s lived in Prescott for thirty years.