We ate dinner in the formal dining room of our California house every evening at 6 p.m. sharp. Dad’s stint as chief of staff at a military hospital led to a lifetime seating arrangement around the table: girls to Dad’s right, boys to the left. All of us took it in stride, as Dad’s idols were the stringent but loving father figure in Cheaper by the Dozen and Captain von Trapp, the notorious father of seven from Sound of Music.
We seven kids had rotating “KP” (kitchen patrol) jobs, and Dad trained us on all stations. Scrape plates, feed leftovers to pets, scrub, rinse, and load. Everything had to be sterilized in two dishwashers. While Dad’s wristwatch ticked, the two KPs rushed to finish the dinner dishes in seven minutes flat—otherwise, no dessert. Talk about pressure!
Mom sat opposite Dad at the other end of the table. Dad was the self-declared “Captain of the Ship,” and Mom was his First Mate—that’s how life was back then. The dinner table was the helm of our ship, our family’s sacred space. Lingering over dessert, we learned how to sail, how to churn butter, and how to plan family vacations.
One summer, the plan included a cross-country adventure to our family roots in Chicago. After all, we had 25-odd first cousins, mostly from Mom’s side, that we had not seen in 10 years.
Our car, a brand-new, green metallic 1970s nine-seater Mercury wagon, sparkled in the driveway, while the road atlas sat inside gathering dust. It was nearly the 4th of July when a lazy summer brunch suddenly shifted into high gear.
“Up for travel planning, Captain?” Mom inquired. Dad stalled. Despite an upbringing that had taught her to be polite, Mom cocked her head slightly and gave Dad the stare down, with just a morsel of her eagle-eye glinting out, a look she usually reserved for defiant children. Now it smoldered across the table. Seven pairs of eyes watched, rapt in disbelief.
“L.A. to Chicago?” Dad mouthed dryly, taking a sip of his coffee. “I am just not feeling up to taking a trip of that magnitude.”
At that moment, I got a sneak peak at who my mom really was. She pounced to her feet, grabbed a wad of credit cards from her wallet, and fanned them poker-dealer style. Then she promptly stuffed the deck back into her purse and bellowed, “C’mon kids, get in the car!”
“Where are you going, Chicago?” Dad chided. “Nope, Triple A.” Mom retorted, calling over her shoulder as six out of seven bounded out behind her. Once in the car, Mom’s effervescence bounced back. “Okay,” she said, “everyone gets a wish—pick a destination anywhere from here to Chicago on the Southern route, or the return route over the Rockies.” Key sites like the Grand Canyon, Mississippi River, and Mount Rushmore ricocheted around the car.
“What special place do you want to visit, Mom?” I asked. “Well, that’s easy, Colorado Springs.” Smiling into the rearview mirror, she met my gaze and said, “Our honeymoon spot.”
The next morning, good-byes were perfunctory. Chris, the eldest, stayed to celebrate his 18th birthday with Dad. Was this a rite of passage? The eldest men in the family did not lift a finger as they watched Tom, the next boy in line, assume the role of Second Mate. Slight of weight but an expert boy scout and backpacker, he strapped the bags onto the luggage rack.
As “the Green Phantom,” our newly christened vessel, crept out of the driveway, Mom looked back and gave a little wave. “I bet they think we can’t make it,” she said, a Cheshire Cat smile on her lips. Dad and Chris stood their ground in the driveway, arms crossed resolutely over their chests, lips frozen in daring smirks. The silent bet was on.
Once on the road, Mom started with logistics: always follow the law, be kind and respectful. And while there were no assigned seats, there was also no ordering Coca-Cola before lunch! All other decisions were to be made by popular vote. As per the norm, whenever we entered the vehicle, we would “count noses” as the troops fired off “one-two-three-four-five-six” in rapid succession.
“Oh, and one other rule,” Mom said, doubling down on the dare: “There’s no calling home until we reach Chicago!” All hands on deck saluted the First Mate: “Aye aye, sir!”
The trip’s first casualty came as I learned the peril of pulling onto a gravel shoulder too quickly. “Lord help us!” Mom gasped, and He did. After floundering into a fishtail and landing smack in the middle of the “Grand Canyon This Way” sign, the Green Phantom survived with a crooked smile, its steely grill askew. “Don’t tell!” I commanded from the driver’s seat.
But someone did. After landing in Chicago, Mom sprinted for the phone at Uncle Larry’s house and called Dad.“Hi, honey, we made it!” Mom chirped, then all we heard was Dad’s thunder across the miles: “Let me talk to Mary Anne!” Instantly, I realized Dad knew. Tom shrugged sheepishly: “I sent the kid next store a postcard!” Then Dad boomed through the receiver, “Well, the postman delivered the card to the wrong address!” We always wondered if the postman delivered the news to the wrong house accidentally on purpose!
One day there was a misfire on the headcount: “One! Two! Three! Four! Five!” fired out gleefully once, then twice. And too late, I spied “six” waving frantically far away in my rearview mirror. When 12-year-old Ginia faded out of sight as we rounded a curve, panic pulsed through the car. After a ten-minute stretch in dead silence as we turned around and retraced our route, there was Ginia again. Once I managed the halt, all four doors of the car flung open to rescue “girl overboard!” Though bursting with souvenirs, our vessel never felt crowded after that.
Mom never blamed or complained, and we all got along famously. I guess that was our silent pact—do your best to keep it sweet. I found out that Mom, along with her own mother and beloved Aunt Alma, had trekked a similar course by rail from Chicago to California back in the 1930s.
By the time we got to Colorado Springs, Mom simply stuck her cheek out into a gentle breeze after sunset, saying wistfully, “Well, it’s still beautiful here. But without the other half of the honeymoon, it seems a bit flat.”
After seven weeks and over 7,000 miles, the Green Phantom floated back into the driveway with more wisdom in the hold than when she left. Once the brakes locked, First Mate donned her Cheshire Cat smile in silent victory and leapt out of the rig and into Dad’s open arms. “Yay, we made it!!!!” the crew of six cheered while Captain immediately assumed command, steering us into duty. “Okay, troops let’s go! Nobody comes in empty handed!” Though anxious to run next door to our friends and share the souvenir lore, we knew the drill. Bags were dragged in and laundry machines were set churning. But this time, Mom, silent bet in her pocket, sat in Aunt Alma’s “Throne Chair” and hummed while watching the clockwork sing. First Mate guided the ship from a parapet of fairness, her humor adding a velvet balance to an organization of steel.
Mary Anne Kurzen writes about her legacy as a mother, writer, and teacher.