Print Story A Christmas traveling story
By toxicfur (Thu Dec 22, 2011 at 06:30:25 PM EST) (all tags)
With cows.

Tomorrow, I'm leaving Boston to visit my brothers and their families for Christmas. I'm looking forward to the 14-to-16 hour drive to get to my brother's house - audiobooks, cigarettes, endless amounts of diet cokes and the highway stretched out in front of me. I'm looking forward to the time to think and to daydream.

This story, though, is about what it was like traveling when I was a kid, when we had none of those things (except the cigarettes, of course, second-hand, from both of my parents).

When I was a kid, my two sets of grandparents lived about 4 hours apart: one in the eastern part of North Carolina, one in the central part. For most of my childhood, we lived in the same town with my mom's parents, and on Christmas morning, we'd get up, see what Santa brought, and then drive across town for lunch with Grandmama and Granddaddy. Santa always went there, too, and we'd go into the parlor - the one with the cream-colored carpet and the piano and the uncomfortable furniture, where we were otherwise not allowed - and we'd open our gifts. Then we'd have a gigantic lunch and stuffed and sleepy after a night of excited wakefulness and overstimulation and too much candy, we'd pile into the light blue station wagon with the faux wood paneling and drive across the state to my paternal grandparents' house.

James, the youngest, sat on a wooden box my paternal grandfather had made for him in the front between Mama and Daddy, and Patrick, Kevin and I squeezed into the back seat. The space behind us was always crammed full of suitcases and the toys we couldn't bear to part with for the few days we'd be in Liberty.

If you've never driven across the empty countryside of rural North Carolina, dotted with tiny towns boasting two or three stoplights, if that, with four children under the age of ten, in a car with a broken radio and no built-in VCRs or video games, then take a moment and watch this clip from what might be the best cartoon ever, Animaniacs. Now add an additional kid and Christmas and tired and cranky parents, and you've pretty much got it.

Mama loved to drive, though, and she had all of those towns between Wallace and Liberty memorized. "How many towns left, Mama?" I'd ask at some random part on the road, and she'd say, "Just five left now: Sanford, Gulf, Goldston, Siler City, and Staley."  She kept the little triangle smoking window cracked open and smoke streamed from her like the clouds coming from the stacks of the factories we passed. She kept a glass bottle of coke clamped between her legs and she'd take a swig, balancing the steering wheel with her knee.

"I know what you can do," she said on one of these long Christmas day trips. "We used to do this when I was little. When we pass a field full of cows on your side, count them. And if you come to a graveyard, then you have to bury all your cows and start over from zero."

"Why do they all have to die?" Kevin asked. "Wouldn't some live?"

"Nope, when you pass a graveyard on your side, then they all die. That's the rule."

Kevin, as the second oldest sat by one window, the one behind Mama on the driver's side. He got Patrick on his team, though Patrick usually slept most of the way. I, as the oldest, sat by the passenger side window, behind my silent (at least in memory) father. I got James, the baby, on my team, though he would rather ramble on about nothing in his high-pitched baby voice rather than count. And we counted the cows as we drove through the rolling hills of central North Carolina.

I groaned as I had to bury the 97 cows I'd collected thus far, and Kevin pumped his fist in the air in triumph. I leaned over Patrick's sleeping body and punched him. He began to wail, and Mama threatened to pull the car over. We both shut up and went back to looking for cows.

I'd built up a sizable herd, and I was worrying about upcoming graveyards, when I saw the oasis in the desert of this deadly serious game: It was a veterinarian's office.

"Aha!" I cried. "I just got all my cows medicine, and now they'll survive the next graveyard!"

"What?!" said Kevin. "How did you do that?"

"We passed a vet's office. They got medicine. Now they'll live." I smirked at him. He was going to lose.

"Nuh-uh!" he said. "Mama, tell Amy that's not in the rules!"

Mama shrugged. "I guess it makes sense."

"But I don't have a vet's office. I don't even think she really saw one!"

"Just count the cows," Mama said. "I don't think the vet's office thing is really in the rules."

"But Mama! They can't die if they get medicine," I said.

The argument came and went like a tide through the car as we got closer to our destination. Our herds had grown. I was leading by a handful of cows. I was going to win.

And then we drove into town, past a graveyard that had grown so big it had crossed the highway. Both sides were studded with worn gray headstones and sad, wilting poinsettias. All the cows collapsed, died, and were buried in a final, hushed moment of defeat.

She knew it, I was sure. She knew that we were both going to have to bury our poor cows. And we pulled into our grandparents' circular driveway and Mama lit another cigarette, steeling herself against her in-laws, with their sad, tiny plastic tree and their nod for the sake of their grandchildren to a holiday they believed sinful to celebrate.

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A Christmas traveling story | 3 comments (3 topical, 0 hidden)
I used to love that cow game by lm (2.00 / 0) #1 Fri Dec 23, 2011 at 07:04:09 AM EST
The variant my grandpa taught us assigned different point values for different animals: cows, pigs, sheep, horses and deer all had different values. Deer were the gold standard: 100 points.

One year riding though central Ohio, we passed a deer corral. 9 deer. Jackpot!

Then the graveyard.

Kindness is an act of rebellion.
I take it by yankeehack (2.00 / 0) #2 Fri Dec 23, 2011 at 11:03:50 AM EST
you didn't count the small family plots behind houses as graveyards?
"...she dares to indulge in the secret sport. You can't be a MILF with the F, at least in part because the M is predicated upon it."-CBB
Kitty in the window by iGrrrl (2.00 / 0) #3 Mon Dec 26, 2011 at 01:15:52 PM EST
Automatic win.
"I honestly pity the stupid motherfucker who tries to talk down to iGrrrl" - mrgoat
A Christmas traveling story | 3 comments (3 topical, 0 hidden)