Before the engine stopped the door of the house swung open and she was headed my way, arms outstretched. My mother-in-law didn't need to ask me how it went. "I was thinking about you the whole day," she commiserated, "reliving so many trips alone."
But she hadn't been alone, and like the her of so many years ago, I hadn't been alone either. I had just driven a four-hour journey to Maine in six, precisely because was traveling with two small children.
I'm not sure what I was thinking. Four weeks post-partum, juggling a tender tummy and an irritable three-year-old, and I was headed back to Vacation Land to hang with the extended family.
I never liked traveling solo even before I was a parent. Even if I had to do all the driving, it was just nice to have another adult voice emanating from the co-pilots seat. As it was, the tiny voices wafting from the backseat -- one a song-singing, joke telling tiny one and the other just a series of grunts arching into a creshendo of blood curdleing cries -- aren't much comfort as I white knuckle my way through summer traffic.
Oh sure, I'd done as much as I could to prepare: I bought a toddler-sized portable DVD player and the best movies the bargain bin had to offer. I packed bags of easy-to-eat snacks in individual containers. And all manner of time biding activities from coloring books to sing-along games. I even had the infernal "Strawberry Shortcake" discography for HER listening pleasure (because the only thing that would make the cloying kids' music more bearable for me would be a fifth of vodka.)
"We are as ready as we'd ever be," I thought as I packed our things, the kids and my geriatric, incontinent dog into the family car and steered it onto the Massachusetts Turnpike on a Friday afternoon. Five minutes later, and still miles from the Mass Pike, fate made an impassioned plea for me to turn back: a traffic jam.
But I refused to listen. Even as the dog nervously shifted in the cramped space and Champ wailed pitifully in the absence of a moving car's vibrations, Ittybit sat glued to her new movie, "Alice in Wonderland," in rapt silence. I held out hope that once traffic got a move on my car's other occupants would settle down, too.
I wasn't wrong, but the peace and tranquility as the road opened and our speed increased didn't last long.
Not even an hour into the trip Champ's fussy protests turn into urgent screams. The mind games start: "If he's still crying when we get to the next service area I'll pull off," I tell myself. I hope he'll calm down, I don't want to spend the next 250 miles wishing I'd brought earplugs.
Champ must have realized the bargain I'd made with myself and calmed down three-tenths of a mile before the entrance to the service area, and resumed his plaintiff howl mere seconds after passing the turnoff. Dang!
I press on meeting each green road sign heralding the approach of another service area with the same bargain, only to have the screams return each time I'd made the decision to keep on trucking. "Just 28 miles to the next service area," I'd tell myself, "... just 28 miles to go." And I was just about to congratulate myself of finding a way to shrink the pain into 28-mile increments when I bumped against our second roadblock.
No matter what I did, traveling 28 miles at five miles an hour was going to be torture.
When I finally pulled into a rest stop, the cars were traveling at a snails pace. We watched the other motorists lumber past as we sipped beverages and dripped great puddles of ice cream onto the hot pavement. Before long the spaces between the vehicles lengthen and the speed picks up. We get back in the car and ease out onto the highway, slipping easily into the fray. Once I get into the rhythm of the road and feel my confidence return the inevitable happens:
"MAAAAAAMMMMMY. ... I have to go to the potty!"
I can almost hear the dog snickering at me as I pull off at the next exit.