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first person

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Illustration by Chelsea O'Byrne

I didn’t realize it at the time. We were just along for the ride. I spent several summers of my childhood stuffed into the back of a station wagon with my three sisters as our parents hauled us and a trailer around Canada and the United States. I barely remember anything about those trips, apart from seeing miles of highway roll by and many nights spent in campgrounds that all seemed the same. That was until I found four travel journals while cleaning out my mother’s apartment after her death.

Four summer trips: Virginia, 1961; East Coast, 1968; Northern Ontario, 1969; California, 1970. There were more trips and, I assume, more journals. Those trips and journals are lost in the mists of time.

Locked the door at home at 10:30 a.m. We finally pulled out of the driveway at 10:45 a.m. (Tuesday, July 9, 1968)

I finally got around to reading them this summer as my partner and I were travelling around Quebec. And what a trip it was – back in time via my mother’s loopy script and my dad’s tight, slanted scrawl. Their determined voices shone through, loud and clear.

Discovered we had brought a good supply of black ants with us. Frank went into town to have hitch welded and pick up some Raid. (Saturday, July 12, 1969)

Every day of their travels was a triumph over adversity as they moved our caravan from small town to smaller town – Watseka, Illinois to Danville, Iowa or Pictou, Nova Scotia to Cardigan, PEI. Rarely did we stay in one place longer than one night. Every day brought new challenges ranging from excessive heat, car breakdowns, cold nights, sick kids, dirty campsites, missed turns, expensive groceries and way too many visits to laundromats. But triumph they did – and countless destinations and goals were checked off their lists.

Stopped in Marysville, California for gas and milk – saw our very first palm tree. (Thursday, July 16, 1970)

With the benefit of decades, I could finally understand why they dragged the four of us across North America. It was for them. They needed – were compelled, in fact – to give us what they never had.

We went to the Smithsonian Institute. There was so much to see that to describe it is impossible. (Saturday, August 5, 1961)

Hit Reno around 4:00 p.m. Saw more casinos and motels than we’ve ever seen in one spot. But the payoff was three or four Marriage Chapels complete with free corsages and limousines. Frank went all out and put 2 nickels in a slot machine – didn’t hit the jackpot. That was why he wouldn’t go back into Reno that night – he’s a sore loser. (Wednesday, July 15, 1970)

Both were raised in Toronto’s Junction in the midst of the Great Depression. We heard the stories growing up – meagre meals, shared toothbrushes, beds in hallways atop shipping trunks, and abbreviated educations. Barely enough, and definitely no vacations. Even after we were born and my father had landed a teaching job, money was scarce. Every penny counted.

Off in haste to the Maple Syrup Museum to get in on the tour. Bought a pint of maple syrup – $1.50. (Thursday, July 17, 1968)

Stopped in Summerside at the Experimental Farm of fox and mink. North to Bideford to the Biological Station to see something worthwhile about oysters. Saw nothing but a small display of shells and fish. Very disappointed. (Monday, August 12, 1968)

My parents were determined to make their way into the middle class. Education – particularly self-education – was their path to that goal. Learning about how the world worked, how to get around, and how to present oneself in just the right light. These were not just trivial, frivolous summer holidays. Nope – our vacations were one long extended school field trip. For every fun thing we did (we did go to Disneyland – and I do recall that day), there were countless tours of generating stations, cheese factories, museums, and libraries galore.

Got to the Grand Canyon before lunch and lots of spots open to camp. (Thursday, August 6, 1970)

Things generally turn out the best for us. (Thursday, August 3, 1961)

The tone of the journals is self-congratulatory, even jaunty at times despite those pesky challenges regularly encountered. Mom and Dad were so confident they were doing right by themselves and us by logging countless sights and experiences. They possessed a confidence in the world and a sweet sense of innocence. Convinced the world would deliver for them and for us, they marvelled along the way – at things they had only read about.

We weren’t too anxious to stay in Lawrence, Ohio too long after some campus shootings a few weeks ago. (Wednesday, August 12, 1970)

As the travel trailer years progressed and my parents aged, a fuller sense of awareness crept into the journals and that innocence diminished somewhat. They were maddened to discover the over commercialization of San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf in 1970. They were angered they’d travelled on the Polar Bear Express in 1969 to Moosonee on a trip they felt intruded on its residents. They were astonished at the level of poverty in rural Nova Scotia in 1968. They worried about violence in the United States following the killing of unarmed students at Kent State University in 1970.

Made it home safe & sound about 9:30 p.m. & after travelling 5,254 miles we were all pretty pleased to be back home … there’s no place like home!!! (Friday, August, 16, 1968)

Much as I loved hearing my parents’ voices again, I found reading the journals exhausting – listening to the months of intense work my parents invested in these travels. To what end? Despite my parents’ certainty of purpose, I’m still not quite sure what I make of those trips. I can’t say they were a part of my life I look back on with great fondness. Nor can I say I learned a lot about Canada or the United States, what with all those one-night stops in look-alike campgrounds and the drive-by approach to visiting points of interest. I now realize I did benefit but not from the travel itself. Rather, my benefit came from my parents themselves – watching their determination to achieve their goals, their teamwork and resilience when the road got rough, and their willingness to take on tough tasks when they could have chosen a much easier route through our summer vacations. I admire their optimism, conviction and energy. As I kid, I didn’t appreciate the importance of those things to a life well lived. Now, I do. And, I would love to possess their positive view of what the future promises for my kids and grandkids. Rest assured, I will not be loading myself or any family members into an RV. I might, however, think about keeping a journal.

Susan Lightstone lives in Toronto, Ont.

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