Riding from the Darkness into the Sunlight
by Lee Ambrose
Every summer it was the same plan. And yet, somehow, every summer it seemed as fresh, as new and exciting, as the first time. I look back now, realizing that Daddy was such a creature of habit. We should have been able to mark the late night ride on our August calendars. But, as children we were less aware of such things.
It seems to me that our first inkling that we were going away would be the appearance of the old Samsonite blue hard-sided luggage from out of the attic storage space. Those suitcases never appeared until hours before the scheduled time of departure. Systematically, in the course of an hour or so, Mother would have each of the four children bring to her four complete changes of clothes, a bathing suit, a comb and a toothbrush. For a brief while, each one of us became a pile of clothes on her bed. She inventoried each pile and then told Daddy it was okay to pack that child's items into the suitcase. When the four children were packed, both parents assembled their piles consisting of exactly the same elements as ours.
When everything was packed, Daddy would carry the suitcases to the trunk of the car. He would remove and rearrange those suitcases no less than a dozen times before departure. It was some sort of ritual he had. I never quite understood why he felt it necessary to go through all of that over and over again, but, for whatever reason, he did.
We would all be sent off to bed "to get a few hours of sleep" before departure. How they expected us to sleep when we were filled with excitement I'll never know. I now believe that they sent us to bed to ward off the numerous inquiries as to when we would be leaving.
Daddy preferred to leave once it was dark. He said there was less traffic and that it was cooler that way. In what seemed like pitch black, the four children would squeeze into the back seat of the 1950's-something Ford sedan. The boys always had an imaginary line dividing the seat into quarters so that they wouldn't have to be touched by the girls. We were expected to sleep on the ride to our destination but there was barely enough room for the four of us to sit comfortably; so I am not sure how it was that we were supposed to be able to go to sleep. Often, my baby brother, Joe would be the first to fall asleep. He would gradually work his way around in the seat until his head would rest on my lap and he would curl his legs up onto Tom's lap. I didn't mind but Tom protested loudly.
As the old Ford rolled along country roads and across one-lane bridges in the darkness, I would worry enough for the six of us. What if we drove off the side of the road into the water? What if Daddy fell asleep? What if we had to go to the bathroom? (Nothing was open on those deserted country roads in the middle of the night) What if? ... What if? ... What if? Eventually, my what ifs proved true in some manner. If it wasn't a flat tire, it was a leaky radiator or a broken belt or hose. No matter the reason, there was always need to pull off the road in the darkness and bale out of the car. (Daddy didn't want us sitting in the car along the side of the road - but it didn't bother him to have us STANDING along that same side of the road!) In the darkness we would hear the sounds of Daddy's perfectly packed trunk being shuffled around so that he could get to his tools and the spare tire if necessary. The silence of the night would be interrupted regularly with the string of cursing that would inevitably come from Daddy's mouth as he made the necessary repairs. All the time, he would be muttering about how difficult it was to do this by flashlight...the flashlight that he wouldn't allow anyone else to hold but had to either hold or position for himself.
Once the repairs were completed, we would all climb back into the car and the ride would resume. Next on the predictable list would be getting lost! Mother was in charge of reading the map and watching the signs - Daddy was in charge of yelling about how poorly she fulfilled those duties. We made this same trek on a yearly basis and every year, we got lost - usually at the same point in the trip!
The hours passed, as did the unseen countryside. Our first indication that we were getting close to our destination would be the unmistakable smell of salt air and the lightness of the breeze as it rolls in off the Atlantic Ocean on a late summer night. I would turn my face into the car's open window and take in all of the sensory awakenings that I could. We were where my heart belonged! We were at the shore! We were within a block of the ocean!
Daddy would pull into the parking lot of the same motel each year. He would announce that he certainly hoped he could get "our room" and go to the office. In the pre-dawn hours, we would check in to "our room" - it never occurred to me then, but I would imagine he had to have made reservations for that exact same room to always be open when we arrived each year. To Mother, checking in meant unpacking everything from the suitcases immediately. The four of us sat on the edge of one of the beds being careful not to do anything to spoil the start of a vacation.
By the time the unpacking was done, the sun was coming up. We would each take our turn at "freshening up" as Mother referred to it. And then, we would all head back out into that luscious ocean air. The car would not be moved again until we departed from the hotel at the end of our stay. We would walk everywhere. For three nights and four days, we would bask in the warmth and beauty of the oceanscape. We would explore the waters and sand for pirate's treasure. We would walk blisters on our feet and keep walking - and we would love every minute of it. We would eat at the exact same restaurants we ate at every year. And, probably, we would order the exact same things as in previous years.
When the final day arrived, there was one last meal at the familiar restaurant, one more glance around the motel room that was dubbed "ours" - and one last long gaze to the horizon. While the rest of the family began to voice their eagerness to return home, I would mourn the need to leave just yet. I would try to etch the sights, sounds and smells of the sea into my brain so that I could travel to this peaceful place within my soul often between that August day and the next August nighttime arrival.
We would travel home in daylight. And, predictably, we would get so lost that the ride home would take nearly twice as long as the ride to the shore had been. Daddy would utter another wealth of curse words. Mother would cry silently and brood miserably in her front seat position. Ah yes! We were back to being the same unhappy family with the emotionally absent mother and the all- too- easily angered father. The boys would begin harping about whose body part had crossed what imaginary line on the back seat of the car. My sister would amuse herself with scenes through her window. I would try to escape back to the sea.
The only thing that changed over the years as we left home in the darkness and drove into the light was my growing appreciation for the sense of oneness that I had with the sea. All else was habit, ritual. Despite the fact that we were all growing older, all of the emphasis was on recreating the same experience each year. Eventually, we would outgrow some of the rituals of the yearly August visits to the shore. But, what I never outgrew was my sense of wonder at the welcoming of the ocean breeze, the clean crisp smell of salt air, the symphony of waves crashing on the beach, the artists' pallet that is the early morning beach strewn with shells of every type possible.
When I was finally out of the house and on my own, I moved to that shore. I made the trip in the daylight and for the first time, was able to see the sights that go along with the welcoming smells and sensations I had only experienced in the darkness. I spent all four seasons there and discovered that the beauty and mystic of the sea is, for me, magnified in the quiet winter months. The symphonies of the ocean waves are different with each changing season. The breezes carry a different message to the soul in each season as well. What remains a constant is that I am more at peace with the world and myself when I am near the sea.
Although I am no longer living on the Atlantic coastline, I still live by the sea. I still find its pull to be alluring. The Gulf of Mexico is far different than the Atlantic Ocean. It is serene and relaxing. It can evoke many emotions from within. It is a soothing balm for a troubled soul. It is a place of wonder. I am able to go to the sea and find my center...my grounding. But, I miss the stark contrasts of the Atlantic coastline from season to season. I miss the vast array of emotions that are touched with its power, its beauty, and its uniqueness. I miss driving in the darkness to arrive at such a beautiful place in the daylight.