When January rolls in, we start reminiscing about family traditions, one being our annual ski trip “up nort” as the Uppers (people living in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan) like to pronounce their homeland. Every January for I don’t know how many years, we’ve been stuffing our car like those Johnsonville brats we Cheeseheads are famous for grilling at Packer game parties.
We pack our suitcases with layers and layers. And MORE layers. Because “up nort” in the UP, we’re used to cruising down ski runs named Cannonball at frightening speeds, creating even more chill than the actual -6 we experienced this past weekend. We like this sort of adventure and drama. This year, however, our adventure and drama began before we even arrived “up nort” . . .
Our 19 year-old takes the wheel of our vehicle, pointing the nose north at about 5 PM for our five hour drive. We’re cruising along, laughing about the time Zach decided to fly off a ski jump and splatted face-down (unhurt) on the snow below giving him his nickname The Flying Goose.
About an hour out of town, Nick says, “There’s something wrong with the car.” We all noticed that our speed slowed to about 15 mph and wouldn’t go any faster. We stopped on the side of the road. Todd took the wheel.
“The transmission’s locked up. We’re going to have to head back.”
Todd turns the car around, hugging the shoulder with emergency lights flashing. The family meltdown begins . . .
Zach, 23, melts first. He puts his face in his hands and leans forward, moaning. “I think we should just cancel the trip!”
Anna, 25, sees the traffic whizzing by at alarming speed and worries loudly that we’ll get hit.
Nick, 18, tells everybody to “chill” and that it will all be fine.
Todd tries to poll our motley crew to discover what everyone wants to do—cancel our trip or change cars and start over. Zach already voted before Todd polled. Pretty typical of a limbic system suddenly flooded such that all rational thought comes to a grinding halt, kinda like the car’s current transmission.
And then there’s me. Oh how I’ve grown! At least in this one, isolated, particular moment of my whole history. I say . . .
“Let’s have a contest! What time do you think we’ll pull into our driveway going 15 mph, an hour out?”
The cognition ignites! The guessing begins! All votes are in, minus Todd who didn’t vote, at least in this particular contest:
Anna chose 7:04 PM as our ETA. Nick chose 7:05 PM. I chose 7:06 PM. Zach, ever the optimist, chose 7:25.
Suddenly, the competition changes the fearful, pessimistic perspectives in our car. (That, and promising Zach a front seat on the restart, five-hour trip north with Anna, Nick and I packed like sausages on the back seat bench made comfortably for two. Bribery relieves flooded limbic systems, research has proven, anecdotally, at least this once.)
As we inch along the side roads all the way home, we watch the clock. We turn onto our country road at 6:50, still moving 15 mph with emergency lights flashing, thankful no law enforcement officer has stopped and ticketed us for driving too far UNDER the speed limit.
Anna is excited. She believes she’s going to win the competition. Surely, she thinks, we will touch our driveway before or exactly when the clock turns 7:04.
Nick begs to differ. Surely, he thinks aloud, the clock will turn 7:05. The two begin to argue about the rules. One asks what the prize is for winning. Todd, ever the frugal one, says, “Nothing. Just knowing you won is good enough.” I don’t challenge. At least not this time. But I have another idea in mind.
Then the questions . . .
Did Mom say the car turns into the driveway? OR, did Mom say when we get UP the driveway? (Which, given our very long, gravel, country home driveway would surely add another minute, at least.) I stop the argument clean in its tracks by restating the rules.
“When the front car tires touch the bottom of the driveway.”
Anna is psyched. She’s going to win. She can feel it in her bones. She says it out loud and starts to squeal.
7:04 flashes red on the dashboard.
Anna declares victory.
Nick fixes his eyes on the red numbers and begins counting to sixty under his breath.
Anna hopes the car slows down even more. (Perspective is everything!)
Nick hopes he’s counting too slowly. (Like I said, perspective is everything!)
Just as the two front tires touch the bottom of the driveway, the red 4 turns into a 5. Like a last minute field goal giving the Packers a divisional title win (fast forward to SUNDAY!), Nick steals the victory from the prematurely declared winner. Anna accepts, somewhat graciously but with no smile or handshake. (Like I expected either?)
Within the hour, we unpack, off-load unnecessary baggage—Zach’s skis—repack and point the nose of the car number two north. All is well. Zach’s happy and chatty in his front seat, as promised to him, while Nick, Anna, and I try not to touch body parts in the back sausage compartment. I lose count of how many times Anna broadcasts how her knees are so cramped she’ll never walk again. Nick drifts off to sleep. It helps that he’s half deaf.
I’m feeling calm and happy, except for my cramped knees, but I do believe I’ll be skiing in twelve hours.
Half way through our journey “up nort”, we stop and my idea to banish all grumpiness goes into action. A stash of parent-purchased sodas and junk food occupies tongues, keeping complaining at bay the rest of the way!
We roll up to our rented condo at 1:30 AM, ready for bed, all happy we decided to make the trip after all.
I reminisce privately, as I lay me down to sleep, praying the Lord my soul to keep, thankful the years have grown us all to the place where 2-hour bedroom meltdowns of one in particular have turned into two-minute limbic floods brought back to normal functioning with just a bit of bribery and some fun distraction.
When kids who would once fight incessantly about who got how much and the unfairness of every little thing, for crying out loud, have now come to consider each other as well as themselves and work together for the good of all.
When a mother who once would have had her own meltdown from exhaustion is a bit too old to care and who has learned what’s productive and what isn’t (at least most of the time).
When a dad keeps his place at the wheel, directing the whole brood in the right direction.
When breakdowns turn into opportunities for togetherness and focusing on making memories, knowing that some of the worst things that happen in life can become reminders of human resilience, opportunities to connect, and an awareness that, at the end of the day, what matters most is being together, loving one another through, and into, the wee hours of a new day.