At Christmastime, when the family would cram into our old Suburban for the cross-country trip from Ohio to Kansas, we played four tapes on repeat: Mannheim Steamroller, Trans-Siberian Orchestra, Amy Grant’s Home for Christmas, and a split Christmas special featuring Nat “King” Cole and Frank Sinatra. My parents seldom shared interests in music, but they agreed on the latter. My mother had a certain level of tolerance for hearing “Breath of Heaven” and I think it must have worn down after the fifth rotation.
I have never liked to sing solos, but I feel as if I could sing every word of these tapes unaccompanied. I might even stay on key and pay attention to the time signature for once.
When it finally starts to get cold and gray in Texas, I flip through the channels on my car radio and find myself on the brink of another Advent season. To my surprise, stations still play Mannheim Steamroller, and immediately, I am transported to the eve of Christmas Eve sometime in the early 1990s when my dad is drinking his sixth cup of coffee of the day and nudging the volume dial a few notches higher. He drives against the snow, searching for my Aunt’s house in Overland Park, Kansas, long before any of us knew about personal cell phones or GPS systems. My mother grips her door handle and requests that we stop at a 7Eleven to call her sister because it is already 10 o’clock and she thinks we are close but getting farther away with every turn. When my father doesn’t relent to that request, she asks through her teeth if we can turn down the volume of this music because she “can’t take” the synthesizer blasting at her.
Eventually, we got to my aunt’s house—seven of us—tired and anxious to stretch our legs out on some space of floor to sleep.
We hardly slept, excited to see our cousins and eventually make our way south to Olpe, Kansas, to see my grandparents. On the even years, my family committed to driving out to Kansas to see our relatives and stayed in Ohio during the odd years. We looked forward to exchanging gifts, but that never compared to the endless games of pool in grandma’s basement or admiring grandpa’s impressively stinky barrels of bait fish that he kept in the garage.
Despite our shenanigans, I wonder how much I actually remember about my time outside the car during the holidays. The paramount adventure played out along every year’s long car ride.
I think of all the years I sat in the back of one of our SUVs and told my father that I didn’t mind the traffic because the long lines of cars made candy canes on the highway, the red tail lights in front of us and the white headlights of the oncoming traffic weaving together to bring yuletide greetings to me. Sometimes I would even remove my glasses and take advantage of my severe myopia and allow the lights to magnify to a grander glow. After he had been driving for 13 hours straight, my dad must have welcomed the positive outlook from the back seat, or the “back back” as we called it.
Dad would agree with me, telling me that he had never thought of it that way, but it was kind of beautiful.
Now when I sit at stoplights a moment too long, I lose my focus until the red and white lights blur and think about how it’s still beautiful. When I remember those wintry treks, I laugh, and usually cry a little bit too. Our strange or slapstick comedy on road trips allowed me to glimpse into the tenderest places of my family’s constitution.