Just kidding, of course. Even Benedictines find Mom and Dad a little austere.
Most notorious of their ascetic proclivities is the (in)famous “iron-bladder” straight-through policy. If a trip can be made in 10 hours or less, don’t expect any pit-stops with Mom or Dad at the helm. Be prepared for the long haul once you settle yourself into the well-worn bucket seats set deep within the ponderous, huge hunk of metal that is now a Johnny-Cash-esque 1965, ‘66, ‘67, ‘68, ‘69, Dodge-Chevy-Ford truck as a result of Dad’s constant patching together of various mechanical oddments to keep his pick-up running. Dad’s truck is the junk-yard equivalent of the Island of Unwanted Toys in the old Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeers clay-mation holiday special. All the lonely and abandoned alternators and transmissions and axels and other pieces and parts from forgotten wrecks were collected together to create a – shall we say “unique” — Frankenstein of the road.
Only the hardy need apply for passage. When the key turns in the ignition, the doors are hermetically sealed. There’s no stopping, exiting, or pulling over to grab a quick bite until the final destination is reached. You’re only succor or solace once you pull away from the curb with Mom and Dad is prayer. They always bring their rosary beads and praying the rosary is one of their favorite traveling activities. I have to admit to occasionally praying we’d run low on gas so we’d be compelled to stop somewhere.
So it was one day in early autumn that I approached a road trip with Mom and Dad to visit one of my brothers with some trepidation. It was a twelve hour trek — very important, as it meant that we would get one brief stop somewhere around the six hour mark. Other than that, it would be six hours of solid and uninterrupted windshield time on either side of the break.
Dad was driving, I was navigating and sat up front in the passenger seat, and Mom had the bench seat behind us. Things started well enough. We said a rosary first thing, then listened to some music.
“It’s a little warm back here,” Mom called out.
Dad adjusted the air-conditioning, turning the temperature down and the blower fan up.
We continued driving and talking. Mom chirped up from the back seat: “Could we have a little more AC please?”
Dad dutifully turned the AC temperature setting down and the blower up. I re-adjusted myself to get my knees away from the air vent. It was getting pretty cold.
“A little colder please,” Mom called again.
Dad didn’t question Mom, he just turned the AC even lower.
This continued every 10 minutes or so, with Mom asking: “Could we have a little more AC?” or “It’s a little warm back here” or simply “a little cooler please”.
Now, understand that, much like Han Solo said of the Millennium Falcon, Dad’s truck has a lot of “special modifications”. He’s never content simply to fix something. He operates according to the “Holy Spirit principle” — if you’re going to touch something, don’t just leave like it was. Juice it up. Make it better and bolder than before. And over the years Dad’s fiddled with just about every component of his truck, so it’s all been revved-up pretty good. Like his air-conditioning. It’s no longer your standard automobile AC unit. I think Dad rigged-up an old, salvaged refrigerator to run on diesel. And his blower fan may have once been a single-prop airplane engine in a former life that he somehow managed to finagle into place under the hood. That’s the kind of serious power Dad imparts to his machines, and with Mom continuing call for “a little more AC please,” “a little cooler please,” we ended up driving in an ice-box with the over-muscled AC set-on “sub-arctic” and the blower fan producing a hurricane force gale.
I was shivering. Dad’s nose was running. I had to scrape ice off the inside of the windshield. After hours of enduring this man-made meteorological phenomenon, Dad finally asked: “Are we re-re-ready for a br-br-break?”
I nodded my head.
“Is that a yes, or are you just shivering?” Dad asked.
“That’s a ye-ye-yes,” I chattered.
“Sounds good,” Mom said from the back seat, completely impervious to the blizzard created in the truck cab at her behest.
When we finally stopped, I looked back at her while trying to straighten my frozen joints to get out of the truck. Mom was covered head to toe with heaps of yarn. She’d been using the time on the road to work on some kind of monumental knitting project — from the looks of it she was fulfilling a special order to outfit the Russian army with afghans for winter. All you could see of her was a smiling face and two knitting needles protruding from an Everest sized mountain of wool. A thousand bleating quadrupeds must have yielded-up their fleeces to produce the bales of yarn Mom was hidden beneath. For an instant I saw in my minds’ eye a vast flock of frigid sheep, naked and shorn, shivering on a wind swept hill somewhere in Ireland. Feeling their icy pain myself, I pitied them.
“No wonder you’re warm!” I told her. “We’re freezing up here while you’re wrapped in a cocoon of wool!”
“Oh Jacob,” she said. “I’m knitting blankets for the grandkids. Why don’t you get a cup of hot coffee?”
Not on your life, I thought. Every drop of coffee I sip for a little warmth in the moment will still be with me six hours from now.
Looking back on it, what I learned from that frosty road trip is that we’re all in a different place, even when we’re right next to each other. Scripture tells us: “Like clay in the hands of a potter, to be molded according to his pleasure, so are men in the hands of their Creator, to be assigned by Him their function” Sir, 33, 13. “For truly the potter . . . molds for . . . service each several article . . . As to what shall be the use of each vessel . . . the worker in clay is the judge” Wis 15, 7.
We’ve all got different roles to play, different jobs to do. Sometimes we’re the driver, or the navigator, and we may have to endure cold for reasons unknown to us. Sometimes babies need blankets and it’s up to us to make them, though our work may be uncomfortably sweat-inducing in a confined automobile. Even when we’re side by side, and even when we’re headed to the same destination, we have different things to do along the way. That holds true for parents and children just like everyone else. The key is to let each other do the work we’ve been assigned, to help and not hinder others in their work, knowing that none of us are in charge. We’re all on assignment. And we may have to make allowances to accommodate the tasks of our fellow pilgrims. So pack an extra sweater, just in case.