We were driving early. Very early. Before a hint of sunrise. The car zoomed along through the surrounding blackness, highway lights giving the journey a holiday effect. Like we were tiny beings traversing the branches of a night-lit Christmas tree.
The kids were in the back seat, bundled up and snuggled with their stuffed animals (only two, guys, it's just a short trip) against the shoulder harness portion of their seat belts.
We don't have a dvd player in the car. The kids don't have handheld DS things. There is no electronic entertainment for them. There are, instead, signs. Highway signs. Business signs. Lettering on tractor trailer trucks whizzing by. Entertainment involves participation.
When we left the house, in that pre-pre-pre-dawn pitch blackness, Alex shouted out "I found an A!"
An hour later "I see a B!"
In between those letters, there was quiet. The kids silent, still half asleep, the half-awake state due only to bubbling anticipation. They slouched. And stared out the window at bright highway lights and office buildings that leave lights on 24/7.
Well, there was mostly quiet. There was also the bumping of our Subaru wagon over typical Rhode Island roads scarred with filled pot holes.
And there was the voice on the radio. We were tuned to WGBH out of Boston. We were listening to the news, which was read in the steady, informed, measured cadence of that radio newsman. It was a voice I found soothing. Comforting. Not that particular voice, but that style of voice.
I remember when I was very young, younger than Julia is now, on similar dark-of-night car rides. We would drive to New Jersey to visit my mother's parents for Christmas sometimes. There were probably other seasons we visited as well, but Christmas stands out.
Maybe that's because of the darkness. The stillness at that oh so early hour. A time when everyone else on the entire planet had to be asleep.
I remember looking up at the clear, starlit sky as I walked (or was carried, perhaps, still sleepy but bubbling with excitement at the same time) out to the warmed-up, wood-paneled station wagon.
This was back before seatbelt laws. My parents would fold the back seat down and put a mattress over the whole back part of the car. They'd give a tranquilizer – a small, light blue pill as I remember – to Bonnie, our Standard Poodle, a feisty, energetic animal who would have trampled us small children during the ride if we didn't drug her – and she would curl up in a corner toward the back of the car.
My sister and I would lie on the mattress, snuggled in blankets and pillows and stuffed animals, and doze…or stare at the little dots on the ceiling. I think it was some sort of vinyl upholstery – I don't really know. But there were tiny dots, and I learned that if I blurred my vision just the right way, I could make the dots seem closer to me, or I could sort of make sections of them move.
Neither of us, my sister and I, were great travelers at that age. My sister, especially, would get car sick. Most journeys to and from New Jersey were punctuated by vomit and paper towels. We laugh about it now. The stench has long since faded from our minds. Mine, anyway.
When one of us was not throwing up, we probably mostly just dozed.
The radio was usually tuned to a news station. I don't know, but I have a feeling most of the few AM stations we could get in that car were news stations. I don't remember music, really.
I just remember the voice. Always male. He spoke of weather and traffic and sports, perhaps. And of strange people like Dow Jones, whoever that was. And no matter what the topic, the voice pretty much stayed the same. Steady. Informed. Measured.
Comforting. I would close my eyes and that soothing voice would talk of things that didn't matter at all to me. I would doze off to that almost monotonous (but not in a bad way) voice as it told stories to my parents, then awaken to the same highway shake of the car, the same dots on the ceiling, the same voice on the radio.
And it didn't matter what station was playing, or where the news was coming from – Boston or New York or Providence…it was the same voice.
On that recent early-morning ride, I was the parent, and the radio voice was telling his stories to me and my husband. We have no dots on our car ceiling. Our children sat mostly upright and buckled in. So some things change, of course. But I still found that steady, informed, measured voice soothing and comforting.
Maybe that's one of the reasons I have no plans to equip our car (or a future vehicle) with a dvd player, or to give my kids little hand-held games to keep them entertained.
I want them to have memories of the car ride, of alphabet games and stuffed animals and of dozing for a while, snuggled against their seat belts, listening to the voice on the radio.