My parents didn’t take us on (what I considered) real family vacations when we were small. With a stay-at-home mom, living off of one income, I’m sure it had more to do with the financial aspect than dealing with five kids in a car for any length of time. Although I don’t think we would have been disruptive or mischievous. After all, this was the 60s and we were too scared to be anything but quiet, well-behaved children. Well, until our parents weren’t around, then it was a free-for-all. Remind me one day to tell you about the fight between my older sister and younger brother that ranged all over our neighborhood and went on for hours. To this day, that fight is still being discussed in certain quarters.

Every summer, two or three of us would visit our grandmother in North Carolina whom we called Chocolate Grandma. (To distinguish between our two grandmothers, we called one Chocolate because she had dark hair and the other Vanilla because she had light hair. It never occurred to us to address each by a different moniker.)

These summer trips were an adventure because Chocolate Grandma’s lifestyle was so different from ours. She didn’t have a bathroom and we had to use the outhouse during the day and a chamber pot at night. The outhouse was behind the house and I was always scared walking up the path, expecting a snake to jump out and bite me. At night, it was so dark, you couldn’t see your eyeballs in front of your face, as my sister used to say. I always wanted to be on the outside of the bed, away from the wall, where I feared spiders lurked. We’d take baths in this huge metal container in the middle of the kitchen, our grandmother pouring warm water over us. She cooked with a wood stove and I remember helping her make biscuits and apple butter. She molded the biscuits by hand and always let me make my own, which was easy to tell; it was the flat one with pointy edges baked dark-brown. While making apple butter, I would eat my fill until I grew sick of it and now can’t tolerate the taste. She had a root cellar with rows of shelves lined with canning jars filled with food. It was dark and cool, but I refused to go inside after she told me she killed a copperhead in there. I don’t know if my great fear of spiders and snakes began with these visits to Black Mountain, NC but suspect so.

Chocolate Grandma loved to play the piano and I remember many times gathering around her piano and singing along to Ole Dan Tucker or He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands or You are my Sunshine, my grandmother bouncing in tune as she played, me belting out those songs, never wondering if I was off-key, as I do today, just enjoying that glorious moment.

My grandmother was married to a man we called Uncle Boyd, and I have no idea why we referred to him as “uncle”. He was my father’s stepfather and he was an enigma to me, a large, quiet man who spent his days on the front porch watching traffic go by on the road below while occasionally sipping from a flask. I don’t recall ever seeing him move from that spot. Don’t know how he got there or how long he stayed, don’t even recall where he slept, although I’m sure it was with my grandmother. To be honest, I don’t remember ever speaking to him, although I’m sure I did.

On Saturdays, my grandmother would wash my hair and put it up in pin-curls using bobby pins, and once it dried, my normally straight hair would be curly and bouncy, and I thought I had the most beautiful hair in the whole wide world.

Grandma lived on the side of a mountain and we’d walk down to a small store near the bottom, always energetic and happy going down, dusty and tired coming up. Sometimes we’d visit our Great-Aunt Bessie, who lived close to the foot of the mountain. Aunt Bessie had a goiter and always wore a scarf around her neck. She grew grapevines on a fence leading to her barn, and one year my sister, brother and I picked her grape vines clean and had a grape fight in the barn. Needless to say, she wasn’t happy about that. But that was the best food fight I’ve ever had.

There was a small pasture across from Grandma’s house where cows grazed. One particular brown cow was friendly and would let us pet her every day. It upset me when she wasn’t there any longer. She was so sweet and gentle and I thought her the most beautiful animal in the world with her large, soulful brown eyes.

But I think the part I enjoyed most about these trips was driving over with my dad in his little Karmann Ghia, the top down, listening to him tell us stories about Falling
Rock, the Cherokee warrior who lost his way home and that’s why there were signs all over the mountains to Watch for Falling Rock.  Or the old lady whose family kept her in the closet after she died and would bring her out and soak her in salt water from time to time so she could visit. Or a whole slew of other mountain stories he’d entertain us with. We always stopped at the A&W Root Beer Drive-in for a hot dog and root beer. We sang and listened to stories and it was thrilling to spend time with our father, who seemed to work all the time and wasn’t home much.

My favorite song was When I Come Home the Other Night. I loved that song then and still do. Here’s a snippet:

        When I come home the other night
        As drunk as I could be
        I found a head on the pillow
        Where my head ought to be.
        Come here my little wifey,
        Explain this thing to me.
        How come a head on a pillow
        Where my head ought to be?
        You blind fool, you crazy fool
        Oh can’t you even see?
        It’s nothing but a cabbage head
        Your granny gave to me.
        Well I’ve traveled this world over
        A thousand miles or more,
        But a moustache on a cabbage head
        I’ve never seen before.

There are several verses to this song, each one as funny as the one before it. We always laughed while singing it.

I used to think we missed something by not going on family vacations to the beach or some exotic place, but maybe not. We found adventure and fun and were never bored. And even got along for awhile.

What about you? What was your favorite childhood vacation?