A creative nonfiction tale about yesteryear
“Timothy, keep your eyes on the road!”
Mother’s warning was drowned by the whoosh of gravel whipped up as Father brought old faithful’s swinging tail under control and steered it back onto the tarmac, the eight cylinders roaring in swift response.
Father went by Tim. Even Mother called him that. Timothy was reserved for special occasions—like driving off a paved road at seventy miles an hour with a vehicle filled with passengers.
Mother, clasping little Tim on her lap, rained firm pats against Father’s upper arm to bring her point home. “You could have killed us!”
Father laughed, pushing his glasses higher up his nose. “I had everything under control.”
Mother wiped her nose. “But still.”
The four of us in the back held our breaths, sardined on the one long back seat. Seconds earlier Father’s left arm had come swooping over the front seat’s backrest, trying to slap at least one of his rebelling offspring—the reason for his temporary lapse in concentration.
Ranging in ages from nine to three did little to deter us from staging a quasi-civil war. Road trips with the entire family were a rarity and had to be cherished. We should have known better. But, the summer heat was relentless, (the dapper car was without air conditioner), the road endless, and the telegraph lines and drooping farm gates, had lost its charm.
War was declared following the innocent contact between a six-year-old hand and a three-year-old shoulder.
“Mom, Tom is pushing me.” Sarah was a little over three and found great satisfaction in tattling.
“I’m not touching her.” I slunk away.
Five seconds later she accused the oldest sibling. “Mommy, Philly is pulling my hair.”
“Is not!” Phil snorted and ducked behind Father.
Father had his eyes on us in his rearview mirror. “Tom, Phil, cut it out.”
Sarah sighed one of her famous chest shuddering sighs. “I’m sticky.” Keeping a straight face, she pinched both her sister and me.
Mary squealed and immediately pinched her sister back.
Father grumbled, “Children . . .”
I was tired, my shirt plastered to my back, legs cramping from being holed up for hours. “Sarah’s a baby and a bully. We did nothing to her.” I gave her a gentle nudge to make my point.
Sarah let out a piercing shriek to put any firetruck siren to shame, pounding at me with her small fists. “Daddy. Did you see that? It was Tommy!”
That’s when Dad exploded with a loud “Boys!” and swiped at us.
Poor Mary, lodged between Philip and Sarah, was the innocent bystander in the way of the angry arm.
“Tim,” Mother now stroke her husband’s arm with sudden tenderness. “The children are only tired.” She glanced back at us with a tepid smile, but wide nevertheless. Her hand had moved to Father’s neck, playing with his curls, massaging the muscles. “Let’s find a rest stop.”
The sweetest words on earth. The mood in the car changed instantaneously as if through divine intervention. The four rambunctious siblings, who minutes before were at each other’s throats, now sat transformed, meerkats on a lookout. It was a serious affair. Even Sarah understood the gravity of what was involved.
Philip, to make sure, spelled it out: “The first one to spot the road sign, gets first to pick.”
The road sign we had to find was a rectangular board depicting a tree with a concrete table and stools. Father sat on the right-hand side driving, keeping to the left of the road. I sat behind mother. Phil preferred the spot behind dad. Being older, we had to guard the back doors. Mother didn’t mind if I leaned closer and breathed in her neck, enabling me to get a better vantage point of the upcoming road.
The rules stipulated that Father and Mother were not allowed to participate in the game. Timmy was anyway too small to understand.
At mother’s feet was the rattan basket with a flask of tea and a flask of milk. Squeezed between the flasks was a small tin with hard-boiled eggs and the second one with sugar cookies. To the side at her feet, behind the basket, was a large tin which held the sandwiches. The faded Quality Street candy tin had become Mother’s favorite. She owned a few Tupperware containers, but still preferred her beloved tin. When not traveling, she often kept it filled with home-baked cookies.
The modest concrete tables each had four narrow upright seats, usually in the shade of a large tree, a reprieve for the weary traveler. Mother and Farther would each take a place, which left two for the four of us. Little Tim would remain on Mom’s lap.
No one said a word; eyes glued to the road ahead.
I snaked closer to Mother’s neck, trying to see between her head and the door pillar. My three siblings were draped over the front seat’s backrest like swallows on a power line.
The rules also stipulated that if you called out incorrectly, it meant immediate disqualification.
I sucked my breath.
“There it is!” I hollered, much too close to poor Mama’s ears, and, not thinking, jumped upright on the back seat, trying to stand, windmilling with my arms, pointing forward. I saw stars as my head crashed into the padded roof of the humming Studebaker, throwing me back.
Everybody laughed, and the two sisters tackled me, tickling me, hoping I’d reconsider giving up the privilege of the first pick. Safety belts were a foreign word and enabled us to tumble merrily in the back as Father slowed down.
As if approaching a famous city carnival, seven pairs of eyes drank in the humble rest place, patiently waiting as the Studebaker’s wheels crunched the gravel on the side of the road. Like one man we burst from the doors, running when our feet touched the ground. I plopped down on the chosen concrete stool, stroking the smooth surface of the small concrete slab. A canopy of trees was responsible for the refreshing shade. Even the wind had turned, bathing us with a cool breeze as if from nowhere.
Mother called us back to the car to help carry the rattan basket and cookie tin. Father took little Tim and Mother came with Mary and Sarah, each on a hand.
No royal banquet could have surpassed our feast. Mother had arranged it in the blink of an eye: there was piping hot Five-roses tea (to be drunk from a thermos flask cup), Marmite and mixed-jam sandwiches in the cookie tin, cucumber slices, hard-boiled eggs, and, for dessert, a sugar cookie each.
Thank you for reading!
This story was also published on Medium.com.
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Image credit: Danie Botha