By Susan Govern
The song’s lyrics usually are “Over the river and through the woods to Grandmother’s house we go…” painting a nice mental picture of an old fashioned trip to Grandma’s for the holidays; a peaceful journey with a happy ending of being with family.
I experienced that many times as a child when we would travel back to Pennsylvania for the holidays. Staying with my grandparents and visiting with aunts, uncles and cousins was to me the best part of the holidays.
However, for my dad who was the driver and responsible for getting us there and back home to Ohio, many times the journey wasn’t so idyllic. To say it was a white-knuckled journey from time to time was putting it mildly.
Christmas, more than Thanksgiving, was our holiday to visit family in P.A. and it never seemed to fail that while we would have snow so we could enjoy a white Christmas, that same snow as we returned home would be the stuff of nightmares.
To this day I can’t understand why it always seemed to be a gentle snow as we headed on the turnpike from Ohio to P.A. and only a few days later ice, sleet, and blizzard like conditions would appear to hamper the ride home. It was as if we got on the turnpike to head west and found ourselves inside a giant snow-globe. More than once we arrived at the state line and the toll booth to be asked “How did you get here?” and were told the turnpike had been closed not long after we got on.
Traveling in winter for the holidays was not the only time my family experienced weather that would have stopped sane people from venturing out. My mother often told the story about how she and my dad went across country to Arizona for a SUMMER vacation and made it out of sheer dumb luck. Or maybe it was because it has been said that God watches out for fools and children – guess which category my parents fell in on that trip (hint – I wasn’t born yet so there were no kids in the car).
It was the mid 1950’s and the highway system wasn’t like the one we know today. Many roads out west were two-lane and crossed long deserted stretches of wide open spaces. A summer trip to Arizona would mean that you better stock up on gas and back then – water for your car’s radiator. Smart travelers my parents saw had cans of extra gas and water bags strapped to their cars. My parents were slightly less prepared – they had a thermos filled with water. The fact that I am here to tell the tale means, of course, they survived and didn’t end up a sad statistic or as bleached out bones lost in the desert southwest.
I can recall another trip, again in P.A. while visiting family, when we drove home from a day of sight-seeing only to encounter a terrible storm. As a child storms would absolutely freak me out (still not a fan to this day). In a car driving through rain that was the classic definition of the phrase torrential downpour, with lightening flashing all around us every few seconds, my poor dad was once again leaning into the steering wheel to see as the wipers went full blast. Mom in the passenger seat had her hands full with trying to help him see what was in front of us and at the same time calm me down in the backseat.
With every flash and crack and boom…I was sure our car was going to be hit by a bolt and we would explode like a fourth of July firecracker.
When we finally arrived at my grandparents’ house and the storm was pretty much over, I rushed out of the car and promptly lost breakfast, lunch and dinner along the side of the road from fear. I’m pretty sure at that point my dad would have loved to do the same but somehow he managed to appear only a little upset from the drive. I can’t prove it, but I bet when he got in the house and I wasn’t looking he may have poured a shot of whiskey which after that ride would have been well-deserved.
Yep…over the river and through the woods…a peaceful drive is what comes to mind. Somehow my poor dad as our main driver on our many car trips couldn’t be sure it would turn out that way. Maybe that’s why on the car trips my husband I take I really don’t mind him checking and re-checking the weather channel before we start out each morning. He’s heard these stories from my childhood and I’m sure he doesn’t want us to end up going “into the river and lost in the woods”.