09/02/2011 01:01 pm ET Updated Nov 02, 2011

Girl Behind the Wheel: A Family Journey

A few days before any scheduled departure, The Red Thing would emerge from the upstairs hall closet. Not beastly or enraged, or alive even, as the name implies, the Thing in question was entirely, and inanimately, safe.

It was, simply, a bag. A canvas sack with exposed zippered pockets, a shoulder strap and the frays of dutiful service. The Red Thing, you see, in addition to being red, was the family travel organizer thirty years ago, a file for tour books, walking maps and brochures of relevant historic monuments, as well as a receptacle for items of sustenance... apples, extra socks, a Band-Aid if we were lucky.

Through the course of my childhood, the bag accompanied us up and down the eastern seaboard, becoming a functioning command center and ultimately a talisman, of sorts. "Enid, have you got The Red Thing?" my Dad would confirm with his navigator as the electric garage door closed behind us. Its presence in the car became iconic.

Each school holiday, my parents took my brother and me to a different nationally-significant locale. We traveled first in a Bonneville convertible, claret with swank white leather seats. Then, in the '70s, Dad bought the largest automobile I had seen in my life, a Buick Electra. It looked like a freight container. Inside, my brother shrunk to half his overall dimensions, what with the distance between us.

From the back seat, I learned as much about the separate personalities that comprise my family as I did about the battle at Lexington or the notion of worldly intrusion in the Amish Country. Yes, the expanse of Lincoln's stone hands in D.C. was wondrous to eight-year-old eyes, but the dynamics encapsulated in our sedan inspire me now to recall those trips. We were marvelously perfect, I thought, a conscientious pair of parents at the helm, two abiding kids in tow.

We would leave early on a Saturday, sometimes stopping quickly at the hospital so Dad could run in and make rounds. Mom, Scotty and I waited in the parking lot for him to return, sportcoat flapping behind. Often, we'd hear about a gall bladder resection or gunshot wound before talk turned to stalagmites or religious freedom, depending upon our destination.

Sightseeing with my father, who piloted our journeys, was physically and intellectually demanding. He created itineraries like an army general plotting an ambush. A week ahead, as we prepared for bed, he sat at his rosewood desk outlining a strategy on sheets of his stationery. David C. Kripke, M.D., General and Thoracic Surgeon, Tour Guide to Ultra-achieving Suburban Children. Mom was a competent lieutenant, traversing museums, whaling boats and halls of Congress with verve, despite her underlying longing for sea and sand.

He took us as far north as Montreal, steering with the aid of both regional and state maps and the esteemed AAA Trip-Tik, a pre-determined route presented in portions, page by page in a spiral pad. And we drove the other way to Richmond, where we had cousins whom we forced to count, just to hear them say "Faaave," like southerners. One, two, three, four, faaave.

We covered the points in between, from Wood's Hole, where the fried clams came in Chinese take-out boxes, to Valley Forge, Bethesda, Williamsburg and Monticello. Our sense of place -- and place in the world -- was naturally broadened.

In the back seat, we played the expected road games -- spot and name the license plates (extra credit for finding Kansas, with the stalk), count the station wagons (with wood panels and without), estimate the passage of miles from one green sign to the next. And we invented the atypical amusements -- hypothesize what the driver in the green car does for a living, what kind of trousers he has on, whether he plays the piano or sax, or prefers strawberry milkshakes to vanilla.

Mostly, though, Scotty and I retrieved paper shards from the ashtrays, crumpled them into weightless projectiles and fired them onto our mother's unassuming head. We had better luck with retention in the '70s, when the bouffant had eclipsed the sleek Sassoon so popular the decade before. If we succeeded, the specks would adorn her "do" like a veil of dotted Swiss, drawing attention the day long from Colonial forgers too polite to mention.

At each hour of the ride, we'd stop the car at an appropriate spot and stretch. Blood flow was top of mind to Dad, who had us get out and march behind him, knees up, shoulders back for five minutes. "Do you know what a thrombosis is?" he'd ask, coins jingling in his Madras Bermudas. Mom walked in a less choreographed fashion and mainly used the chance to absorb the ultraviolets. She assumed the stance, face tilted forty-five degrees skyward, that I came to realize was at once an opportunity seized as well as a subtle act of defiance. Give and take, as it were.

Lunch was timed to fall out mid-trip. Stashed in The Red Thing's side compartment, singularly-wrapped courses were doled out in sequence, sandwiches first, then pickles, a random collection of whole fruit that would shrivel in the bin had Mom left it in, and a dessert item.

"I thought you liked Vienna Fingers," she'd twirl around in her seat.

"Vienna Fingers are disgusting," we'd tell her again. "I like blueberries. Scotty, pears. Nobody likes apple pie."

Mom rolled down the plastic bag on Dad's sandwich, leaving about an inch exposed for him at the top. He was able to hold onto it without jeopardizing the ten and two hand position on the wheel. When it was time, Mom took it back and folded down the paper again, like on O-R nurse maybe, or like a wife.

We have The Striped Thing, my two daughters and me. And we don't have a Dad doing the driving. When my girls were younger, I used to retrieve the sandwiches, with one hand, by feel. Or, I gave the entire sack to the kids in the back, but then there was no telling if they would eat the cookies first. If someone had to go to the bathroom, we'd all have to unstrap and get out. And when they would lose themselves in a game of make-believe, I'd figure out how we'd carry all the luggage into the hotel or how I'd have enough money for college or whether the woman in the blue car to my left really loves her husband, I mean cherishes his pinkies, his brain, his heart.

Sometimes, I kind of want a Red Thing. I do believe that my family is tremendously perfect, too, abiding and conscientious, strong in so many ways. But sometimes, well, I just kind of want a Red Thing. So, I've taught the girls how to throw tissues on my head and keep their legs unbent to avoid clots. We get extra credit for New York license plates, living in Texas.

When my kids were around ten, I planned a trip to the Amish Country. My mom offered to come with us. Dad would have brought the same tour books, no doubt, page corners bent down. We flew to New York, then hit the highway in Grandma's Toyota, so many girls. Mom drove and I sat in the passenger seat, an unfamiliar perspective out the windshield and within. We stopped every hour to march around, as we had learned well. I explained why the people we were going to see had no electricity in their houses and rode in wagons. The girls guessed the miles left and ripped up pages from their writing pads, as there are no ashtrays anymore. I pretended not to notice, remembering how it felt to be sneaky.

I charted our course on the map, commandeered the musical selections, even swiped on lipstick with a brush. Half-way, I passed out sandwiches from The Striped Thing, not blindly behind my back but actually face to face with the hungry wonders in the rear. I rolled down the cellophane for Mom. A different kind of love.

"Look where we are, kids," I said, pointing at the hills they don't see often. Look where we are.