Most of our vacations growing up were spent visiting my grandparents in Pennsylvania. Pop wasn’t much on vacations that cost a lot of money like going to the beach, traveling to see national parks, or visiting historic monuments. As much as Pop was an Eagle Scout and a Boy Scout leader in his youth, he never wanted to go on camping trips either.
Still, vacations were fun. I liked that I could stay up as late as I wanted as long as I didn’t disturb the household. Going for walks in the woods and eating family meals down in the orchard instead of in the dining room were always fun. We visited my grandparents once or twice a year. The trip in the car on roads before there were interstate grand slabs was tedious and long. Mom always packed a big basket of sandwiches, fresh fruit (mostly bananas, and, for some unfathomable reason, hard boiled eggs, and a thermos of coffee. The eggs and bananas filled the car with their combined scent which is still imprinted on my brain. When I get a whiff of those two scents, I immediately think road trip. Oh, and did I mention we always took the family dog with us? Yep. A big Irish Setter, named Robin whose whole purpose in life seemed to be how to take up lots of room in the back seat and slobber in our hair all along the way. My sister and I were probably quite a sight upon arrival.
My maternal grandmother was a great cook. It sticks in my memory that she always had a vanilla cake covered in thick layers of vanilla buttercream frosting with sliced bananas between the layers and colorful nonpareils on top waiting for us when we arrived. Everything she made tasted great—even pea soup. Don’t know why. Maybe it was just the magic and wonder of being in a different place with people who weren’t like us. I loved to play her piano even though I couldn’t really play it and no one ever told me to stop or be quiet.
My first memory of my Grandfather McNeal’s house fills me with a kind of wonder even now. He bought an old school house and converted it into a home. I looked and looked for a picture of his house, but I have yet to find one. All the pictures they took were in the yard. Bummer. When I walked into the front room I remember the huge wooden ships with real canvas sails sitting everywhere and the sun gleaming through the long windows to the left of the room. I think my dad made the ships, but he never really said. My grandfather died when I was six, but I still remember how gentle and kind he was. He was frail and almost blind in his later years, but he was fiercely independent and insisted on living in his own house with a rope tied between his house and the outhouse to guide him. The last year of his life, Pop chartered a small plane to fly to Numidia, Pennsylvania to get him and bring him to our house in North Carolina. He died a few months later of a heart attack. I wish I could have had him longer. I didn’t get to hear his stories or ask him questions.
Summer vacation meant freedom for me. No one kept me from flying down the dirt road on my hand-me-down bike which I imagined was my horse or setting up a playhouse in the garage. My life was my own until Mom called us in for supper. Freedom from rules and restrictions allowed me a chance to be who I really was with unfettered imagination. I spent a great of time in solitude after we moved from the first house we lived in to the house beside Berryhill Elementary School. There just weren’t any kids around to play with. I didn’t mind. I had tea parties and gunfights with my imaginary friends and on a rare occasion, with my older sister who was usually more interested in reading or sewing doll clothes.
I didn’t miss having vacations at the beach or traveling. I had plenty of things to do right there at home going on my adventures into the woods, to the neighbor’s pond to fish, and pretending I had a horse. Mostly, what I loved was the soaring amount of freedom my parents allowed me.
What were summer vacations like when you were growing up? What kinds of things did you do? What is your fondest memory of summer as a child?
Sarah J. McNeal
Author of paranormal, time travel and western romance