I was 9 years old and my two brothers and I were lined up like mute hostages in the back seat of our Rambler Classic. It was the early 1960s and our family was headed to a week-long summer vacation at a cabin on a lake in Northern Wisconsin.
My older brother Peter and I had set ourselves up with window seats, sticking the youngest and meekest, John, in the inferior middle position with the floor hump. Peter, 13, was starting to act like I was a bother to him, so John – who adored everyone – was useful as a buffer.
We endured boring hours driving north from our home near Milwaukee until the relief of stopping for lunch, served family style at the Lumberjack Mess Hall in a former logging town near Lake Michigan. The meal was made memorable by an outburst from an uninhibited man at our table who watched in amazement as Dad declined the butter being passed around and then shook salt onto his slice of bread. Dad had started doing this when he turned 40 and gave up butter as part of his version of a disciplined fitness regimen based on the new science around cholesterol.
The stranger blurted out, “You’re SALTING your bread? I’ve never seen anyone DO that.” Dad ignored the man and took a bite as if nothing had been said. The little scene caused embarrassment for our mother, however, due to her many expectations regarding behavioral standards for both strangers and family members. John was still at the parent-idolatry age, but Peter and I had independently figured out that our Marine Corps veteran father marched to his own strange, socially oblivious tunes. It was validating for me and perhaps also for Peter to hear one of Dad’s quirks being dinged by a random adult.
It probably was the satisfying effects of the hearty lunch – we’d taken “All You Can Eat” seriously – that put us in a convivial mood despite returning to the Rambler’s close quarters. And perhaps it was Dad’s tacit awareness of the awkwardness of the salting incident that made him amenable to a request from our mother for a little side trip. A neighbor had given Mom directions to a scenic lighthouse in the area we’d be driving through. Our father, usually a goal-focused electrical engineer of few words, not only agreed to the diversion but miraculously slipped into lighthearted chattiness about our quest to find the lighthouse.
He made the indicated turns and tried several different routes, but no lighthouse appeared. In fact, the directions didn’t seem to lead toward Lake Michigan or any other body of water, which we assumed would be the natural habitat of a lighthouse. Dad teasingly asked Mom, “Do you think Elaine sent us on a wild goose chase on purpose?”
That got us kids interested in the absurdity of what we were doing. With each unsuccessful leg of the hunt, the atmosphere inside the car became more giddy and collegial – a rare transformation given our usually chilly family dynamic. We seemed to be a bit drunk; I’d heard my father loosened up once, from drinking bourbon, and I imagined the euphoria I was feeling might be like that.
Peter and I competed to come up with clever observations about the elusive lighthouse, laughing indiscriminately at anything we said and egging each other on. Mom tried consulting a map and Dad kept driving, but they both listened and smiled. We took the lack of a request to pipe down as encouragement to keep the repartee rolling. John, generally a placid and non-competitive sibling, drifted off into a happy nap amid the hilarity.
“Mrs. Reinemann forget to mention that this lighthouse is on WHEELS and it moved!”
“Maybe if we just wait until dark, we can follow the beam of light to find it.”
“I think it was a model of a lighthouse she saw in a museum. Like, 10 inches tall or something.”
“It’s probably the color of the sky, that’s why we can’t see it.”
“No, it’s painted green and looks just like the trees.”
John woke up and giggled, catching up with what was going on. “Why did the lighthouse cross the road?” he squealed.
Mom extended her bare left arm across the top of the front seat, turned around and looked at us. “I don’t know, Johnny,” she said. “Tell us.” Her thumb played with her wedding band, moving it around – a habit she had when she was relaxed. I looked at the gentle whorl of her elbow, remembering how soft the skin of her arms and hands had felt around me when I was little like John.
John didn’t actually have an answer. He was at that age when he thought just posing the question was funny enough.
Dad piped up: “To make it impossible for us to find him, that’s why the lighthouse crossed the road. And then he kept walking and disappeared, never to be seen again.”
This was unheard of, Dad participating in a kid’s joke. I felt a rush of warmth and love toward my misunderstood and underestimated father, and a pang of guilt about enjoying the salt episode at lunch. Then I felt the same warm rush toward Mom and John and even Peter.
Dad got Mom to agree that it was getting late and we needed to give up the search. The back seat went quiet again as we got back on the highway and the five of us returned to our separate thoughts. We hadn’t found the lighthouse, but I’d found things I’d been needing – laughter, shared purpose, creativity and a sense of belonging. This was my family, and I loved us, and if we only occasionally would come together again in that same joyful way, it would be enough.
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