Summer Rhythms

One August night every year, around 10 p.m., my dad slammed shut the trunk of our silver station wagon, which ...

One August night every year, around 10 p.m., my dad slammed shut the trunk of our silver station wagon, which idled on our back drive. Layers of duffel bags, stuffed with swimsuits and summer bedding, filled the rear window. Bikes—two bolted to the roof and three fastened to a bar on the back—weighed the car down. The packed station wagon looked ready to escape the Dust Bowl. But my family was always headed east, away from Cleveland to a simple house near the beach on Martha’s Vineyard.

Cozy in pajamas and moccasin slippers, my sister, brother, and I piled into the backseat. I always sat next to the left window, behind my dad, the driver. He liked to drive through the night and reach Woods Hole, where we boarded the ferry, before noon. By lunchtime, we were sitting on a sandy blanket beside the Atlantic.

My siblings and I slept from Ohio to the potholed state routes in upstate New York, when the sun began to rise over the soft peaks of the Catskills. We contorted our faces for travelers in passing cars and eagerly motioned truck drivers to sound their horns, cheering at that rare honk. Eventually, my brother would plead with my mom to play with his new toy. The day before departure each year, she took us shopping and let us pick out a vacation toy, which we weren’t allowed to open until we had crossed the Sound. My mom usually safeguarded the toys in the wagon’s trunk, somewhere between body boards and grocery-filled plastic containers. To occupy us, she also bought books on tape, perfectly timed for the trip’s length. One year, “Cheaper by the Dozen” ended exactly as we drove onto the ferry.

During the ride, I preferred to gaze out my left window. Unreasonably short, I sat straight up, sometimes on my hands, to glimpse the empty ski lodges of Windham, the glittering Hudson River under the Rip Van Winkle Bridge, main streets in the Berkshires. As I watched the landscape whiz by, my dad would briefly take his eyes off the road and look at me in the rearview mirror. We’d make eye contact in the mirror, then both smile. The journey was long, but it wasn’t draining. Everyone’s excitement seemed to grow as the odometer spun.

I was 11 or 12 when the ritual began to change. My mom convinced my dad to break up the drive into a two-day affair. We left Ohio during daylight and my mom packed a picnic lunch, roast beef wraps, carrots, and pretzels. We stopped for the night in East Durham, New York, also known as the “Emerald Isle of the Catskills.” The water in our motel’s swimming pool was an alarming green. When girls in curly wigs started prancing around the dining room’s parquet floor during dinner, we learned that the motel was also the headquarters of an Irish dancing camp. We checked out at 6 a.m.

The next year, my dad reluctantly agreed to give up state routes in favor of I-90 and I-87. It will save us hours of driving, my mom said. And she was right. Yet we no longer passed through Alfred, where a restaurant served red chicken fingers, or Great Barrington, where I first sampled fresh-squeezed apple juice. Outside my left window, off-ramps and highway sprawl replaced much of the scenery I was accustomed to. But my dad continued to glance back at me through the mirror.

With high school came a long-awaited growth spurt, and my knees pressed into the back of my dad’s seat. We replaced the station wagon with a larger, hunter green SUV. My left window, tinted, still offered the now-familiar highway panoramas. But CDs of David Sedaris and Augusten Burroughs succeeded the tapes of “young adult” authors. Conference calls with my dad’s clients punctuated the racy readings. Then, a few years ago, a publishing internship in New York kept my sister from traveling and, for the first time, we weren’t together for August. Lately, I have taken a bus or plane in from wherever I’m spending the summer. My parents drive with my brother. Last year, they were alone.

Returning on the ferry to the mainland and driving back to Ohio at vacation’s end was never particularly fun. It’s like falling asleep at the end of your birthday when you’re a kid, realizing the day’s over and you have to wait 12 months for another. But there was still next year to look forward to, there was infinite potential for next year. Getting older means dealing with unpredictable change. That drive through western Pennsylvania, upstate New York, and rural Massachusetts was my constant. Sitting in the backseat, I knew what to expect out the left window, in the rearview mirror. But the rhythm of summer is changing.

—D. Patrick Knoth ’11, a history and literature concentrator in Dunster House, is a former Magazine chair. He wants to remind you that it’s called “the Vineyard,” and if you don’t know which one then you should probably be reading The Voice.