The Rambler

After years of teaching Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, I remembered a long-ago car trip my mom, my younger sister Jan, and mom’s parents took to Florida in 1965, just before I started kindergarten. My grandfather drove an olive green Rambler with no air conditioning. Even if he’d had it, I rather doubt he would have used it, though it was August. He made grandma sit on the hump in the middle of the backseat because she was too fat, and he was afraid she would redistribute the weight of the car if she got an actual seat on either side and perhaps tip us over. In fact, he would call over his shoulder, careful never to take his eyes off the highway, “Mom, have you shifted to the left? I feel the car pulling that direction,” and haughtily, my grandmother would realign herself in the center of the backseat, on the hump. My sister and I were pressed tight against her (but her skin was always cool somehow), our outer sides pressed against the inside of the back doors.

Grandpa made a raw wooden “sandbox” that fit on the top of that Rambler with all of our suitcases piled in it. Then he tied a yellow rope around and around it, over the sandbox full of duct-taped-secure Samsonites, and then under it by way of opening the car windows and looping it through several times. Can you picture this? I can, because the knot of the yellow rope kept hitting me in the head!

Also, my grandfather wouldn’t let anyone else drive, and he thought it best to stay below the 75 mph speed limit common at the time and instead creep to his brother’s house in Miami at about 52 mph. We were, all of us, sweaty and fussy and dusty. Yet, we got there eventually and I remember playing in the white sand of Miami Beach. But then, a week or so later, we had to get back into the Rambler and resume our crawl to Illinois. We were the Judds in Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, trying to outrun the dust bowl, the famine, and the Great Depression that we were all in at the time. I remember waving good-bye to my father and my mother asking him through the passenger window if he was SURE he didn’t want to join us. He laughed and said, “Yes, he was quite sure he would simply hold down the house and await our return.”

I suppose I remember that trip so vividly because my blankie I had loved and rubbed on my cheek and lips to fall asleep at night had, in my almost-five years, become just five beloved strips of faded blue softness (because my mother thought it unsanitary unless she washed it four or five days a week) prior to that “vacation.” At each seedy roadside motel where we five slept, I would say to my mom the next morning, “Did you pack my blankie?” She would say yes, it was in her purse, and then we’d climb over each other but dodge the rope knot getting back into the sandbox-topped Rambler.

About an hour or so down the road, I would get sleepy and ask mom for my blanket. She would make a lengthy, deliberate search of her purse and say, from her designated passenger seat up front, “Oh honey, I’m so sorry. I think I forgot it and left it back at the motel.”

I would get frantic and say to my grandpa, “Turn this Rambler around and take me back to the motel” wo that I could go get my threadbare strips. But he wouldn’t budge. He was determined and just kept inch-worming us toward Florida. I said, “Then we have to stay at the same motels on the way back so I can get my blankie strips.” Mom was quite certain the maids would have thrown them away, not realizing how valuable they truly were.

I was crushed. By the time we got home, I had one measly strip left of my blanket. Mom left my blankie(s) intentionally because I was to start school that summer and she decided it was high time I parted with my security blanket.

You are probably wondering about that last strip by now, aren’t you? Well, I hung onto it doggedly and did not let mom launder nor come near it. She broke my trust. Maybe forgetting just one strip was forgivable. But she forgot FOUR TIMES.

Here comes the finale: Just before Christmas, Mom convinced me to wrap my swaddling cloth in gift paper and place it beneath our artificial silver tree with the four-colored light fan that turned the tree red, yellow, green, and blue. Her idea was for Santa to take my precious blankie to a poor child who didn’t have one. Hello! Who was I the next morning? We were preacher’s kids who lived in a parsonage. Our grandparents’ drove a used green Rambler. I had no blankie.

I have laughingly teased my mother in the ensuing years that the loss of my blanket may have contributed to my drug problem years later. I hope I have overcome that loss by now, 36 years later. But there are days when I’m not so sure.

Judith Ann Hillard
21 May 2002