By LORRAINE V. MURRAY, Commentary | Published July 10, 2014
It was an old broken-down gas station, but the only one in striking distance, and Annabelle was nearly empty, so we stopped. Annabelle was my father’s shiny black Chrysler, a car that became our vessel of liberation from New York each summer.
I can’t recall at what point my parents decided Miami was the Promised Land, but that was where we inevitably ended up for vacations. Each summer Annabelle traversed a familiar route along the two-lane highways in the Deep South where people spoke a dialect far different from ours. You see, for us, the plural of you was “youse,” not “y’all,” and salads were doused with vinegar and “erl.”
At this particular gas station, I headed into the stifling ladies room and was thoroughly astonished when I turned on the faucet and out gushed rusty looking water along with a sprinkling of tiny frogs. Since then people have suggested that was a plumbing impossibility, but my memory insists the event really occurred. And it certainly confirmed my belief that the South was a magical realm indeed.
After the gas-station attendant had checked Annabelle’s “erl,” we were on our way, but a few miles later, the two sweaty kids in the sweltering back seat began pleading for ice cream. My father was fervently devoted to the notion of making good time—which meant he hated stopping unless it was a real emergency—but as the chorus of whining grew steadily louder, he finally relented.
At the ice-cream store in South Carolina my father ordered four pistachio cones, but the clerk just stared at him, dumbfounded. It took us a few moments to realize the poor man had absolutely no idea what my father was talking about. When the clerk tried to explain the dilemma, the four of us were equally baffled because what was coming out of his mouth had to be English, but it was incomprehensible to us.
In the end we did get our ice cream, but only after my father resorted to sign language. I am sure the clerk went home that night to tell his wife that the Yankees were a completely different breed of people who even had their own unique tongue.
When it was time to stop for the night, Annabelle always ended up at a Howard Johnson’s motel, which boasted an adjoining restaurant that served scrumptious suppers. Invariably we all ordered the fried-clam platter featuring a mound of succulent crispy clams served on a buttered bun along with a hearty heap of French fries.
After supper we headed to the motel room where my sister and I were faced with sharing a double bed, which we never did at home. Without further ado she set down the law by drawing an imaginary line down the middle of the mattress. She told me in no uncertain terms that if I dared to invade her territory, something terrible would happen to me. As the little sister, I took her at her word, and spent the night hunched over on my side of the bed.
After three days on the road Annabelle finally pulled in to the Allan Motel on Southwest 8th Street in Miami, where our first impulse after unpacking the car was to change into bathing suits and jump into the blissfully cold pool. For the rest of the vacation, our days consisted of lazing by the pool or heading to the beach to picnic by the ocean.
This was all so many years ago, but the pilgrimages remain fixed in my heart forever. In fact, whenever I imagine heaven, I picture a glistening Annabelle moseying down the back roads in search of a Howard Johnson’s. My parents are young and healthy, and laughing over some private joke while the kids in the back seat clamor for treats. And in heaven I trust that dear old Annabelle would be fully air-conditioned, my sister would graciously share the bed with me—and my father would treat the baffled clerk to an ice-cream cone.
Lorraine is the author of eight books available at lorrainevmurray.com. Artwork is by Jef Murray. Readers may reach the Murrays at firstname.lastname@example.org.