Gulf Shores family trip

Editor’s note: Many of you are suspicious that I am “Lainey.” So, confession: While some parts are fiction (if my dad is reading this, this passage is complete fiction), most of it is me, the me that misses my mom, loves to bike and to cuddle my kiddos. It’s a book that I hope talks about the big picture and the little moments. Ultimately, it’s a tribute to my mom, my best friend — learning to say good-bye to her but also remembering all the hello’s. I would love to hear your own stories! (Dad, you can save your comments for later, much later.) Email me at

Her father insisted they all go, all of them, even those who didn’t want to go. He was, after all, the only one who did. Their mother had died in January. In March, their father wanted to continue the Gulf Shores tradition.

The drive down took 21 hours, every inch of which Lainey’s father wanted them to caravan. This meant her family and her two sisters and their families were to take every left turn and off ramp in unison.

Each daughter raged inside the privacy of her own car at the injustice of having to go just 72 mph on the highway, eat at a McDonald’s without a Playland, or worse, with.

Despite their grievances, each one felt it was some small solace to her father, for he liked control in the best of times. Could they wrench it from his hands now? Their father saw and felt this storm gathering; yet he did not acknowledge it. He wanted them together and together they would be.

The weather, as they drove, matched Lainey’s mood. Gray skies followed them from Michigan down through Ohio and into the South. Colorless cloud banks as far as she could see.

Lainey decided she would sleep to ward off the power struggle unfolding among all the drivers. She shoved her pillow up against the car window and her forehead slid until it met the coolness of the glass.

She looked out and up, the sky everywhere and nowhere. Had her mother looked out the window last year like this, wondering if it was her last trip? Or knowing?

The grief always came like this. It would slip away and let her resume some normalcy: let the dog out to play, straighten the kids’ room, cut a sandwich into triangles for her son; then it would rush at her, invisible, and slam into her.

The smallest thing would set it off, like when the window’s coolness touched her skin and she felt alive in that singular sensation, that precise point of touch.

It was without warning and head-on, a shove to her stomach, her mother nowhere, her mother everywhere. It was unfathomable, that nothingness.
She felt it now, her forehead still against the cool glass and her eyes taking in the blur of gray. Is this what it felt like? Where her mother was? This fate seemed unbearable.

The kids kept chattering and the radio kept playing and the wheels kept turning as if her mother had never died. She felt the squeezing in her chest, the shove and push physically twisting her.

She fought to keep it inside, even when her husband reached over and took her hand.

She didn’t look up. They drove the rest of the way through Tennessee like this, her hand in his, her head against the window, her breathing measured, her eyes shut, the children laughing. 

The days passed in Alabama with them all standing around, pretending to have fun, yet anxious to get back to their rooms at night, the daughters to cry into their pillows, the husbands to try to salvage something from the trip. But all of them looked away, stricken, to watch their father go to bed alone each night.


And so it was that the family was mired in a world of sadness and confusion until a delightful event unfolded in the parking lot of Bruno’s Supermarket. It was the third night of the trip and the girls had fought over who would get dinner.
Everyone wanted this small window of freedom, to take their father’s grocery list and $100 bill and tack on booze and Cheetos under the radar.

“I’ll go. You can watch the kids.” This from Lainey’s older sister.

“No way,” Lainey’s other sister said, snatching the list. There was a silent standoff among the three girls, hushed, outside the door to the condo, the men inside oblivious with five children shredding the wallpaper and dismantling the door trim.

“We’ll all go then,” Lainey said, the idea novel, unheralded in this time of need. Taking shifts with their mother in recent months, they never saw each other except in passing, in updates issued in the driveway or on the phone, one moving into the space the other had just vacated.

They half ran then to the elevator, scrambled into the box of silence and zipped down to the darkened parking lot, a magic tunnel.

They had Dad’s keys and the oldest sister, as always, would drive. The ride was short but thrilling, her sister taking extra care to rev their father’s well-cared-for engine. She took the corner sharp into the supermarket and clipped the curb for the pleasure alone. The mood was high.

“Nicely done,” Lainey said as they sprung from the car.

And that’s when it happened.

After 40-some-thousand miles of meticulous upkeep on his prized sedan, Lainey whaled one of the doors into a light pole.

“Ohmygod, ohmygod, ohmygod,” Lainey yelped, sick in the quarter second of silence following the thud. The girls surveyed the damage, doctors around the patient.

“There’s a fricking dent all right,” one sister said.

“You’re dead,” said the other.

Lainey freaked out, running around in little circles, screeching and grabbing her stomach in panic. Her dad would not be OK with this. It would ruin his vacation. Losing his wife two months ago was one thing, but this, this was another.

As the hysteria built, another car pulled into the lot. The woman exited her car with one eye on the three frozen women and the other on her purse. The moment she was through the doors, the secret began.

“That woman hit Dad’s car,” Lainey whispered into the dark. “Yes, it looks like someone doored it.” She rubbed the thin dent up and down, relief flooding through her. Yes, with some theatrics and outright lying, she could get out of this without a permanent record.

“You can’t lie to Dad!” This from one of her sisters.

“You,” Lainey stepped up to her face and then inched in another hair, “Will-Do-As-I-Say.”

The girls fell to pieces laughing then, the warm summery air engulfing them, pushing back the memory of the cold winter air over the cemetery at home. The new sounds of the tourist town mixed with their laughter, deep and thick, coming until their guts hurt. They fell into each other, shoving and loving and hugging and giggling and pointing again at the crime before falling into fits again.

They all agreed they would feign surprise when their father found it. They would all remember coming out to find a car parked too close, and they would all, the most crucial part of the plan, not look at each other while piecing together the clues with their father.

It saved the vacation. The sisters hinged the better part of the trip on it, the telling and retelling and stringing out and gathering up and rebuilding of it.
They returned to the condo that night a team again, their sisterly love (and deception), spanning the unbearable sadness, creating a bridge from what they had lost to what was left.

They took the feeling home and wrapped their father in it, the playfulness, the love, the relief that they were together still in some way. Thankful, at last, that he’d brought them here.