jen groeber: mama art

4 kids in 3 years: reflections on motherhood, art and life.

The Family Road Trip

There’s a radio station on the web called Pandora. And like it’s namesake, you type in your favorite artist and WHOOSH, that artist plus hundreds of similar artists fly out into your airwaves. Type in Van Morrison and you’ll eventually get some James Taylor, maybe some Bob Dylan, perhaps even Jack Johnson. (Seriously, put it on. This would be so much better with music.)

Around the holidays I discovered that you can dial up Bing Crosby Christmas. From there we found Solo Piano Radio (so Zennnnnnn), Safety Dance Radio (S-s-s-s-A-a-a-a-…) but my new family favorite is Family Road Trip.

Because it turns out that Family Road Trip isn’t just a station, it’s a genre, dare I say, a mental scrapbook. Pandora believes it can define “the family road trip” with a certain kind of music. And they are so right.

Harry Belafonte, Van Morrison, Beach Boys, it’s a station that my kids just love. It’s bright summer days and watching their little pre-bath naked bodies squirm and writhe as they run through the living room combining break dance, Beyonce and ballet to great affect. It’s gorgeous, this life Pandora has painted for us.

Growing up in the 70’s and 80’s our one and only road trip was to Cape Cod, Massachusetts for a stay in a rental cottage for one week each summer. This place, this seasonal cottage with a vinyl fold-out couch that I made my younger brother sleep on once I deemed him too old to share a twin bed, this was heaven.

Dad, Butchie, my sister, younger brother and me, summer 1977

Dad, Butchie, my sister, younger brother and me,
summer 1977

Early on we brought my older brother Butchie, who was severely retarded. He hated the sun, hated the sand, hated change, loved only a television, which our tiny cottage lacked. His habitual screams, really a sing-song sort of hooting that our New Jersey neighbors had mostly acclimated to, was an annoyance for the vacationers and journeymen around us in their own uninsulated cottages with their own out-of-state license plates.

Eventually, Butchie stayed home with a local family who poured their very Christian love down on us through this one act, watching my brother for a week each summer. They had kids my age at my high school, but we weren’t especially close. Even then, I was pushing against the boundaries of my own narrow Lutheran faith, and their rigid beliefs seemed suffocating, to say the least. But their generosity in watching my brother, this could make a believer out of anyone.


There was even a sign in the window “Cape Cod or bust”

And so my mother would anxiously make lists, and those lists would have lists. Things to pack, things to buy, things to do before we could leave, Butchie’s medicine, my Dad’s medicine, and so on. We’d map out the route, plan the one bathroom stop and my sister, who always had to pee, would be cut off liquids at lunch the day before our departure.

When I was five I got carsick on I-95, somewhere in New York or Connecticut, so for the next fourteen years my mother would give me Dramamine beginning at dinner the night before. She would actually tuck me into bed, sometimes on the back bench seat of the VW bus, and I would hardly wake until we’d reached the Bourne Bridge.

Oh, the excitement of this trip. I remember, even through my drug-dazed stupor, I would peer out the windows and sniff the salt air. It was a magical place, the Cape.

And there was no music on the radio as we travelled, just KYW, Traffic on the Tens, jabbering through the day. In my haze, I would lie across the back seat. I’d listen to the murmur of my parents talking in the front, some years accompanied by the hum of my father’s feeding machine hung from the coat hook just behind his window. The smoke from his Marlboro reds would drift across us like a blanket. My sisters would read or talk or fight. One sharing the long bench reserved for me, the other sharing the short middle row with my younger brother.


Chatham Light

We’d pull up to the lighthouse in Chatham and look out over the beach below waiting for the clock to tick to 11am. (Yes, my mother would make us leave that early.) And then we would wind our way down the hill, past the tennis club and the fine homes to the tiny enclave of rental cottages and our treasured D9. If the family before us was still packing up my family would park the bus just behind their car and my mother would glare swords until they vacated our new home.


Sister, sister, Mom, brother and Dad
D9 cottage in the background

I thought this was going to be a story about how much better my kids’ summer trips are, but somewhere in my remembrance, it shifted.

There was such joy and love in my dysfunctional family for these stressful trips to a rickety cottage two blocks walk from the beach. There was such reverence felt for the ten inch square view of the ocean you could only see out the tiny window over the sink in the dark little shotgun kitchen. To this day when I smell something amazing like honeysuckle or beach roses accompanied by saltwater breezes, I say, “This smells like Cape Cod.”


Sister, sister, Mom and Jennie

Even if I’m in Maine or Nova Scotia or Ipswich, MA. Still, “This smells like Cape Cod.”

My kids get bigger views of the beach, that’s for sure, and less stress when I ninja the Yogibo and every other toy, snuggle and art supply into the car. They get educational and artistic videos that we pick from the library for the car ride and they each are snuggly strapped into their safety harnesses, with juice in their sippy cups and a bowl of food, like brussels sprouts, carrot sticks, and pigs in the blankets, to eat during the ride. It’s no vinyl-seated VW bus back there, I tell you.

I’m sure someday they will tell the stories about how Mom always made them use the portable car toilet at the truck stops because it’s cleaner. (You judge?) They’ll remember how we yelled at them to put on their seatbelts or how they never got to watch the movie they really wanted. Perhaps they’ll even say we took them away when they really wanted to stay at home and play with their school friends, sleep in their own beds, ride their bikes.

But deep in their remembrances, I hope they will put that Family Road Trip station on and they will feel it in their bellies like I feel it today. They will feel the excitement in heading to the ocean, the comfort of humming along a highway with their siblings at their sides, ensconced in this indefinable love.


Our kids
Summer, 2013

Here’s what the Family Road Trip station played for me while I wrote this. It’s no wonder I got nostalgic for that VW bus.

Rocking Robin, Bobby Day

Over the Rainbow/Wonderful World, Israel “Iz” Kamakawiwo’ole

Best Day of My Life, American Authors

Day-O, Harry Belafonte

Stand By Me, Otis Redding

Do You Love Me, The Contours

My Girl, Temptations

Lollipop, the Chordettes

Runaround Sue, Dion

Say Hey (I Love You), Michael Franti & Spearhead

Don’t Stop Believin’, Journey

I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles), the Proclaimers

12 comments on “The Family Road Trip

  1. Matt
    May 6, 2014


    I love what are minds are capable of when we mash up what we see, hear, and feel. And how so many things can trigger those good feelings many years later.

    • Matt
      May 6, 2014

      Or “our minds,” you know, if I want to appear literate.

      But I don’t, really. So, I wrote “are” on purpose.

      • jgroeber
        May 18, 2014

        I LOVED your post on autocorrect. Really. I can’t tell you how many times my own sleepy brain (lay vs. lie? there vs. their?) or quick typing (u instead of I, “are the” vs. Aretha) has left me with the most ridiculously befuddled or just ridiculous or offensive comments or posts. Remember I was the one who texted dick to my babysitter?!

    • jgroeber
      May 18, 2014

      Right? How do we magically imprint that on our kids though? Lolliop (the song) equals singing in the car with the windows down. Do You Love Me (the song) equals dance parties in the living room while Dad loads the dishwasher. We just play the music and hope, I guess…
      (And thank you.)

  2. evelyneholingue
    May 6, 2014

    Such memories are treasures to cherish. And since I know well the places you are writing about I can smell them too. Thank you.

    • jgroeber
      May 18, 2014

      Oh, I love that these places are familiar to you, too! Honeysuckle and beach roses. Seriously. On my death bed someday may someone please fill my room with the scent of honeysuckle and beach roses and the sounds of the ocean (or Van Morrison.)
      (And thank you.)

  3. jennbird77
    May 7, 2014

    “I thought this was going to be a story about how much better my kids’ summer trips are, but somewhere in my remembrance, it shifted.” I loved this turn. That’s the best isn’t it? When you sit down to write one thing and then realize the truth is something else entirely.

    • jgroeber
      May 18, 2014

      Yes. That’s what I love about your writing. You so often do that. You begin one place but end another. Although, in retrospect if we look back, we maybe see that it was always headed that way anyway.

  4. kellyinrepeat
    May 11, 2014

    I love this! Also so glad to know about this station before I pack up all the kids for Florida next month (exotic? No. Volleyball. Again). Happy Mothers Day to my favorite virtual mom, a kindred spirit found amongst the vast www. Xoxoxo k

    • jgroeber
      May 18, 2014

      Happy Mother’s Day, my parallel-life blog-pal. I do hope Florida treats you right (and that your lovely girl kicks some volleyball-rump!) You have to Family Road Trip your adventure! It’s the perfect soundtrack. Oh, or maybe make your own mix! Remember when we did that, back in the day? Your kids would definitely keep that mix tape for life.

  5. Margie S
    May 11, 2014

    So nice to hear about your fond Cape Cod memories with your family. It is one of my favorite places. Every fall, I tuck away my beach cover up (unwashed) in my dresser and take it out in the middle of the winter just to get a whiff of the beach and the Cape. Works like a charm.

    • jgroeber
      May 18, 2014

      Yes, yes, the salt-crusted cover-up! One year I found a handful of sand in a swimsuit pocket while sorting bathing suits out mid-January. We need to carry those healing scents with us to energize ourselves when we’re feeling low.

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This entry was posted on May 6, 2014 by in Memory and tagged , , , , , , , .

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