For years, Santa Claus came to our house a couple days early,
a tradition held over from my own childhood when we’d spend the entire holiday
at our grandparents’ house in New Jersey.

Like me, my own kids spent the days just before Christmas in
the car: Long drives to Long Island, Manhattan, Queens, Baltimore, the Jersey
Shore in the worst possible traffic, the most brutal weather and, in the days
before GPS, with a high probability of getting lost somewhere along the way.

We’re not doing it this year. I’ll be home for Christmas,
which is just fine by me.

Right now I’m choosing to remember the bad stuff: The
crying. The complaining. The rationing of snacks. The ill-advised bathroom
stops. The missed exits.

There were more than $40 in tolls between Greensboro and my
parents’ house on Long Island. For many years, my oldest would vomit somewhere
around the Maryland state line. We changed diapers in parking lots, spilled
food over brand-new upholstery, sat simmering for hours in resentful silence
after quick, hot arguments — inevitable during long hours on the road.

Now, the five of us barely fit in the car. Our days of long family road trips, I suppose, are done.

It wasn’t all bad. During those years we showed our kids Baltimore, Washington DC, New York City and a dozen more locales off the Interstate 95 corridor, giving them a sense of the scope and breadth of the East Coast.

We went from using my father’s old bound roadmap atlas,
which acquired notes scribbled in the margins over the years, to printed-out
triptychs pulled from the internet. I used to calculate the estimated time of
arrival in my head, before our phones told us exactly when we’d arrive.

I remember one foggy night on a back road in the early days, with all the kids asleep in the back seat. My wife and I espied a glorious orange moon in the distance, through the bare winter trees. Together we experienced a moment of gratitude for the beauty of it all, holding hands across the center console as we drove on.

As we got closer to this glowing orange harbinger in the
sky, we realized it was a Burger King sign high on a pole by the highway ramp.

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