Family road trips, I have long learned, are microcosms of internal family dynamics. No matter what the particulars of the journey each trip tends to capture the roles each family member plays in relation to each other. Sometimes they can create family lore.
Before my parents divorced and I reached adulthood, my family had taken its fair share of road trips. We characteristically covered many miles, spending countless hours sardined-packed in a car, which believe or not, I welcomed enthusiastically. In those days, putting light years between me and Arkansas was a prized respite.
Our spring break road trip of choice was Florida, a two-day trip excursion to whatever part of the Sunshine State my father decided we should visit. One memorable Floridan sojourn we took friends with us, caravanning in two minivans. The first overnight we stayed in a hotel with a pool, a rare road indulgence. The next day was a reality check.
We rose early and began to load bodies and things into the minivans. I rode with my parents, taking the obligatory child back seat, while my mother sat shogun, and my father behind the wheel. Ready to roll.
As my mother climbed into the passenger seat, I noticed in her hand a Styrofoam cup brimming with orange juice, residue from breakfast. As soon as we were all situated, my father put the car in reverse, and we began to back out of our parking space to embark on the next leg of our journey. I was excited, the road part of the trip would soon be over, and then I’d be on a beach staring at the glistening ocean and taking in long whiffs of salty sea air, as my fair skin basked in the warm sun, and sand squished between my toes. I couldn’t wait.
The brief daydream came to a screeching halt when my father suddenly slammed on the brakes the precise second my mother put the Styrofoam cup to her mouth. I turned around expecting to see a car or person we narrowly missed, but behind us was nothing but space. I returned my eyes to the front seat to see my father laughing, which mystified me, and then realized my mother was doused in orange juice—and livid.
My father presumably had, to his way of thinking, played a practical joke on my mother, the kind reserved for emotionally challenged teenagers. He had purposely hit the brakes to upend the orange juice all over my mom.
True to form, another family road trip had managed to make a pit stop in hell. My mother jumped out the car and frantically tried to clean herself. Her face showed furious, but her temperament was remarkably composed. The collective eyes of the ensemble were on her. It was like a train wreck you couldn’t help but watch. My father inserted meek apologies amid his giggling. My mother wasn’t having it, repeatedly calling his name to voice her disapproval.
Eventually my mother got collected and returned to the van. I felt sorry for her. I felt sorry for us all. Why in the world would my dad do that? I suppose he could say he didn’t really know she was going to take a drink, but I knew that wasn’t true and my mom for sure wouldn’t buy it. What he’d done was meanspirited and uncalled for.
The remainder of the trip, a dark and tense canopy hung over my parents, nothing new for me. They carried on with the spring break show—they had well-honed public performance skills—and we survived.
The enduring memory from that spring break trip is how my mother weathered and overcame the lack of respect my father showed her. My mother remade my father’s flippen gesture into a joke, coining the phrase, “The Orange Juice Treatment.”
Someone recently said to me that everything in life, no matter how awful when it happens, eventually can become a source of humor. And so it is with that road trip incident. The phrase my mom coined is ingrained in family lore. To this day my mother, husband, and children invoke my mom’s memorable phrase as a warning whenever in the passenger seat while drinking. We simply ask the driver NOT to give us the “orange juice treatment” as we take a sip of whatever we have in hand, triggering a chorus of laughter. I am confident that were my father alive today, he’d share in the merriment.