Summer vacation in our household never equated to big trips. Going “out of state” meant, just ever-so slightly, crossing over the Wisconsin border into neighboring Illinois or Minnesota. My sister and I were robbed of Disney World and never experienced sand and surf until high school, that same trip being the first time we touched our toes in a body of water that wasn’t a murky, freshwater Wisconsin lake.
In the midst of childhood and adolescence, not being able to travel outside the confines of our friendly Midwestern state was a big deal. End-of-the-world type of stuff. It’d cause claustrophobia, frustration, and anger, the kind of frustration and anger that would spark comments like: “But, Mom, all the other kids get to go somewhere this summer. Why can’t we? It’s not fair!”
But in hindsight, I completely understand why summer vacations were limited to staycations, to borrow a twenty-first-century cliché. Those trips — domestically domestic — were all that our family budget could sustain, given my father’s addictions and, as a result, his growing doctor and psychiatry bills. My father was anything but a financial saver, while my mother was our financial savior.
Having worked herself tired and fatigued for years, she did all she could to pay our (his) bills as well as store some money away for the future; meanwhile, her compassion loaned itself to a deeper understanding that her children yearned for a shimmer of normalcy, that which came by experiencing the thrills of summer vacation in a world beyond our tiny Main Street.
Retrospectively speaking, I am thankful to have been privileged a getaway anywhere at all. Generations before me would probably have scoffed at the idea of getting away, visiting amusement parks, sliding down tubes filled with water, sitting beachside and becoming recreationally sunburned. Each single summertime excursion, albeit domestic, was a strain on my parents’ checkbook and my mother’s growing anxiety about “making ends meet.”
One of our traditional summer destinations was a town called Wisconsin Dells, where all sorts of tourist traps collide. As a child, it was the next best thing to Disney World that didn’t involve a trek across the country. Water parks, both indoor and outdoor. Petting zoos. Magic acts. Air and stunt shows. Mini golf around every bend. To this day, I get a sense of nostalgia when driving down the main drag, which, due to the town’s summer-reliant economy, becomes quite deserted after Labor Day.
On one such trip, we stopped at a local restaurant for a late breakfast-early lunch. The place was known for its barbeque ribs, or at least that’s what the flashing sign beckoned to passersby. The time couldn’t have been later than 11:00, probably closer to 10:30, an hour during which some late risers might still be enjoying an omelet or coffee. My dad, notorious for his notorious diet, demanded ribs. At 10:30. In the morning.
And with that half rack of ribs, he needed a cold beer. A tall, frothy dose of Miller, glass sweating from the summer heat.
At 10:30 in the morning.
Sweetly, the waitress informed my thirsty father that alcohol could not yet be served. Restaurant policy or something. They still hadn’t even prepped the kitchen for the lunchtime menu. Unbeknownst to this waitress, she was doing more than simply letting down my father. She was sparking an alcoholic rage deep within him.
Most people would accept a waitress’s comment, knowing that it’s not her fault for the policy but that it’s merely her job to enforce it. Most would gladly oblige and say, “Oh, that’s OK. I’ll just have a diet soda then. Thank you.”
Not my father. He caused a scene so embarrassing that I never again wanted to return to Wisconsin Dells. In fact, I wasn’t sure we’d ever be allowed to return to that town. With the waitress’s pride hurt, our family of four promptly left the restaurant.
All because my father couldn’t have a beer.
At 10:30 in the morning.
On a family vacation.
The human brain is a wonder. How it can remember the smallest details is beyond me. And how something like this has stuck with me all these years is baffling. Perhaps it was the sheer embarrassment, the look on my mother’s face, my sister’s confusion, my wish for my father to just shut the hell up and accept the fact that he wasn’t getting a beer this time. I wanted to grab him by the arm like a dad scolding a pouty child, because not getting a beer wouldn’t be the end of the world. It wouldn’t kill him. Life would go on. And there would be other beers and other opportunities, perhaps right after the restaurant, for him to drink.
Instead, I, humiliated, sank deeper into my chair, wishing the ground hadn’t been there so I could sink deeper still. Out of sight. Far from my father’s relentless urge to drink and, consequentially, ruin everything. That one moment, while physically harmless, summed up an entire childhood of Dad tarnishing family time and staining our beer-soaked memories.