Day Trippers Part 1 — Goin’ out and Gettin’ a U-Haul Trailer

Fall, 2009

On the morning I first returned to work after we brought Penelope home, Bernadette confessed her terror about being left alone with our daughter. Her fears baffled me and I brushed them off (I shouldn’t have! I told you I have a great deal to learn!) and said: “The kid is two. Keep her entertained, feed her and let her nap.”

Bern’s mom instincts kicked in full tilt when I said that. “It’s not that simple. What if when she’s sleeping she chokes on her own vomit?”

I replied: “What? Did we go to China and adopt Jimi Hendrix?”

OK, I have to flag myself for a 15-yard personal foul. One of my faults — among many — is that I am impetuous and will sometimes speak or write before I think. (Yes, it’s one of those items on my self-improvement list. I now wear a rubber band on my wrist and snap it good whenever I do something stupid. And yes, my wrist is swollen and bright red.) My poor fifth-grade teacher, Miss Baron, once gave me a D in conduct because I couldn’t keep my big fat potato trap shut. That’s when I learned the valuable lesson of never mouthing off on report-card day.

Well, I survived my first day back at work, and Bern survived her first day alone with Penelope. And despite a few metaphorical bumps and bruises, Bern’s real trip to the hospital and a few jangled nerves, we quickly developed a routine that works for us. That system fell by the boards quickly when Bern needed to write newsletter copy, and I needed to take Penelope somewhere — anywhere — one Saturday so she could work.

Since Penelope had pretty much mastered “Inkin,” I thought it an appropriate time to move on to George Washington. I hoped the blanket of gray enveloping the northeast in the morning wouldn’t douse us and planned a trip to Valley Forge. I set modest goals: Make sure Penelope returns home with both eyes, all limbs intact and no singed clothing.

But first I had to get us out the driveway, and this proved a far trickier task than I anticipated. I’m a light packer by nature: When I go to the beach I’ll bring a book, towel and suntan lotion. In contrast, Bern will take all of the above plus a small stack of magazines, a cooler full of snacks and beverages, a chair, a boogie board, a sweatshirt, an extra towel . . . you get the idea. I’m not saying one way is better and another worse, we’re just different. I once survived two weeks in Cincinnati with just a grocery bag of clothes. I don’t recommend it, but it can be done.

I’m astounded at the amount of stuff one needs to pack for a two year old. For a five-hour excursion with the Peanut, I piled next to the car a diaper bag, a fresh change of clothes, a pair of rain boots, an extra sweatshirt, a rain jacket with a hood, a bib, pajamas in case the trip ran longer than expected, a stroller, the back carrier (or, as I now call it, the “Penelope Pack,”); a water bottle, a snack trap with banana cookies, a lunch bag filled with snacks and drinks, a blanket, baby doll, neck pillow and extra toys to keep her occupied in the car. For me, I brought a camera and a sheet of paper with directions to Valley Forge National Park (and since the directions came from Mapquest I’m just as likely to visit Bangor, Maine as I am Valley Forge, Pa.).

I open the car door to pack this load and am stunned to discover the bits of Cheerios, Goldfish crackers, books and toys that litter the floor and seat. The back of my car looks like a campsite after it’s been visited by hungry bears. I ignore the mess and load the car, amazed that I managed to shoehorn everything into the Prius. I’m quite proud of myself until I realize I forgot to make room for Penelope.

My first attempt to slide Penelope around the stroller, above the carrier and atop the diaper bag into her car seat fails when her shirt snags on the handle of the stroller. My next effort to swing her in the direction of the trunk and squeeze her around the back fails too. The other rear door is jammed shut so I don’t even try that, and my idea to get her in between the two front seats almost works, but when I get her in the car seat I realize she has zero wiggle room and it’s not very safe. One overzealous turn and she’ll be buried under an avalanche of snacks. Granted she could probably eat her way out, but it still looks dangerous.

I repack a second time, squishing the stroller into the trunk and moving a few more items to the front seat, and feel confident that this arrangement is better. Now, I understand why the Partridge Family drove around in that bus: They needed all the extra room for the matching velvet costumes, Tracy’s tambourine, Keith’s groupies and Reuben Kincaid’s toupee.

Now, we’re ready to roll. With my car shocks bouncing in time to the “Sanford and Son” theme that’s running through my head, I turn left out the driveway toward the highway. Penelope is comfortably ensconced in her car seat, munching on banana cookies and singing the alphabet song. I love her version because her alphabet contains 39 letters and includes 14 Bs.

Then I hear a cough. Then another. With Penelope’s third cough, my eyes dart to the rear-view mirror, expecting her face to be the color of a blueberry, and that it’s taken less than five minutes into our day trip for her windpipe to be constricted.

Whose stupid idea was it to send me out alone with a toddler? Oh yea, mine.

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