From the way-back cargo area of the station wagon, where my younger sister and I competed for space with sand pails and suitcases, I watched my father pull to the side of the road. We’d been driving for more than an hour, and we kids were getting antsy. But that’s not why we were stopping.
My dad had pulled over to use a pay phone. It was the start of our annual summer week on Cape Cod, and he was calling a mid-Cape realty office to report that we had just crossed the Bourne Bridge. And to ask which cottages were available.
People are usually mystified when I tell them that my parents would pack five young kids into the car each year and drive to the Cape without having lined up any accommodations. My siblings and I never thought much of it. It was only when my wife and I had kids that I stopped to consider what a roll of the dice my parents’ no-reservations approach was.
When I asked my mom about it as an adult, her answer was practical: “If we reserved a cottage but couldn’t go that week because one of you got sick, we would have lost all the money we put down. And that would have been the end of our Cape vacation for the year.”
In my parents’ division of labor, decisions like that rested in my mom’s sure hands. My dad was a brilliant guy in most matters, except those involving math. As a public school teacher and principal, he could get through to anyone, even students with profound difficulties or disabilities. He once told me he did that by drawing on memories from math class, remembering how it felt to not grasp something that seemed simple to everyone around you.
The one time my dad made a major math decision without my mom’s input, we all paid for it. That year, he opted to take his summer pay as a “balloon check,” or one big advance at the end of June. Man, did we eat well that July. Man, did August drag on like a summer cold.
Most years we skipped the pay phone and went directly from our home in the Fall River area to the realty office, where available places were listed on index cards on a bulletin board. We often arrived on Sunday or Monday, rather than the customary changeover day of Saturday, and sometimes got a good deal for a nice place.
If rental agents figured my dad would be content with four walls and a screen door, they quickly learned otherwise. Invariably, in the course of leading us around to different places, the agent would take a liking to my father and feel motivated to find him a winner. My dad had that effect on people.
The only exception I can remember was the hunt for a piano. After a negotiation that felt like hours, the exhausted store owner fumed, “Fine, I’ll sell it to you for that price as long as you promise to never shop here again!” I immediately thought: Sweet! Let’s get out of here. I mean, how many pianos were we ever going to buy? But my father refused, saying he wanted both sides to feel good about the transaction. The owner shot me a can-you-believe-this-guy smile, and then warmly shook his hand.
There was a final benefit to doing the Cape without planning, which took us awhile to discover. One summer, my older brothers and I were ecstatic because my dad found us a cottage with a bunkhouse in the backyard. While my parents and sisters slept in the cottage, we boys would have our very own place.
If only this week could last forever, we thought. And then it did. It started raining on Monday, and the storm didn’t clear out until we had to, on Saturday morning. No matter how spacious that property had seemed initially, there are few places on earth that feel as confining as Cape Cod in the rain.
Every summer after that, my father wouldn’t back the station wagon out of our driveway at home until somebody checked the latest forecast to make sure it showed only sun.