This is the time of year when we think “vacation.” My wife and I make plans to jump on a plane or a ship to go to luxury resorts or hotels and experience new things, taste different foods, and see other cultures.
Well, that is today – but there was a time when a vacation meant a two-hour trip down to the shore or a two-hour trip up to the mountains. In our case, it was up to the Catskills every year to spend vacation in my uncle’s house that was the size of a postage stamp, had four people and three dogs living in it, and had no in-house toilet!
Dad would spend one week of his vacation at the Catskills house. After he got home from work on a Friday night, we would load up the Ford Galaxie sedan and head up Route 17 to his brother’s place. The trunk contained four large luggage bags, a big fan, blankets, jackets, an assortment of pots and pans, and boxes with other cooking utensils. In the back seat (along with my sister) were pillows, more blankets, and pots with frozen chicken, chopped meat, and homemade pierogis all packed in ice. Why? Because in order to eat well for a week, since my aunt did not cook, Dad made meals for eight people every day. Mom’s job was to clean the house. We even brought our own water because my uncle never tested his well water.
What impressed me was all the work Dad put into the car before we left: tune-up, oil change, and even premium gas and a wash. If we did not reach my uncle’s house, it would not be due to the car. By the time the Ford pulled out of the parking space, we were low to the ground. Two hours later, just around dark, we finally arrived.
After sharing hugs and kisses, Mom started cleaning our sleeping area while Dad unloaded the car and was asked when he was going to cook his chicken soup. Mom set up the fan in the window on exhaust, so all the dog hair in the house would go outside. I checked the plumbing. Yep, a hand pump for water in the kitchen, a shower in the bathroom … but still no inside toilet. Turning on the outside light, I could see the two-crapper wood outhouse was still there. After 10 years in this house, my cheap uncle still did not have indoor plumbing.
By midnight we were all tucked in bed, with one of my uncle’s three dogs under each bed except mine; that dog sat on my chest all night, wagging his tail in my face. The next day, Dad was up early making breakfast for my sister and me. Mom had already swept the floor and taken a handful of dog hair off the fan. My aunt and uncle came into the kitchen and started eating the breakfast Dad made for us, but Dad didn’t say a word.
So my aunt started the morning conversation by asking Dad if he could fix the outhouse before it fell into the hole beneath it. My uncle, who had finished my breakfast, was lighting his pipe and reading the newspaper. My aunt was on her third cup of coffee and asking what was for dinner that night. Mom was cleaning the kitchen and Dad was starting the evening meal. My sister and I were watching TV, which only had two channels. (The phone was a party line with someone always on it.) I was constipated because I didn’t want to sit in the wood crapper that might fall into the hole beneath it. It was only day one, and already I wanted to go home.
Dad made two large pots of his famous chicken and dumplings stew for dinner. When we all sat down to eat, my uncle started feeding his dinner to the three dogs by hand. Dad lost it and reminded his brother about table manners. My uncle stopped feeding the dogs, but proceeded to eat his dinner without washing his hands. The next few days, my family ate on the picnic table outside while my uncle and his family ate in the kitchen. The tension was palpable. After dinner, Mom would finally finish cleaning the room where we were all going to sleep, only to find all three dogs lying on our beds. Mom did not say a word, but lit up a cigarette and sat outside with the rest of us. At night, Dad got an earful.
The straw that broke the camel’s back came after two days of working on the outhouse. Dad had fixed it, but my aunt complained about the fix. My uncle was silent. It was now Wednesday, and Dad had cooked them everything from chicken soup to spaghetti with meatballs. Not once did my aunt, uncle, or cousins say thanks.
On Thursday morning, Dad got me alone outside and said, “You’re sick and we are leaving early. I will explain to you later.” I told him he did not have to explain, and anyway I was still constipated – and I think Mom was, too, or at least she looked it. She had not stopped cleaning since our arrival.
As we drove away, I could hear a sigh of relief from my parents. We never went back to my uncle’s place, staying instead at a great hotel with a pool about 10 miles down the road for the next decade. As we pulled out of my uncle’s driveway after that last stay at the house, I remember saying to Mom, “Was this a vacation to remember?” She just smiled and lit another cigarette.