Every year, Facebook writes the soundtrack to our summer. Before the drive from Toronto to Toney River, Nova Scotia, my husband sends out a call asking friends for their current favourites in the way of new music. (The drive. It gets its own definite article. It has its own shape, size and duration. It is its own character.) The hive mind answers; he previews, shops and downloads the hours and hours of new music that will fill the hours and hours on the road, the music that will fuel us for the long drive. It is the medium through which we will watch the scenery pass, it is the soundtrack for the deep contentment of having hours to talk at our disposal. Our three boys spend the journey happily gorging on movies, under headphones, and we get rare and precious time alone together, with our own choice of music. The digital age of minivan travel.
While my husband secures the rooftop carrier, I do the final check of the packing list. Two dozen movies for the kids to watch in the car? Check. Banker’s boxes full of books, two thirds of which will not get read? Check. Suitcases filled with lots of clothes we won’t get around to wearing? Check. Bag stowed in a handy spot, filled with educational activity books that won’t get opened, let alone finished? Check. A flight would make me economize on excess baggage. The minivan allows me to pack in all of my good intentions, unrealistic goals and all of our unrealized potential. I pack the freight of expectations; the urgency to realize them will settle to a quiet resignation of not having done so by the time we pack up to come back home.
I am Canadian, but I did not live here until I came to Canada for university. As a child, Canada had been the country of bi-annual summer visits to my father’s parents and his many, many siblings in Quebec. Canada began in a rented car, driven from Mirabel to the suburbs of Montreal, glimpses of light sparkling off of the water in the above ground pools in the back yards of the modest houses on winding streets. From there, we’d drive to the family farm in St.Pierre de Broughton, past patchwork fields, then past countless church spires to Thetford Mines, and, finally, the winding pine-lined road to Lac Beauport. Canada was the sharp smell of the rented car’s air conditioner, the sound of the Expos game in French on the radio. My father tuned into his native language before the car left the airport parking lot, and AM radio was the sound through which we watched and waited for the unfamiliar to seem familiar again. At house after house, my brother and I unfolded ourselves from the back seat into the embrace of familiar strangers whose tie to us was by name and not proximity.
I came, finally, to live in Canada when I was 18, and I fell in love with my passport nation. I loved the books I found here so much that I now have a Ph.D. in Canadian Literature. I met and fell in love with a Canadian while doing that, and now we have three little Canadians of our own. Three little Canadians tucked into the back of a minivan, enjoying the limitless screen time, oblivious to the scenery outside.
My husband likes to keep his playlists on shuffle mode. I do not. I like the sensation of a song ending and being able to hear already the first few bars of the next song. I like to know what’s coming. I don’t think that the linearity of the album should ever be tampered with, and once it’s on a playlist, I like a song to stay in the position I put it in. Life is so full of unpredictable outcomes; why not keep music simple and familiar? Still, all of this music is new, so shuffle mode makes no difference. I fight the unpredictability of the summer playlist as we settle into the comfortable grooves of the well-worn paths of our conversation. Our hopes for the future, what we want for the kids, the ends we have in mind.
I swing around and see them transfixed and feel a pang of guilt. I have drugged them with technology. Should I force myself to force them to unplug and look outside at the views I saw on the highways from Montreal to Quebec City? It’s just highway, and, this year, we are just passing through. There are no Expos for my kids to follow now, and to listen to French radio while we drive through Quebec would be a forced performance of memory. Should I interfere with the delicate mechanism keeping them from fighting, crying, making the drive unbearable? No. No, I should not.
I submit to shuffle mode, to this year’s version of the new. Of course, what I wanted to hear—the sure thing, the good stuff—was the new of previous years. I know this. I know that I am listening, uncomfortably and unsure, to what will be next year’s comfort. I know that experience is unfolding and I will be able to track and trace its best bits a few months hence and burrow into the safety of the known.
New Brunswick is the most scenic part of the drive. Miles and miles of smooth highway, miles and miles of fences and moose gates that must have cost millions, and a thick curtain of trees right behind them. All this evidence of technology and civilization, all this protection from civilization for the wildlife, and hardly any actual people on the road. It’s easy to imagine the hills without the signs of human occupation. We visit the Ship Hector every year, the model of the ship that brought Pictou’s first permanent settlers to Canada from Scotland. I cannot think of settlers without thinking of the density of the forest through which they had to cut in order to settle. Imagine, after surviving an Atlantic crossing, having to face that wall of trees.
When we get off the highway and onto the Sunrise Trail that snakes along the northern shore of Nova Scotia, the familiar patchwork of farms and seaside cottages unfurls, and the excitement and exhaustion of arrival well up in me.
I know the drive is nearly over when I see the laundry lines along that coast, with the blue sea and the blue sky behind them. Tethered to a house at one end, a single line stretched to an electricity or telephone pole, its occupants blocking the view to the sea. The sensation is purely visual: we are still inside the car, still insulated from the world outside. Soon we will unfold ourselves from the car and take in deep breaths of the smell the ocean and freshly cut grass, breathe and begin our vacation.
What pleases me most is the devotion to orderly sorting. Sheets pulled taut on the line, with the matching pillowcases placed adjacent. Billowing shirts, t-shirts, men’s, then the women’s, the “smalls,” the baby’s tiny sleepers and socks all lined up from big to little, a tapering homage to domestic order. I hunger for that order. More accurately, I hunger for the energy to make it happen in my own home and garden, in my work, in my plans for my children, our days and our futures. I do so admire the extra effort taken to make the laundry line look attractive. Someone, let’s face it, some woman, has taken the care to pull and peg each piece by size, to create an image of order that she herself will not look at. It is for us, this billowing tribute, the passing drivers, tired and in search of the end of the ribbon of road, and the orderly arrangement of linens on a line seems to me the proper tribute to a blue Maritime sky.
Plenty is on holiday for the next two weeks, and we are publishing from our archives. This post originally appeared on August 29, 2016.