Tourist brochures and travel stories have long sold a specific American Dream version of the summer vacation. But as Kelly Duhigg learned, when your dad is a plumber and your mom is a secretary, you do the best with what you’ve got, and expectations can get complicated.
I shut my eyes and open them back up again, in a last-ditch effort to be basically anywhere else on the planet, except here. It’s no use. All I can see for miles around are pine trees, the not-so-crystal-blue waters of Lake Champlain, and the Adirondack Mountains. All I can hear is that deafening, somewhat maddening, endless quiet. The kind of noiselessness that makes it feel as though this place is totally devoid of life or anything that can make a nine-year-old girl’s heart swoon. Because, we are here again, at a cabin in Westport, New York, where the highlight of our day revolves around a forty-five-minute drive to the grocery store. We keep coming here because, well, we’re broke and it’s either this, or no vacation at all.
But my nine-year old self doesn’t want to hear that. She wants better than her mother’s best. Which is equal parts awful and understandable when you grow up in the town of Scarsdale, New York, a place where the streets are dotted with BMWs as far as the eye can see and where no one will even touch a latte unless it’s made with fat-free, organic soy milk.
And that’s why this jaded little girl isn’t satisfied with a shabby little cabin in northern New York. She has visions of jet-skiing in Barbados or scuba diving with whale sharks swirling through her head. However, when your dad is a plumber and your mom is a secretary, you do the best with what you’ve got. And right now, all my mom and I have got is Westport, New York. That and some slightly overcooked chicken nuggets from McDonald’s that our two voracious Cairn Terriers, Bonnie and Beau, would be all too happy to take off our hands. However, these two perpetually hungry dogs will have to wait since I’ve just popped the last one into my mouth. And while it isn’t fettuccini Alfredo, it’s better than nothing.
Plus, today is a better than average day since my mom and I are going to go play mini-golf. And we’re not going to just any mini-golf. Oh, no. We’re going to the most epic mini-golf course for miles around. The one that I’ve been perpetually begging my mom and dad to take me to since I was old enough to know what mini-golf was. If you imagine putting greens overflowing with animatronic dinosaurs, multi-colored unicorns, and life-sized pirate ships, you have some idea of just how awesome this place really is.
Usually, we just whizz past this snazzy little place every time we drive through the area. Those animatronics don’t come cheap, and all of my requests to stop here have been quickly rebuffed by my father. Today, however, is different because my father isn’t here. See, he’s back at home desperately trying to earn enough money to ensure that my mom’s cigarette-burn-riddled Jetta doesn’t get repossessed. And while money is beyond tight and the tickets to this mini-golf course are obscenely expensive, we go anyway.
As she tells me all about our upcoming game, I can see a twinkle in my mom’s eye and joy spread across her face. Sure, there are the wrinkles, the worry lines, and the hint of gray hair. But when I look past all that, I can see a brightness in her eyes and the faintest little smile across her face amidst that endless sea of financial worry. In the moment, I assume that this joy comes from the excitement of playing the game and from the novelty of trying a brand new mini-golf course. Her smile grows exponentially bigger as we clean up the last remnants of our lunch, put the dogs in the car, and walk over to the mini-golf course across the street.
Along the way, my mom grabs my hand and gives me a quick little double squeeze, which is our secret code for “I love you.” I unintentionally ignore the gesture and start yanking her over towards the golf course because I am just too overwhelmed by the awesomeness of this giant, animatronic dinosaur to think of anything else,
When I look past all that, I can see a brightness in her eyes and the faintest little smile across her face amidst that endless sea of financial worry.
“Mommy, what color ball are you going to choose?” I ask. “I think I’m gonna go with pink since it will give me luck and I really want to win.”
My mom replies, “You know what color I’m going to choose.” She sounds content.
“Ugh. Red, always red. Why do you always get the same boring color?”
“Because some things are perfect just as they are,” she replies.
“Is that why we have to go to the same place for vacation every single summer? You know, Jenny and her family are going to the Bahamas to swim with dolphins. Why can’t we go swim with dolphins? Wouldn’t that be so cool?”
My mom is quiet. I look over to see a hint of pain flash across her face.
“Right, Mommy? Wouldn’t that be so cool?”
“Maybe we can try and enjoy the game and being together, rather than thinking about what everyone else is doing.”
“God, Mom. You always say stuff like that.”
And just like that, the conversation is over. Because at that very moment, I am overwhelmed by the vibrant colors, flashing lights, and animal sounds that are ringing out all around me. In a stupor of mini-golf induced excitement, I bound towards the entrance and grab my golf ball and club, impatiently waiting for my mom to pay. She hands over what little money she has, takes her gear, and we commence our game, me desperately trying to win while my mom enjoys the hilarity that is her overly competitive daughter.
Eventually, there is a nearly apocalyptic meltdown around hole sixteen, the pirate ship of doom, a hole where my mom gets a hole in one and I struggle to get a hole in six.
I yell, “I SUCK! I HATE THIS GAME. WHY CAN”T I DO THIS?”
“Kelly, relax,” my mom coos. “Remember, it’s just a game. This is all supposed to be fun.”
I’m still seething. “Yeah, well, maybe if we went somewhere other than the country house then everything wouldn’t suck so bad.”
As I utter those words, I regret it. I know I’ve gone too far, but there’s nothing I can do to take it back.
I rush to apologize. “Mom, I…”
“NO! Just stop, Kelly. That’s enough!”
I snap my head around, bracing myself for a verbal lashing that never comes. Instead, a thick, uncomfortable silence hangs in the air. Sheepishly, I turn my head back towards my mom. What I see is far worse than any telling-off that I could have ever received. It is a heartbreaking look that is equal parts sadness and disappointment.
Our eyes lock and my mom lays down her golf club and slowly picks up the red ball that she had chosen for herself at the start of the game. She then places the ball in my hand and says, “Maybe one day you, too, can see the beauty of a red golf ball.”
I stare at her, utterly perplexed as to how a red golf ball could have anything to do with our current situation.
But I’m ecstatic that she seems to be a little less angry than she was 2.5 seconds ago.
Besides, who knows, maybe one day, that red golf ball might actually mean something to me.
And you know what? It does. It really does. Because even though my mom has been gone for well over seven years now, my memory of that day remains, as does my fond memory of that red golf ball.
If you enjoyed this, you’ll find more great reads on American places and cultures in our collection of Statesider original stories.