A Scheming Neck

In “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” one of my go-to movies, the Portokalos family obnoxiously clings to their Greek roots while living in America. Toula, the first grown daughter to dare to date an American, struggles to keep the peace with her ultra-traditional, over-protective father. In one scene when Toula is particularly upset with her father’s stubbornness, her mother encourages, “Let me tell you something, Toula. The man is the head, but the woman is the neck. And she can turn the head any way she wants.”

Though I (very fortunately!) do not have a family quite as crazy as Toula’s, Mrs. Portokalos’ wisdom holds true.  Even as we grow up, Hoffa is clearly the head of our household; he leads us, generously provides for us, and does not hesitate to discipline when necessary. But, there is also no question who is determining the Comptons’ direction.
You see, my mother is a schemer.
When she and Hoffa got married, they talked about taking a trip around the world. The Comptons are notorious for talking, rather than doing, but about a year later, a 27-year-old Mama confronted him.
“Alright, David, are we taking this trip, or what? Because if not, it’s time to start having a family.”
Hoffa responded with little hesitation. “Uhhhh, I think we’ll take that trip.”
She came home the next day announcing that she had given her two-week’s notice at work, which I think surprised Hoffa a little. The reality that they would soon be strapping on their backpacks began to set in.
So they went. The three-ring binder photo albums Mama meticulously scrapbooked from their four and a half months of travel provided hours of entertainment in my childhood, and the stories my parents share from that trip continue to humor and inspire me. While riding mopeds in Greece, Mama shocked Hoffa by intentionally jumping off as he approached a bend in the road, thinking he surely would have turned by now if he were going to. When virtually everyone speaks a foreign language, English-speaking travelers, different as they may be, begin to stick together. Along the way they connected with a loud New York Yankee and a sensible, witty South African.
With the Berlin Wall still just recently crumbled, they tramped through and enjoyed inconceivably low prices in Eastern Europe. After they figured out that nodding one’s head in Bulgaria means “no,” and shaking means “yes,” La Crème was a highlight. While most guests were in their formal wear and officers donned their full uniform,  the American dollar in the my parents’ blue jean pockets more than compensated for their grungy backpacker appearances. With a string quartet playing in the background, they dined over a five-course meal, caviar included, for seven dollars. Understandably, they went back the next evening, still wearing the same clothes.
After the return of three very drunk men to the hostel room they were all sharing late one night, Mama got so put out that she abandoned them the next morning and began walking through Budapest’s grand, Soviet-influenced streets alone. Given her shockingly poor sense of direction and having no way to reach her, Hoffa was not sure he would ever see her again. Welp, it was nice being married I guess. She eventually made her way back, because they went on to marvel at the ruins of Ephesus in Turkey, bop through Germany and London, soak up the heavy mist of Zimbabwe’s Victoria Falls, and in South Africa, almost were charged both by an elephant in Kreuger Park and baboons in Capetown. They finished off their last month in the tropics, snorkeling off the Great Reef, enjoying every gratifying lick of fresh blackberry ice cream in New Zealand (they still talk about it today), and settling right in to island life in Fiji and Hawaii.
Obviously, that was the trip of a lifetime, but when the Compton kids were old enough, the tradition was resurrected. Mama’s schemes continued, employing her ability as the “neck” to move the “head” toward destinations all over the world. Using credit card points for the flight and often staying with friends, it was economically feasible to travel together. In 2007, aged 14, 12, 10, and 8, the Compton Clan ventured over to Ireland “to visit our first cousins.” While waiting for a layover at the Newark airport, the accent was already so different that Cain asked, genuinely curious, “What language do they speak here?” Needless to say, the even more distinct Irish accent was a challenge for him to understand. Though it was great visiting family, we only saw them for two days, and we spent three weeks in the United Kingdom… The first week, we stayed at the Sandy Field, the humble extra cottage of some family friends located on the strand of Sligo Bay in Northern Ireland.
The modest table inside only seats three people, so we ate dinner atop a blanket on the grassy knoll everyday.
After a second week in Killarney, we took a ferry to England and were guests at Dean’s Court, a different friend’s manor inherited generations ago after the Catholic church’s property was divided in the aftermath of the Reformation. Everything about that first trip, from the plane ride to the pubs to driving on the other side of the road, was new and exciting.
Almost every summer since then, Mama has made it a priority to whisk the family away somewhere, instilling a love of travel in each of us and allowing us to spend quality time together in the absence of distractions. As we grow up, these trips are also her plot to keep the family together. So far, it’s working.
2008: California (San Francisco, Yosemite)

 

2009: Return to Sligo County, Ireland

 

 

2011, January: Cross Country Skiing in Bend, Oregon with the Hayes Family

 

2012: British Columbia (Whistler & Vancouver)
(and celebrating Canada Day!)
2013: Nosara, Costa Rica
And now, here we are, in the present, just over twenty-four hours into our ten-day 2014 adventure in Durango, Colorado.
We flew into Albuquerque and stopped for lunch at El Pinto, a family-owned restaurant with a 1,000 guest occupancy capacity. The rental car woman (who probably got a kickback) recommended it, and she gave us a coupon for free appetizers, so we checked it out. El Pinto is one of those places that has framed pictures of famous people like Katy Perry and the presidents and Gabriel Iglesias all over the walls. Maybe it is a tourist place, but the ingredients were fresh, and the ambiance authentically southwestern. It also has a full-blown salsa factory in the back, making over 25,000 jars a shift. After trying my first Chile Rileno, I relaxed under the giant pergola laced with ivy, enjoying the gentle breeze and the absolute lack of humidity.
“Y’all! We’re on vacation! Gahh, I love you. I’m so happy to be with you.”
I am notorious for these random outbursts of joy. I just have this uncontrollable desire to verbalize the obvious, to declare my affection or gratitude for the abundant goodness around me. They all laugh and roll their eyes. “Oh, Jessica, there you go again.”
But it’s true. We are so blessed, and though we have all been living under the same roof in Charleston this past summer, it’s inevitable that we disperse to our individual daily to-dos at home. Here, the focus is on each other.
“You know, we really have a good time when we’re forced to be together,” Mama points out.
“Yeah, especially when we put our phones up,” I respond. “Now where is my phone?”
The powerful smart device we each keep by our side really is the primary distraction from full-throttle family time. Well, yeah, our various phone apps, and also the Lego Movie. I kid you not. After lunch we stopped by a Red Box, and what do we watch on the four hour road trip to Durango? As we drive blindly by an unfamiliar landscape of distinct mesas bulging out of New Mexico’s dry, bushy savanna? The Lego Movie. Yep. And my siblings have been bursting out singing “Everything is awesome!” ever since. The only thing potentially worse than that movie was the number of times we had to roll down the windows due to the rear sides of select culprit siblings. It must have been the Mexican cuisine at lunch, I’m not sure, but some of that gas was downright potent.
Mama took her scheming to a new, wonderfully frugal level this year. We signed up for Home Exchange, and the people whose house we are residing in are currently staying at ours back in Charleston. From the back porch, just beyond a bit of suburbia, there is an incredible view of a sharp, jagged-top mountain, stretching hundreds, if not thousands, of feet above the cowboy hat and boot struttin’ locals of downtown Durango. As for altitude, we are adjusting. The single beer that feels like 1.5 beers at this height is a plus, but not compared to the lack of oxygen I am fighting. In the brisk, sixty degree morning weather (sixty degrees!), Georgia, RoRie, and I ran for a bit. Ten minutes in, my body was just fine, but my lungs were not. It was like they had forgotten how to work and little needles were threatening to poke all around them. I would breathe in as much as I could, and the oxygen just would not be enough.
I am not alone, though. Today we also hiked the short but precipitous trail just outside our house, and 59-year-old Hoffa took it like a champ. After we decided that all Compton trips forevermore will be tracked with the hashtag #ComptonsConquer, Hoffa kept brainstorming. As he caught up to us huffing, he announced he had another hashtag idea.
“How about…[deep inhale, heave of breath] #ChildrenPonderParentalProperty…andPerhaps…PursuePatrocide…astheyProceed…TowardthePrecipice.”
“Yeah, hashtags don’t really work like that, Hof, but good alliteration. We’ll try not to kill you on this hike.”
It always takes a little while for the Comptons to settle in somewhere. We have failed for seven years straight to do any significant advance research before a trip, so we spend the first day or so checking out the area and lounging around the house. A few years ago, my frustrations over our inability to get going before noon almost ruined my whole experience, but we have found a balance. This morning Mama and I hashed out a list of things we would like to do while we are here to go forth with a bit of purpose.
I doubt we will accomplish everything, but I am already satisfied with our goals, and I bet we will check off over three quarters of the list. While it still takes several more hours than I prefer to rally ourselves out the door, I have since learned to content myself with the rhythm of vacation, slowing down and filling my need for productivity with writing, reading, praying, and running.
Most of all, I am thankful for this precious time with the people I love the most. Twenty-three years after my parents ventured on their trip around the world, the legend continues. Though the novelty of riding planes may have worn off since 2007, I treasure these trips we share, especially now that their future is hazy. With the uncertainties that accompany post-graduation, the annual Compton family adventure may begin to disintegrate, losing members to full-time jobs and the responsibilities of adulthood. Hopefully we can still keep it going, but for now, I will appreciate these past seven years, and I will enjoy the present. Thank you, Hoffa, the head of our house, for taking five other people around the world on your dime. Thank you, Mama, for being the neck to turn him toward an annual Compton adventure. May Durango be fun and memorable, and may the travel schemes continue!
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