Childhood Road Trips


Coming Home from Breast Cancerville

Growing up as the second eldest of five children in a working class family our holidays invariably involved car trips. Long car trips. With a father that found a perverse pleasure in sandwiching all of us into our bright orange VW Kombi van and traipsing off to national parks where we would endure his OCD tendencies in the erection of our very own bright orange tent. 

We would depart from our home, and after some weeks enjoying the delights of that particular National Park we would be sandwiched back into the Kombi van and drive home. The tantalising allure of my own bed was what kept me sane and invariably my father would refuse all beseeching to stop for respite (read toilet breaks) and at some ungodly hour as I sat with my eyes closed, head leaning against the cold glass I would register the gear change and braking as the car approached Langs Road. Then the acceleration up the hill, more gear changing before we turned into our street and he screamed to a stop in the driveway. We were home. 

When I was enduring Breast Cancer treatment I had this same yearning for the journey to be over. To get back home. Consequently, when the idea of writing about my experience started to form, the road trip metaphor really resonated. Let me flesh out the picture for you of what the family road trips of my childhood looked like.

There was only ever one driver on our family road trips and that was my dad. Sharing the driving was not an option for him. It wasn’t because he lacked confidence in my mum’s driving ability (or at least I don’t recall that being the reason). It was more to do with him being what I will politely call a control “enthusiast”. My mum occupied the front passenger seat but I wouldn’t necessarily describe her as an engaged co-driver. She spent most of the drives doing a good job of tuning out not just my dad but everyone else in the car. She either knitted, did crosswords or read her books.

No road trip was complete without a plastic basket full of library books. Mum would make a pilgrimage to our local library prior to departure and borrow out enough books to read on the outward leg and for when we arrived at our destination. I got my taste for procedurals/crime novels from mum along with a penchant for Barbara Cartland, Mills & Boon and Harlequin Romance during my teenage years.

These were the good old days (or not so good old days depending on your perspective). No iTunes, Spotify or Pandora. No USB connection to keep your iPhone charged and headphones firmly implanted in each passengers’ ears. No, we were at the mercy of the box of cassette tapes that dad had at his disposal. Think Cliff Richard, The Shadows and at one point Tommy Emmanuel on rotation. Acoustic guitar through tinny car speakers was the order of the day.

My siblings and I are all book worms and it’s little wonder. We had little else to do but bury our heads in whatever books we had bought along for our own amusement. Dad was not a big fan of the rest stop unless he needed to top up the fuel tank. At those times he would note the odometer reading in the little spiral notebook that came on every road trip and then note the amount of fuel he had pumped into the tank. Then he’d get out the Casio calculator and work out our mileage for that leg of the trip. It was in these moments that we were all on a mission to get to the bathroom as he would often resist stopping if this was the only reason to gear down. Many a time we held on to our bladder for kilometre after kilometre because dad refused to even pull over to the side of the road unless it was absolutely necessary. 

Dad was the dictator of the route our road trips would take. As far as I can recall no one else had a voice in the decision-making process. He would conduct the research. He would determine the most expedient route and he would decide where we would stop along the way. Being a dab hand with a socket wrench he would conduct the pre-trip vehicle maintenance to ensure that our VW Kombi was in top road tripping condition. I suspect that my mum was left to verify that the roadside assistance and insurance was in order. 

An essential and memorable part of preparing for one of our family road trips was the deliberation over what route to take. As a child of the 1970’s Australia can attest the font of wisdom for all things navigation was this thing called a Road Atlas. In our case it was the RACV (Royal Automobile Club Victoria) version. My father would pore over that book. This pre-internet relic containing the roads of the day was the road-tripping version of the bible.

As you can see the road trip was fertile ground when I began workshopping how I wanted to recount my breast cancer experience. I started with a mind map and headings such as destination, rest stops, roadside maintenance, direct and alternate routes flowed naturally. In some ways this was my creative juices flowing but it was also a way of insulating me from the trauma of writing about what was a terrible period of time. Our family road trips are such a part of my childhood and in some ways it’s good that mum and dad are not here to hear them recounted so mercilessly by me. On the other hand, it’s sad that they don’t get to see how I’ve woven them into my breast cancer memoir and recorded them for posterity.

Unlike our family road trips I was to learn in the process of writing Coming Home from Breast Cancerville that this particular road trip wasn’t a round trip. The home I left when I set out on Treatment Highway is not the home I was to return to. It’s been about getting comfortable with a new home, a new normal.

Can’t wait to hear what you think when you read the book. If you’re getting your copy shipped to Australia you can buy your copy here. I’m still setting up getting Amazon set up for international orders (another blog post entirely on the painful exercise it is to set up an Amazon seller profile!)


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Coming Home from Breast Cancerville by Liz Van Vliet