The highlight of my childhood was summers at my uncle’s house in Florida. Towards the end of each school year, my brother and I would be itching for freedom, anticipating the beach and seafood.
We siblings barely endured one another during the long car ride. I annoyed him with long-winded stories that nevertheless made Mom and Dad laugh. He tortured me when I needed to pee and we couldn’t stop. The closer we got to the state line, the more humid the air became, and the more annoyed Brother was that I sat “too close.” It was unavoidable, if you ask me – his gangly legs took up nearly all of the backseat.
Rest areas were my favorite. We were so excited when the two-car caravan pulled into the first Florida welcome center. The men got out to stretch their legs and smoke cigarettes; the children raced to play under the palms trees; the women unpacked the picnic lunch.
On the stone picnic benches behind the restrooms, we feasted on sticky rice, homemade deer jerky, Mom’s famous sausages, spicy tomato paste, and tham maak hoong, which was prepared on site with a mortar and pestle stowed away among our luggage.
We fed the seagulls while Dad and Loung (Uncle) Lay dozed in the shade, both snoring loud enough to scare the birds. When they were fully rested, we loaded everything back up and continued on our way.
We stopped at the first sign of the ocean, eager to get out for a photo and smell the salty breeze. Not much further now until we reached Loung Phoui’s house. He and Pa Tho-Noy (the little aunt) had a small two-bedroom place that, to me, seemed open to the elements. There were always lizards scurrying along the interior walls, common as palmetto bugs.
Our visits usually lasted a week, giving us plenty of time to see Busch Gardens, the alligator farm, and Sunken Gardens. Once, we even went to Disney World. I never saw a real beach until I was much older, but it didn’t matter – as long as we were in the ocean. The whole family would look for clams, dredging the sand with our feet in the shallow, murky water. If you felt a lump, you dug it up and hopefully it was a clam (I always got rocks). Then Dad would build a small fire, and we’d have a clam roast right there. Mom brought a jar of homemade spicy dipping sauce. The lime juice and cilantro compliment seafood very nicely.
A crab pinched my brother’s toe during one of these clamming adventures. Startled, he slung his foot out of the water, and the crab shot forward. Somehow, it managed to snag my cousin’s bathing suit bottoms while in midair. She screeched frantically and went splashing through the water for a minute before we could detach the thing. Once we stopped laughing, Mom showed us how to break off one of the smaller rear legs and wedge it in the joint of the claw, so the crab can’t pinch. Then she tossed it into the clam bucket.
That was our interpretation of an American family vacation.
Those were carefree days.
Loung Phoui and Pa Tho-Noy moved in with my parents about 10 years ago. My family has neither the time nor the money to go on a Florida vacation. My cousin, Viengxay, passed away in 2010, and I cannot imagine a family trip without him. Brother and I live far from home, while the rest of the refugees stay close to the Shire. We return to them as often as we can, on days we can get away from our respective responsibilities. It’s how we spend many of our vacations now.