Summer means using your “packing gene”

Around the same time our family moved to Leaside back in 1965 or so, my grandfather built our family cottage on Twelve Mile Bay, which flowed directly into Georgian Bay. We knew how lucky we were to have a cottage where we could spend weekends and summer vacations. For nearly 60 years now we’ve been enjoying that same family cottage and we’ve never taken it for granted. But back then, with a family of six, packing the car for a weekend or longer at the cottage was a daunting task requiring special skills that took me a while to procure.

My father was born with what I call the “packing gene.” He just seemed to be able to size up the giant pile of debris stacked in our front hall awaiting transport north to the cottage and know exactly how to pack the back of the station wagon. He’d start by spreading out a sleeping bag in what we called the “very back” of our Ford Country Squire. This “floor space” had to be protected as one of the four kids would stretch out in the very back for the two-and-a-half-hour drive. I know what you’re thinking. Was that safe? Certainly not by today’s standards. But back then, there weren’t even seatbelts in the backseat so lying in the very back seemed no less safe.

Dad would then play a vintage version of Jenga crossed with Tetris to orient and position each bag, cooler, cardboard box, and the dozens of other items, in just the right way. He had an instinct – perhaps a gift – for choosing the perfect spot so everything miraculously fit. I assumed I had inherited my father’s packing gene, but when I was 15 years old, we discovered the hard way that perhaps I had not.

My mother, my twin brother Tim, and I were about to embark on an epic journey from Toronto to Winnipeg to drive our grandparents out for a family reunion. I can’t remember why, but my father was out of town and would not be making the voyage. Excellent planning on his part. Because Tim and I were still a year away from getting our drivers’ licences, our mother had to handle all of the driving. But what we could do was shoulder responsibility for packing the car. Dad had prepared us well and we felt ready.

We reserved one side of the station wagon’s very back for the sleeping bag where Tim or I would rest while the other entertained our grandparents. We carefully experimented with the most effective and efficient configuration for the 12 tons of luggage we had to pack. I should point out that my grandmother was infamous for bringing dozens of small, oddly shaped individual objects that had to be packed separately. We’re talking about things that didn’t exactly seem critical for such a long road trip, including a single coffee mug, a stapler, a couple of ceramic figurines known as Hummels, a jar of mayonnaise, a tin of Humbug candies, a handful of pens, finishing nails, a small hammer, and multiple boxes of Kleenex to keep Gramma’s sleeves replenished. And that’s just a partial list. But we somehow managed and stuffed the car to the gunnels in a very thoughtful and organized manner. We thought Dad would have been proud. And Tim and I were immensely pleased with our packing job and already felt we were ready and worthy heirs to our father’s car-packing crown.

We all piled into the car. Well, we helped our grandparents into the backseat using a well-oiled process that only took about 35 minutes. Then Mom slipped behind the wheel, Tim jumped into the front passenger seat, and I assumed my horizontal position on the sleeping bag for my first shift in the very back.

And then…on our very first right-hand turn from Donegall Drive onto Parkhurst Boulevard. Not on the fourth or fifth turn, or the second day of driving. No. On our very first turn — while we were still in front of our house — the entire load toppled onto me. A well-trained St. Bernard rescue dog could not have found me beneath the rubble.

While the Jaws of Life were not required, they were on standby. The trip resumed an hour later after my exhumation from the pile. We did make it to Winnipeg on time. And we learned a bit more about packing the car, a gift I’ve now passed on to our sons. Happy motoring!

A two-time winner of the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour, Terry Fallis grew up in Leaside and is the award-winning writer of eight national bestsellers. His most recent, Operation Angus, is now in bookstores. You can also subscribe to his newsletter:

About Terry Fallis 85 Articles
A two-time winner of the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour, Terry Fallis grew up in Leaside and is the award-winning writer of eight national bestsellers, all published by McClelland & Stewart. His most recent, Operation Angus, is now in bookstores.