Tourist Traps and Bittersweet Nostalgia

*all photos are from September 2001*

Niagara Falls, Canada – August 1978

My brother, Billy, spouts off facts as we stare down at the Horseshoe Falls from the observation deck. The water that tumbles over the Falls ends up in the Atlantic Ocean via the St. Lawrence Seaway. And so on. Billy is eight years old and has already memorized our encyclopedia.

This is our first family trip outside of Michigan. We can afford to do one tourist attraction in Niagara Falls. The Maid of the Mist® is too expensive, and we shouldn’t waste our money on wax museums and other tourist traps. The Journey Behind the Falls® is the most interesting thing in our budget, according to my mother.

Afterwards, we visit the free Daredevil Museum and learn about the people who went over the Falls in barrels. Most of them died, but the first successful person was a woman from our hometown – Bay City, Michigan. My little sister, Pebby, declares that she wants to be a daredevil when she grows up.

We go to the lookout point over the whirlpools, and then we pass by the Floral Clock. My father asks me if I want to stop, since my new interest is horticulture. I glance at the clock and shake my head in disappointment. It’s too well-behaved. I prefer wildflowers. My mother says that she’ll give me a corner of our garden next year, but I shouldn’t be too disappointed if wildflowers won’t grow there. Some plants cannot be tamed.

Back at the motel, we eat sandwiches and chips and watch my father’s favorite show, All in the Family. We laugh together. Billy, Pebby, and I haven’t fought at all on this trip. My father has been a lot nicer to my mother since he quit drinking, but sometimes a shadow still passes over his face. He hasn’t drunk in over a year. He switched AA groups because he didn’t like how they talked about God all the time. His new group is no different, but he has suddenly become interested in God. He now says that he already knew everything in the Bible. He just forgot for a while.

When the show ends, my mother says that we have to go to sleep, because we have to go to church in the morning.

My father says that we can skip church this week, because when we get home he’ll start going with us.

We stare at him.

He flashes his goofy grin. “I’m ready to go back.”

Billy, Pebby, and I cheer. My mother smiles at us.

In a couple of weeks, I will start the fifth grade. Then I will turn ten. I’m at the big kids’ school, St. Joseph’s, and I finally have a best friend. The Clique doesn’t bother me as much. And now I have a normal, happy family. Everything is going to be okay.


September 2001

My sister, my husband, and I stare down at the American Falls from the observation deck. Two Maid of the Mist® boats glide under the Falls. They look like plastic toys in a bathtub. A cold wind blows. We shiver. Instead of going on the boats, we opted for a haunted house – Screamers House of Horrors®. My husband is still baffled by the whole experience. They don’t have haunted houses in France. They don’t consider fright entertaining.

My sister ended up becoming a professional daredevil. For several years, she worked for a circus company at water parks around the world. She dove into pools from platforms up to ninety feet high. She’s recently retired from that profession and has begun to study ethnobotany.

Does she remember anything from that trip so long ago? She was only five years old at the time. I want to ask her, but she’s hungry and grouchy. She’s lost weight, even though she needs to eat every two hours.*

Looking back, I realize that the voices had already begun to whisper into my father’s mind, but we were too blinded by hope to notice. He had chosen religion over drinking. That’s all that mattered. It’s okay if he says that he knows everything in the Bible. Just let us be happy.

And, for a short time, we were.


*Just after this trip my sister found out that she had picked up pinworms while living in Korea.*