The quiet legacy of those interminable Sunday drives

The dreaded Sunday drive was the bane of my otherwise idyllic childhood. After church, my grandfather often treated our family to lunch at restaurants in country settings fancy enough to have starched white linens, heavy silverware, and a view.

It was something we all enjoyed enormously.

My mother didn't have to cook the meal, and we kids were allowed the rare treat of a soda with whatever we ordered. (It is not the food, but that soda I remember best.)

After the feast, Dad relaxed magnificently from his workweek by driving us all around the rolling landscape of New York's Finger Lakes. If there were ever a guy at home behind the wheel on the open road, it was my father.

We kids would have given anything, except perhaps those sodas, to go straight back to Rochester, jump in our neighbor's pool, and while away the rest of the day under our own well-nourished steam. But there were dues to pay.

My sister and I sat in the back of the Chevy with Grandpa, gazing forlornly out the half-open windows over miles and miles of tarmac as Dad wound from valley to valley, lake to lake, ocean to ocean - or so it seemed. Mom later admitted that she could barely stay awake with our little brother nodding and lolling against her.

Thank goodness for the breaks. I remember lovely little wave-lapped beaches, fields sloping to dark hemlock forests, the achingly welcome feeling of a bit of movement, even if I couldn't fully engage the possibilities in my Sunday best. And if the ride wasn't too long, we'd even have a chance at an afternoon swim after all.

Annoying as they were at the time, I realize now that those rides left deep aesthetic imprints.

They were not my only excursions into New York's Finger Lakes region. My sister and I attended summer camp for years on Conesus Lake; our family hiked up and down Watkins Glen more than once; and I have revisited Seneca, Cayuga, and Keuka as an adult.

But when I think of the Finger Lakes, it is those childhood drives that come first and most forcefully to mind - the sweeping views from the ridge tops, the sun's play on big bodies of distant water, the winding descents, the up-close clean, shaley smell of the public shores.

It all came back to me this week as a friend from Massachusetts described in an eight-page handwritten letter (how rare are they?) he and his wife's September 2004 vacation in the region.

"Who knew?" he began. "We'd never even heard of Skaneateles."

He waxed eloquent about the bluffs, crystal clear waters, farmlands, dairies, glens, and falls.

And he added, "It all seemed kind of quiet midweek ... not bustling like Cape Cod or anywhere on the New England coast."

Quiet? He has no idea.

Those Sunday drives in the '50s - all of us replete with food and resigned to our fates - now they were quiet. Hauntingly beautiful. And unforgettable.

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