My daughter likes me to tell the “kooshoo” story. It takes place back when I was a little girl, and my parents, my three sisters, my brother, and I were staying in a hotel room on our way to somewhere exciting, like Florida, for a spring break trip, far from our cold Michigan home. We had been driving all day on an interstate, fueled by the gum my mother passed back to us, the activity books we burned through, and the promise of going swimming when we got there. While we unpacked in search of our swimsuits, my younger sister, Karen, found the room key my father had set down and put it inside suitcase while no one was looking. When it came time to leave the room, my parents asked her, after searching for a while, if she knew where the key was, and she answered honestly. But she couldn’t say the word “suitcase” correctly. In the version I tell my daughter, each child politely takes a turn asking the next youngest child if they know where they key is, and every time it’s my little sister’s turn, she says, “It’s in the kooshoo!” Finally, someone figures out what she means. Everyone laughs in relief and we quickly find the key, then head out the hotel room door to a happy ending in the pool.
Now I live far away from the siblings and parents with whom I once shared that hotel room. When I tell the story, I think of how it felt to be six years old, riding on long trips in the back of the station wagon, cramped but happy with my little sister, the suitcases, the collie snuggled alongside us. I consider that we rode without seat belts, and without a sense that not wearing a seat belt was wrong.
My kids, my husband, and I sometimes travel by car from Oregon to California to see my husband’s family. We stay at hotels with pools, somewhere halfway, like Medford, or Ashland. We swim as soon as we get there, and if we have enough time, we let the kids swim again in the morning. They splash and race and jump and fight. We threaten them with leaving the pool; they somehow make up, and then we swim some more.
I know enough about road trips now to know that my memory and my re-telling of the “kooshoo” story flows too happily over what that day must have really been like, like a skimmer that skirts over the surface of the pool without even touching, let alone lifting out, any of the leaves and twigs that float on its surface. I know my siblings and I were probably terrible in the car. I’m sure we repeatedly asked, even after being told not to ask anymore, when we would get to the hotel. And when we got there, and got ready to swim, our bodies simultaneously exhausted and impatient, and then had to wait in that little room crowded with beds covered in dingy bedspreads and scratched-up mismatched suitcases, while my parents searched the room for the key, we probably whined and refused to help. If I were my parents, I might wish I had never had taken five kids on such a long trip. I might have said that if we didn’t help find that key RIGHT NOW, none of us could go swimming. Likely we did not laugh when we realized what the “kooshoo” was. Likely we blamed Karen for using up our valuable swimming time, and pushed past her when we at last ran to the pool. “DON’T RUN!” my parents probably called after us. We ran anyway.
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About a month ago, a few days after Christmas, I learned that one of my colleagues at the college where I work had been killed, along with her husband, in a car accident, on their way home from a trip to see family. Their four-year-old son survived. Another father of a young child, driving the van their car hit when they were struck from behind, was also killed.
I didn’t know my colleague well, but I recognize myself in her. I know she was a kind and loving person, but I wonder if she ever felt impatient, and if all she could think about that day was getting home. I wonder if she worried more than she should have, or if she let her son’s calls from the back seat fray her determination to be patient. I think about the car accidents I have been in—twice hit, close to home, while my daughter was in the riding with me, and how those stories could have ended differently. I think about her son, secured in his car seat, and yet now unfurled into a world with such unhappy endings.
My daughter likes the “kooshoo” story because it transforms the hard things about the everyday life of children—a lost key, a misunderstood word, impatient kids and parents—into family comedy. In the version I have created for her, all of us look for the key together, undeterred by a long day of driving past McDonald’s on our way to peanut butter sandwiches at the next rest area, of sitting in the stale air at the back of the station wagon, of losing patience with the people we love the most. None of that matters. The four-year-old has hidden the key in a way that entrances all of us—“kooshoo” is the magic word. It keeps us safe. When we find the key, we laugh, because we can all go swimming. Together.
For Shannon O’Leary, Adam Clausen, and Robert Burke