Thursday, May 29, 2008

snapshots from 2,200 miles in a very small car

Sometime I will write about “road trips that changed my life,” but for now I will simply say that road trips DO change my life. I am always ecstatic about the last one, dreaming about the next one, recalling many past trips as adventures.

I planned to visit friends, thinking “respite” and to change the scenery of our lives for a few days. Over the Rhine’s OHIO concert (once in a lifetime opportunity) provided the excuse, time-wise, but the concert is merely an excuse for making this trip now and not another time. The concert is an excuse to see friends who give life, who take us in, who make our lives delightful. I thought our extended families would be the third priority, and I thought nothing at all about the weather. As a family, I tend to think we will endure, and we will enjoy things enough to be fine.

But put me in a car with a brand new spiral-bound atlas, with tunes on the iPod (placed on “random shuffle” through all 1,200 songs) and everything can change. My son falls asleep with his classic chocolate-milk mustache and my daughter pulls out her recorder to learn Handel’s Messiah by ear, and Beetoven’s 9th (that’s “Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee” to her), and Scott and I look at each other, turn off the iPod, feel the wind from the moonroof, pass the cool drinks around. Anything could happen.

My son had an Evil Tantrum about which shoes to wear to church in Cincinnati, and drew blood on my arm with his unkempt fingernails—I made us late by rushing to change out of sweat-soaked clothes after the tantrum, but we walked into church to strains of Love Divine, All Love’s Excelling, also known as our wedding waltz. When the congregation held hands for a brief prayer (my friends’ congregation, where their voices can be heard as we sing and pray), my son was sitting behind me, sulking, but he lifted his face and wrestled his hand into mine and the anger melted, and I knew we’d be okay for the rest of the service.

At various moments in our travels, my children shined for others, brought out the best in others. The same son offers me the first sip of his root beer, which I don’t accept but I love his generosity just the same. My daughter eagerly courts a cousin she’s never met, making a new penpal of a girl who doesn’t like writing much. Time with my father, my stepmother, my brother and sister-in-law—my children were like movie-children, curious, helpful, asking good questions about PaPaw and NaNa’s favorite crafts and projects.

A “grown-ups only” breakfast allowed Dad and Ann and David and Jan to be as bawdy as they like to be, without taming themselves too much for me—I love it when they are “themselves” and not too cleaned-up for the “minister-girl” they still see me to be.

I didn’t think the trip would be “about” us as a family, but of course it is—the way we fail to rustle up a fast-food dinner fast enough and children are whining, and the way we say “yes” to the hotel swimming pool at 10:30 at night, yes to children who want to find the ice machine down the hall “by themselves.” The way Brendan begs for “healthy food” instead of fast food, and he devours brocolli and steamed carrots and chicken noodle soup and a fruit cup after too many chicken nuggets on too many days.

And the trip is “about” our extended family, the people we moved “away” from without half thinking about it. Bodies fail the people we love. I can’t write about it much yet. My husband spends time with his father and brother but I sneak off to get a tour of Uncle Irish’s garden, to cut rhubarb and let him talk to me about pears, about garlic, about the right fertilizer for tomatoes, about fishing. I can talk to Scott’s brother and his wife on the phone, but I can only be with Irish this way in the garden. I find Aunt Peggy all folded up in pain on the porch swing—when I met her she played the ukelele and sang, and she would send me home with jars of pickled beets. I wanted to help her walk this time, but I don’t know enough about where she hurts and how. Her hands don’t unfold to hold mine. In my mind, I drew a cross in oil on her forehead but she might think such a ritual to be superstitious—I wish I’d asked her, wish I’d offered. I tell Irish and Peggy they are two of my favorite people on earth, but I don’t know that they believe me.

When my children start a dual tantrum, Scott and I hustle them into seatbelts for the long drive home, and Peggy begins to cry about us leaving. There is no way to soothe her, though I place myself on my knees at her feet and hold her beautiful old face. “It’s okay that it’s hard, Peggy…” I find myself whispering. She tells me banker’s daughters don’t cry and I tell her I cry all almost every day. “It’s hard that things change, Peggy, that we lose so much.” The children get louder and we reach a quieter moment. I sit in the car and see that my husband is weeping, too, but we need to get out of the parking space or extend this scene longer. I think the words “child sedative, there needs to be a child sedative” and we drive to the grocery, park in the thin line of shade so Scott can rush in for cold chocolate milk. I open the car door, threatening children to an inch of their lives if they undo the seatbelts or hit one another, then I stand and lean my head on the roof and sob. They are so loud they don’t notice, and I’m oddly thankful. Scott returns with the sacred chocolate milk and they chug, and they do become quieter. I check to make sure Scott is good to drive, and he assures me it will be good to focus on the road. We drive south down the winding road to the interstate. The children are asleep in minutes. There are still ten hours of driving—and several expected tantrums—left to get us home.

Before all that, though, the time with our friends was the highlight of our trip, the highlight of our month, our spring, maybe our year. If I say “friendship is the dearest thing on earth,” I will sound like a Hallmark card and I can’t bear that. If I say “they save our lives,” that too may sound saccharine. Do you know what I mean, though? First I am taken in, in friendship, by a new classmate, just a few months ago. Then my whole family is sheltered by this friendship, too, and my friendship extends to his family. Not only do these “new” friends love us, they are astounding people who inspire us, challenge us, and make us laugh, spill their generosity over our heads. And they were never “new” friends—from the beginning, we have been old friends. And old friends, by their very nature I think, heal.

These are just scenes, unorganized and too raw to see what they mean. I got no work done because the weather was so beautiful, the hills so green, the trees in bloom and I couldn’t take my eyes off any of it to look at the pages of even the best book on earth. I am working hard at my essays and I will get you a report, soon, of how I end my school year. Pray for me if you are the praying type—I grow more scattered the more I need focus, it seems. Walking helps—I need more of that, too.

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