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The First Road Trip
The Highway to Hell that sparked the idea I couldn't shake.
Today I am sharing another excerpt from the first draft of my memoir. It’s a long one, so this will be a two-parter. We’re going to go back in time to 2014: a stretch of freeway from Colorado to Nebraska to Iowa to South Dakota, a minivan full of carbage, a cursing toddler, a terrified seven-year-old, and a nostalgia junkie mom full of big ideas and foolish optimism. Here we go! Don’t forget your pillow pets, portable potty seats, bed rails, snacks, and iPads!
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The idea came to me in the most unfortunate of ways: a 25-hour minivan pilgrimage to say goodbye to my childhood home—well, one of them. We’d moved a lot when I was a kid, and I’d logged five houses by the time I graduated high school, a number that was quickly eclipsed by the rapid re-housing that occurs during that transitory stage of late adolescence and young adulthood—from the calmer dormitory to a less puritanical one, from that one shitty apartment to that other shitty apartment, from shacking up with the older boyfriend to the younger one. . . There had been a lot of transitions. I realized I had called 18 places “home” throughout my life while I was face down on a massage table, counting every house I’d lived in to date (yes, I truly do ruin everything).
But that pilgrimage-worthy house—the one I called “my childhood home” since I was 13 and served as a touch point all the way into motherhood—that one felt like the most important. I returned to it during college summers, holidays into my 20s, road trips while squirming with the weight of my pregnant belly in the passenger seat, and visits to show my disinterested children where I used to live. It was a lighthouse, and my parents were selling it. From my stubborn perch as their forever-child, I attempted to champion their Act 3 autonomy and celebrate this milestone, yet I rolled my eyes at their belief that this gorgeous structure was “dated.” I mean, let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater! There are few things a good coat of paint and some modern vinyl flooring can’t fix! Why not just go shopping for some new shit?
Sure, the mauve and gray theme incorporated into literally every room besides my own bedroom—pastel pink, lavender, and mint green, what a 1990s teenage dream!—was a little bit past its prime. Yes, there was a lot of wallpaper, and thick carpeting in the bathrooms (ew). Still, I didn’t understand their lack of reverence for this vessel—moving to a house in a newer neighborhood five minutes away seemed a little rash. But my parents were excited, their new home was smaller and more manageable, and best of all, it came tastefully decorated in neutral tones. No repainting or wallpaper removal necessary.
Being a generous and forgiving daughter, I grudgingly allowed them this bit of joy, but refused to accept the fact that I would never set foot in my home ever again. So naturally, I made the practical choice to load up my highly sensitive, anxious seven-year-old and spirited two-year-old—currently smack in the middle of the era we now lovingly refer to as “Sophie’s ‘ohhhh fuck’ phase”—and hit the road with them.
So off we went. A laundry basket full of snacks and activities rode shotgun next to me in the minivan and my seven-year-old co-pilot was positioned diagonally behind me for easy access to distribute plastic yogurt containers full of snacks and a plethora of scratched and barely functional DVDs. My two-year-old was nestled happily in her toddler car seat, surrounded by Pirate Booty dust and a handful of treasured plastic dolls who’d survived the “code brown naptime” phase but whose subsequent trips through the washing machine suggested an unfortunate forceps delivery gone wrong.
Our travel plan had become more involved since we originally made the decision to drive ten hours to Sioux Falls, South Dakota. As it happened, my grandmother had recently decided it was time for an independent living facility, and would soon be moving out of her home of 20 years; it would be the last time I would sleep at her house, too. My emotional nerves were shot at the prospect of two final goodbyes in one week, but I was highly motivated by all things sentimental, and this seemed like a good opportunity for me to foolishly attempt to overcompensate for my adult inferiority complex.
It took me a full hour into the drive to exhale. There was more at stake here than just executing a road trip that didn’t resemble Dante’s Inferno. I was proving something to myself that was harder to define.
In addition to my general beliefs about personal competence, my maternal identity crisis had compounded things. Many mothers wrestle with the same tenuous and complex cocktail: who we were before, who we have become, the love for our children that has hijacked our balance, our feelings of inadequacy and resentment, and the guilt that peppers nearly every other emotion. We are constantly trying to prove to ourselves that we are enough. That we are competent. That we were cut out to be mothers, despite our misgivings that maybe we made better teenage babysitters than actual parents. That we can navigate a fucking road trip with our kids without crossing over to the Dark Side and morphing into an out-of-control ball of hysteria. I had my doubts about that last part.
The first leg of our trip was a success—nobody peed their pants and the van was still relatively habitable despite its history of having once been so ransacked by a mere one-day mountain getaway that, upon our return, squirrels were literally eating out of it while it aired out in the driveway. My bravado was shaken every once in awhile, especially around the nine-hour mark when my toddler was randomly throwing art supplies around the back of the van while charmingly uttering, “Ohhhh, fuck!” Pulling into a rest stop, I said calmly but firmly, “Sophie, you may say “oh fuck” when you are in this car, but WE ARE NOT GOING TO SAY “OH FUCK” IN FRONT OF GRANDMA MYRTLE DO YOU UNDERSTAND ME.” She purged it from her system and I didn’t hear that word cross her lips until our return trip, at which point, I unabashedly joined her profane chorus.
Our first stop was Ames, Iowa to visit my grandmother—it seemed like a good way to get my feet wet and test my emotional endurance as well as my patience. My aunt drove up to meet us, along with my favorite cousin and her seven- and four-year-old boys, and a joyful reunion ensued, complete with ridiculous dance parties involving Grandma’s cane, confounding three-part knock-knock jokes, and Fisher Price toys that had been preserved for decades.
We went to my favorite restaurant, and it was the kind of beautiful madness that happens when you bring your ninety-something grandmother and four children under age eight to a public place but everyone’s behavior falls within the parameters of social appropriateness. The kids crawled under the booth and we laughed instead of scolding them. This was a celebration.
We ordered the ham sandwiches, ice cream sundaes, and green river phosphates that transported us back to the easy 1980s days of dessert-eating contests, waxy Crayola markings on the menu, carefully planned restroom adventures as a pack, and rolling our eyes as our parents unapologetically belted the refrain of their school fight song. It felt like heaven. My kids weren’t being assholes, and I was having fun! I could absolutely handle this solo parent road trip.
My daughters and I slept nestled close together in one of my favorite guest rooms on the planet. The soft flowered sheets, satiny band of the worn cotton blanket, and white eyelet comforter had the calming effect of a sippy cup laced with Benadryl, and I slept like a baby. The next morning was harder. I woke up to the sound of Grandma’s dingy beige Mr. Coffee percolating, and was fascinated that, even as a 35-year-old mother, my 92-year-old grandmother—who could literally protect us from nothing—still felt like the Adult in Charge. She woke first, made the coffee, set the maple dining table with plates for toast, jars of jam, a butter dish, and a small pitcher for cream. My children and I sleepily drifted to the kitchen and sat down, resting elbows on the scratchy woven placemats whose cornflower speckles would soon be dotted with jam and orange juice.
Grandma busied herself at the counter making what my toddler deemed “the best toast in the world.” Six years later, at my grandmother’s funeral, my second child’s awe-filled adoration of “Grandma Myrtle’s toast” made the eulogy while the congregation laughed. When my mom and I tried to figure out exactly what it was that made her toast so impressive to my children, we decided it was probably the fact that she used off-brand Wonderbread, not the whole grain brownish bread my children were used to. White bread, lightly toasted, with butter from a dish that lived on the counter and grape jelly in a glass jar from the local Fareway made for the perfect breakfast.
Grandma’s house was the only place I drank orange juice; we didn’t keep it in the fridge at home with any regularity, but every time I sat down at her table, I found I was craving it. I sipped it along with the weak coffee (a far cry from Starbucks or even the Keurig pods I was used to) with a splash of whole milk. As a child, I was used to my parents’ mugs of inky black coffee, and was so perplexed that Grandma and Papa’s was a far more pleasing shade of milky brown.
When it was time to say goodbye, I became predictably emotional. My children had behaved well, and I was grateful Grandma had witnessed them being charming, that she was able to laugh at their silly antics while they beamed with smug pride at their cleverness. In truth, I was also grateful she had witnessed me being a “good mom,” staying calm, encouraging dental hygiene, observing an appropriate bedtime, and presenting children who neither swore nor misbehaved. Grandma and I hugged, and then she clasped my arms with both hands.
“All good things must come to an end,” she said without pretense, gazing kindly at me with her watery blue eyes. I wasn’t sure if she meant our sleepover, my impending farewell trip, the fact that she would soon be moving, or her own life. It could have been any of those things—we had certainly reached the stage of life when every trip to see Grandma could have been the last time we would see her. Maybe she could sense that it was the one life lesson I stubbornly refused to accept.
Stay tuned for the second installment next week! If you like what you’re reading, consider becoming a paid subscriber to support my work as I complete my memoir, or even become a free one just because it gives me a serious dopamine rush, and that shit counts, too.