It would be wonderful if we could go through life completely unscathed, like an immaculately returned lease, damage free, enough mileage to have experienced the drive, but not so much that it drastically reduced the value; going out in like-new condition. But that’s not reality, is it? In fact, when that does happen, we mourn the loss of a person gone-too-soon, in the prime of their life. As the miles of my life speed by, I think more about the rest stops, detours, journeys on unfamiliar roads, hopelessly lost times, break-downs, and adventures than I do about the destination. I suppose that’s the trouble with youth; we focus so much on where we’re going that we forget the look out the window at the fields of flowers we’re speeding past.
When I was a child, my mother would take us camping up in the mountains each summer for vacation. Long after my brother had stopped going with us, she and I would make the journey by ourselves. We loved everything about the trip; getting up while it was still dark to pack the car, watching the dawn break over rolling hills as we ascended higher and higher up. Stopping for breakfast in our favorite valley spot, the only diner for miles, our excitement grew as we passed each milestone. We looked out for the massive statues on one particular farmer’s hillside, the old Dutch windmills, that dilapidated red barn, the little bridge crossing, the drive by the rocky creek. Then came the final leg of the journey when the mountainous road dipped and rose higher and higher through the clouds, past patches of loosestrife, goldenrod, black-eyed Susans, and daisies. While rummaging through an old box of pictures, there are countless images of her or me at the side of some lonely mountain road amongst the flowers. She never failed to stop to appreciate the beauty along the way.
I realize I have spent a lot of my life thinking about this or that destination instead of stopping by the roadside to admire the flowers. I started taking my children camping as soon as they were out of diapers. I had hoped that Mom, the kids and I would all be going together that summer. Instead, we went to spread her ashes. She didn’t want us tied to a gravestone. Her request was a beautiful gift; I can’t help but look in wonder at the mountains, lakes trees, and flowers without thinking of her. We have gone every year since then, and the kids start talking about it right around this time. The hush of the world, the legion of stars shimmering brilliantly in the night sky, the plaintive cry of the solitary loon, the gentle clapping of the quaking aspen, renews our spirits. I don’t know what will happen this year, I’m afraid I won’t be able to take the trip, and now I’m wishing I spent more time committing every moment of the last ones to memory.
Back to the journey. My mom had no sense of direction. She couldn’t find her way out of a paper bag. Coming back from college visits my senior year of high school I had driven hours and hours with a foot swollen twice its usual size because of torn ligaments. I could no longer take the pain, and I thought we were close enough to home for her to be able to manage, so we traded places and I put my foot up and went to sleep. She shook me awake frantically to tell me we were lost. Usually, she would say what she always did, “I’m not lost! Jesus knows where I am.” This time, however, seeing as how we were perched precariously next to a deep ravine on one side and a nearly sheer cliff on the other on an extremely narrow dirt road in the middle of some unknown mountain range, she was understandably more nervous than usual. I will never know how we got from the highway to hills, but I switched seats with her and followed that dirt road for miles and miles until we came out onto a small unmarked paved road on the other side of the mountain. I used the stars to guide me, and we were on a highway again. She loved to tell that story, “She looked at the STARS to find the way home.” She was impressed. Mom was my biggest fan. She never minded getting lost. In fact, it was a traveling option. “Should we get lost?” or “Should we take the scenic route?” were two of her favorite questions. She always felt the journey was much more enjoyable if you could have an adventure along the way.
Detours were life’s gravy. They made it savory, delectable, and memorable. There was no dry meat life for me with her – except on the kitchen table. She would pack a loaf of bread, and we would feed the swans. My children fondly remember her taking them to the river to throw rocks in the water from the beach. Life has a way of sending you on detours you never expect but, isn’t it nice when you find a way you never knew you wished for?
Once, on a long interstate trip back from Ohio in the dead of winter, after seeing my brother graduate from trade school, we got stuck on the loneliest road I had ever come across. The heat wouldn’t work, and my friend and I were huddled up in the back freezing. It was pitch black when we finally broke down with nothing for miles around except one lone cabin in the distance across a desolate field. Mom told us to stay and went out alone. We were terrified, every horror movie we had ever seen rushed through our minds as we sat alone in the car. We had been keeping our eyes peeled for any sign of her when suddenly an enormous dark figure shook the door with great force trying to get in. I’m sure we screamed like a couple of idiots until my mom opened her door and told us it was ok – the giant was going to help us. She put on the lights, and a very tall, very skinny, weathered, older man looked at the engine and declared that we needed towing – we were missing an oil cap. The last person who checked the oil must have forgotten to replace it. That put into motion a squished ride in a tow truck to a quaint town in the middle of nowhere and an overnight stay. There were two main intersecting streets with all of four or five buildings on them. We stayed at a hotel there until the car was fixed and we could start back on our journey. Our current aggravation became an amusing story later on.
Mom suffered from Chihuahua complex; she had no idea that her tiny size was supposed to be an impediment. By the time I was a teen or young adult I was arguing with her to stop pulling over to help people on the side of the road. It made me crazy. She would stop at any hour of the day or night for men or women. It wasn’t that I wanted her to be unhelpful, I was afraid for her safety. We stopped for a little old man once, and she ended up driving him all the way home. He bought pizza for us because it was late and we had missed dinner to take him home. Another time she was by herself and stopped for a woman struggling to change a tire. Mom exited her car calling out asking if she needed help and promptly tripped over the spare tire. She laughed herself silly about that one each time she retold it. Wandering alone on a back road one afternoon, walked a considerably shaggy looking man, baggy army surplus clothes, full bushy beard, and long brown stringy hair. She started to slow down, but as we had just had our first conversation about how she was putting herself in jeopardy and I had reiterated my concern, she eased off the brakes long enough to get almost past him. Then she slammed on the brakes, reached across my lap to open the window or door and scream out a name. I didn’t know whether to be furious or terrified, but it turned out to be a man she had employed to mow our lawn as a boy, and of whom she was very fond. She was incorrigible!
There were detours in life as well, for both of us. Mom had wanted to be a singer; she was a coloratura soprano. One of her most precious treasures was an old, delicately folded piece of thin letter paper with a handwritten note from her voice teacher begging her not to stop singing and offering to teach her for free. She had had a crisis of confidence and quit. Many many years later, history would repeat itself in my life. I was unable to afford lessons any longer, I was young, pregnant with my first child and had made the hard decision to leave some things behind on my detour. My teacher also offered to teach me for free so that I would not quit. But, I was afraid of being unable to provide for my child and left it behind. It broke Mom’s heart. She had wanted me to chase my dreams all over the world. She was the one who had paid for my first voice lessons as a senior in high school. She did it to soothe my own broken heart at never being able to play sports again. Sports had been my life, but after a series of serious injuries I ended up with two reconstructed ankles and instructions to avoid heels and sports forever. Mom wanted to fill the hole in my heart and since I could sing she got me a few lessons. She had not realized that I would fall so thoroughly in love with it. I sang with my college choir up and down the eastern seaboard at churches, synagogues, concert halls, colleges and universities from Carnegie Hall to Lincoln Center in New York to The Meyerhoff Symphony Hall in Maryland. She would often drive the five hours to my college on weekends to see us perform. After leaving school, I had started taking lessons with a famous opera singer, even attempting to audition at the Metropolitan Opera. The day of my audition, I parked quickly and signed in figuring I could come back and change into my clothes and get my music afterward. In the time I was inside signing in, my car was towed and impounded, I hadn’t noticed the sign. I walked 15 blocks to my teacher’s apartment to get a copy of the music and an outfit and made it back in time to have just missed my call. I used to wonder how my life would have been different had I not lost that opportunity. Now I am immediately pulled back to the life I have, the husband and children I have. I wouldn’t want to live without them and know that the nomadic life of a professional singer would not have fulfilled me the way my family has.
There have been many years of late when the breakdowns, unfamiliar roads, detours, and hopelessly lost times have been overwhelming, and I realize I’ve forgotten to stop by the way to drink in the glory of the wildflowers until the summer times hit. Last year, my kids and I spent hours chasing a rainbow down highways and byways in the mountains until we drove right to where it ended in the middle of a country road. I pulled over and watched them chase it across the fields where suddenly it became two. If anything, this current breakdown in life has taught me that waiting until vacation to smell the roses isn’t enough. I must enjoy every minute of the journey as I go.