Driving

Last summer, on a bus headed toward the Grand Canyon with my husband and son, I turned my head at just the right moment and there it was: the Bedrock City (of Flintstones fame) Campground and RV Park. It was a place out of time. Irrelevant, faded, seemingly abandoned. No one on the bus gave it more than a passing glance, but I reacted as though I’d been slapped. There was nothing life-altering about the place, nothing that I can point to and say “this made a profound impact.” It was simply the fact that the place existed, that I had once been there, and that some 35+ years later, I remembered. Our tour bus didn’t stop there. I didn’t jump up and down pointing, or even think to mention it to the hubs until much later that evening. I just…remembered. And that was enough.

Somewhere in a box of moldering things I used to have a photograph of Bedrock City Campground and RV Park. And honestly? I’d forgotten all about it. I was, I dunno, 12 maybe when I took pictures of it with my little Kodak 110, and I thought it was one of the weirdest and coolest places I’d ever been. 

It was 1979, and I was traveling in the back of a Gran Torino with my mother and Julie and Jeremy, two of the short-lived step-siblings. My mother and I had picked them up in Georgia and we were all heading to Kingman, Arizona where James’ crew was working that late summer. It had been a long trip—longer yet for my mother, I imagine, since she’s the only one who could drive and she had to put up with a lot of back-seat fights between me and Jeremy. We’d spent a lot of nights in roadside motels, visited a lot of Stuckeys Stops, and had what we collectively decided were armadillo tacos at Guy’s Tastee-Freeze in Gallup, New Mexico. Jeremy stole a hunk of wood from the Petrified Forest, and I can still sing all of the words to Robert John’s Sad Eyes because it was on the radio every 12 minutes no matter what radio station we managed to tune in.

Kingman was finally starting to show up on the mile signs and I have no doubt my mother was desperate to get out of the car and away from all of us. Except that there were also signs that said “Grand Canyon, 30 miles” and “Grand Canyon, exit here and go left”. And somehow we convinced her to veer off the route and take us on a 3-hour side trip to the Grand Canyon. 

An interesting factoid that I recent learned is this: most people spend about 15 minutes at the Grand Canyon. They head to Mather Point on the South Rim, ooh and ahh, take a few pictures and then leave.

Fact: that’s exactly what we did back in 1979, and then got to spend the rest of our lives talking about having seen the Grand Canyon and how amazing it was. Frankly, it was kind of anticlimactic, given that we’d been traveling for who knows how many days and were hauling a hunk of felonious wood underneath the front passenger seat of the car. 

Before we made it to the Canyon, though, we stopped at the Bedrock City Campground and RV park near Williams, and it felt like Mecca. We peed. We got snacks. We took pictures. We argued. We left. And I forgot all about it until last summer.

Last summer we took a family trip to the American West. The teenager and I started with a road trip from our home here in western New York that took us across the heartland and on to Grand Junction, Colorado. From Grand Junction, we flew to Phoenix, where the hubs met us and we then joined a tour that meandered from Phoenix to Sedona, then the Grand Canyon and Moab. We saw the Red Rocks, the Canyon, Arches National Park, Monument Valley. We rafted down the Colorado, hiked, and toured, and then bus dropped us off at the Grand Junction airport where our car was waiting. From there we drove to Taos, New Mexico, down to Roswell for the aliens, then back through Arizona. The family portion ended in Las Vegas where after a couple of days the boys hopped on a plane and soloed it back home in the car. I am at my happiest when I am driving.

I thought about my mother a lot on that trip. Although I have a hard time reconciling them in my memories, the mother who didn’t want to deal with the hassle of traffic to get to the Ice Capades is the same mother who never said no to a potential road trip and who understood the power of curiosity well enough to think that a 3 hour detour was worthwhile. I get my love of road trips from her—I’m always willing to hop in the car and see where we end up. And I think its fair to say that she was happiest when driving, the car pointed down a long and often-lonely stretch of road leading to somewhere she’d never seen before. Despite her lifetime of protestation that she was just an old country woman who never did anything worth mentioning, my mother saw a lot of America from the driver’s seat of a Gran Torino, me sitting next to her, my feet propped up on the dash while I read my beloved Archie comics and waited for the next Stuckey’s Stop.

Becoming Miss Janice

I have spent the better parts of many days trying to chase down some memories. This is both the power and the curse of the internet–you know the information you want is out there, if only you click one one more link. One more link. One more link. And if you’re me, you’re too cheap to actually pay for a subscription service that might answer some, if not all, of your questions.

Here’s what I know for sure: In 1978 I was failing the 5th grade. Miserably. I wasn’t even passing my beloved Language Arts, I was doing so badly. My brother was slogging through the 9th grade, a year behind, having repeated the 7th as another part of the Ronnie fallout.

Also in 1978, my mother remarried. His name was James, he was originally from Georgia, he looked strangely like Abraham Lincoln, and he drove a beautiful white Ford LTD with plush burgundy upholstery. His car had an FM radio and a CB antennae. He was the foreman of an underground cable crew. Their marriage lasted for about a year, maybe a bit longer legally. That’s one of the pieces I haven’t been able to find, when they were legally divorced. Perhaps they never were.

James had three kids (that we knew of), all of whom shared a first initial and referred to my mother as “Miss Janice.” (The correct pronunciation was JaNEICE, but we all gave up on explaining that after a couple of weeks.) I believe one of my crowning childhood achievements was the day I called one of them, to his (and my mother’s) face, an asshole. My mother slapped me, for the first and only time ever, then as soon as we were alone apologized saying, “He is an asshole, but you can’t say that to him.”

It was a long time ago. We didn’t keep in touch. Now, I’m trying to find them. Not because I want to reconnect, but because I have so damn many questions. The first is this: was their father a sociopath? Because that’s how I remember him. The second is how many times was he married? Because my mother once admitted that she thought he’d only been married once before, but when we met his mother she called my mother by so many different names that it just got confusing–even more confusing than this sentence has become. It seemed James been married quite a few times before then. The third question, well, I don’t really have a third. The first two cover pretty much everything I want to know.

I’ve spent most of my energy trying to answer the second question. Google couldn’t tell me that one. Neither could free trials of various subscription services that I now need to go cancel before they bill me. I finally went to Facebook, which I gave up over a year ago because I couldn’t handle it any more. You may now call me Penelope Bottomwater, because I dunno, I didn’t feel like being myself. Brooke Baker isn’t much of a stalker, but Penelope Bottomwater? That bitch is nothing but trouble.

Penelope has now stalked every single person she could find matching any and all variants of their names. She thought she found one of them, and spent a good couple hours reading every single one of his posts, hoping to see a reference to or photo of his father, only to find a three-year-old post in which he referred to himself by his full name and it wasn’t the right guy at all. I now know a whole heck of a lot about a random stranger, so that’s something.

I think, though, that I’ve finally found two of the three. I picked the one most likely to respond and sent a pm that included my real name. We’ll see if that goes anywhere. In the meantime I’m trying to come up with polite words for “sociopath” and “complete nutter.”

On the assumption that I’m going to have to tap into the sketchiest of recollections to tell the stories of her Miss Janice year, I keep making notes to myself. The look something like this:

  • Alabama, sulfur water, John
  • New Boston, bowling, campground
  • Georgia, Cleta, green beans, bike wreck
  • Kingman, roller skating, Pam
  • Missouri
  • Sad Eyes
  • The Jellystone Campground, Grand Canyon
  • Lake Mead

And truth told, this is where I really wish I could talk to my mother because I can’t help but wonder how closely my memories dovetail with her reality. But hey, I’ll keep chugging along, trying to make sense of it because it’s what I do both as a human and as a writer.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wishing and Hoping

 

There’s the old adage about being careful what you wish for, because sometimes you might actually get it. My mother’s philosophy, though, was “don’t bother wishing for anything, because you’re not going to get what you want.” Wishing and hoping were, for my mother, some kind of dark force. Don’t go there, because you’ll just be disappointed—it’s better to want nothing than to be disappointed. What’s fascinating is how pervasive this attitude is, and how it haunts you even when you try to get away from it. You know, like a chigger—those little red bugs that live in long grass and make you itch until you want to crawl out of your own skin.

After Ronnie, my mother and brother became even closer than they’d been. As is pretty much the story of my life, I see and react to that from two different places. The first, and most logical, part of me understands that their closeness was borne of his role as “man of the house.” He was, in many ways, the only one she could always count on, and this was true throughout her life. Once, when he was maybe 16, maybe not even, my mother sent my brother to the pawn shop to sell the good silverware. I was young and self-absorbed enough to not have any understanding of what was going on or why, knowing only that he left with the big wooden box of silverware that we never used, and it never came back. My disappointment was mudane and short-lived. I was fascinated by the way the silver would tarnish and how, with a bit of scrubbing, I could make it shine again. I didn’t know what “good silver” was at the time. Nor did I understand the crushing poverty that we lived in as a result of my parents’ divorce. My father refused to pay child support, and this was a time when the courts didn’t have the protocols for insuring that it was paid. There was neither legal nor material recourse for us; we simply had to make do the best that we could. Until she died, my mother was proud that she’d always kept us clothed and fed. “Maybe you didn’t have exactly what you wanted, and maybe it wasn’t always brand new,” she’d say almost pugilisitically, as though expecting me to argue the point, “but you always had shoes on your feet and food in your belly.”

What my mother, with her blazing pride, would never understand is that I still feel kind of left out. My brother got the memories of the room mother who brought tuna can drums to his whole class, and who laughed, and who threw birthday parties that were the talk of the neighborhood. I got the mother who, when I was bullied by a couple of girls who threatened to kick my ass on the way home from school, promised to hide in the bushes and jump out if I needed help. Did she hide in the bushes on my walk home from school? Of course not. She had to work. And the girls never did try to kick my ass so it turned out okay. I get this, believe me, I get this. But where my brother got respect and attention, I got the trip to the Ice Capades that didn’t happen. Someone had given my mother free tickets, and I was oh so excited about it. The Ice Capades! In Texas! Yay! The day finally arrived, we got in the car and pulled out of the driveway, me bouncing in my seat so ready to BE there already. We drove out of the neighborhood, toward the freeway that would take us to the auditorium and the Ice Capades! My mother pulled over to the side of the road, turned to me and said “you don’t really want to go, do you?”

“Yes! Yes I want to go!”

“It’s a long drive” she said.

“That’s okay” I assured her. “I don’t mind a long ride to see it.”

She sat there by the side of the road for a long minute, staring out the windshield, let out a long sigh, then turned the car around and drove home.
“But mom! What about the Ice Capades?”

She pulled into the driveway, got out of the car, and said “You don’t want to go to that.” She walked into the house, and it was over. I already knew there was no arguing, no attempting to convince her to change her mind. She had told me I didn’t want to do this thing that I was desperate to do…that was that.

Over time, I understood that that was her way of dealing with every kind of disappointment—“I (or you) didn’t want it anyway.” Truth? I still don’t understand that pathology—it is as if, by admitting disappointment, we become something weak and pitiable. Instead, denying that we wanted a thing meant that not getting it couldn’t hurt us. What the hell is that all about? How is this healthy? If we don’t allow ourselves to experience disappointment, how on earth do we learn to move on from it? As I got older, I started fighting back. And by older, I mean my 30s and 40s. I’d tell her about something I wanted, or wanted to do, and when it didn’t happen I was disappointed. She’d respond with “Well. You didn’t want it anyway.” To which I would always reply “But I did. I did want it. And now I’m disappointed that it didn’t happen. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t want it in the first place.”

She’d just look at me and shake her head at my foolishness. “Then there was no point in wanting it, was there?”

Trevor Noah, in Born a Crime, writes about his mother bringing him a pair of Abbidas sneakers, when desperately wanted a pair of Adidas. His mother argued that there was no difference between them; Trevor pointed to the fourth stripe on the Abbidas. His mother, the story goes, smiled and said “Aren’t you lucky! You got an extra one!”

I was listening to the audiobook with my son on a roadtrip last summer (to be fair, it was the third time I’d listened to it. It’s that good), and when I again laughed out loud at this section, he turned to me with a puzzled expression. “Why is that so funny to you?” he asked. I tried to explain the poverty mom perspective but he really didn’t understand it, because he couldn’t understand it. He has never had to worry about adding water to make the shampoo last, or putting tape on the soles of his shoes to keep the water out, or patching over a non-artistic tear in his pants because there is no money to replace them. And for this I am truly grateful.

Harder, though, than explaining poverty to a privileged child, is ignoring the incessant voice that tells me to squash his dreams because he’ll only be hurt when they don’t come true. That it is better to want for nothing than to be disappointed. Research shows that abusive families beget abusive families, that alcoholism is genetic, that the only way to beat them is through constant vigilance. What it doesn’t say, though, is that wishing, and hoping, and believing in the impossible is something that has to be re-learned every single day.

Easter Grass

One of the things my mother hated the most was plastic Easter grass. You know, the static-filled, pastel-colored plastic wonder found in bags at the local dollar store to bulk out a meager haul of jellybeans and Palmer’s brand chocolates. Easter grass. Despite her hatred, every year my mother went out and bought it, cursing all the while. It was her manifestation of sentimentality—shittin’ baskets were supposed to have the grass in them, they were by damn going to have the grass in them even if it meant she spent the next 6 months getting it wrapped around the roller in the vacuum cleaner.

My son is a teenager now, and we haven’t bought Easter grass in years. In fact, we’ve moved at least once since our last expedition into Easter grass. So when the occasional strand of it shows up, I just assume it’s my mother saying “hey there”, or “why haven’t you called” or “pay attention, dummy.” When I was kicking around the idea of tackling our stories, that shit started showing up everywhere. Literally, every damn where. In the corners by the closet. In the dryer. In the pantry. And one notable time, in the bathtub. Whether its meant as encouragement or a sign that she’s mad as hell, I don’t know and won’t bother guessing. I’m choosing to assume it’s encouraging, or will do just as soon as I get my vacuum roller cleaned out.

I was 6 when my parents divorced. All I know for sure is that my father was there, and then he wasn’t. Probably my fondest memory of my father is of this “magic” trick he used to do. He’d come into our rooms and chat for a minute, then tell us to close our eyes and count to 10. When we opened our eyes, he’d be gone but there’d be a candy bar on the desk. After he left, I would sometimes close my eyes and count to 10, hoping that there’d be a candy bar on my desk. Not because I wanted the candy, but because it would mean that he had been there. Thing is, when he left the man I knew as my father was truly was gone; who he had been was lost to cheap Scotch and bad decisions that ultimately punished all of us for the rest of his life.

I need to acknowledge something: I’m a completely clueless dork about most things. I was as a child, and adulthood hasn’t changed me that much. I mean, when Uncle Mike and his friend Bob came for Thanksgiving, I never gave it a second’s thought. They were Uncle Mike and Bob. I never wondered why they hung out together, or why people referred to them in stage whispers. What I did know was that for Christmas the year I was 10, they got me a leather purse and a make-up kit. They had good taste in gifts; that’s all I knew and all that really mattered. A lot of years later—and I mean a lot as in I was an adult who paid her own rent and car insurance—they came up in discussion and it was only then that it hit me. They did more than just hang out together at the family holiday celebrations. I mean, it also explained that time when my brother smacked Uncle Mike on the butt and he laughed, but when I did it I got yelled at. I suppose that should have been a clue. But as I say, I was clueless.

Really, what I’m trying to tell you is that I am notoriously unreliable as an observer of my own life. Of course, the accuracy of a six-year-old’s memories is dubious at best even without my inherent unreliability, and trying to sort through those memories 40-some years later means that I could just be making all this up. But I’m not, not really. The stories are true even if the facts are distorted. During my remarkably brief tenure as a writing teacher, one of the things I always tried to emphasize was the idea of truth v fact. “Truth,” I would tell my students, “is subjective. Every story has at least three sides—yours, mine, and the facts.” When we send fact through our own lenses—experience and belief and a whole host of other bits and bobs that shape our worldview—we end up with a version of the truth. Fact, on the other hand, is provable and largely immutable despite our current predilection for “alternative” ones. It is a fact that the earth is round, that water is wet, that my parents divorced when I was six. Based in fact, but not necessarily factual, is my experiences of these events. You may find the ocean terrifying because a wave swamped you when you were three years old and have never really recovered from it. This fact becomes your truth, but it is a truth, not the truth because I love the ocean and will throw myself into it any chance I get. And so it is with my experience of my parents’ divorce and my life with my mother. There are facts—they divorced. I was six. We lived in Texas. My father was gone. And there is truth: life was hard, my mother was unhappy, I was sad, and none of us ever quite got over it.

Wasted Days

After my my mother died in 2008, I took on the challenge of sorting through her things. Other than bins upon bins of fabric she wasn’t a hoarder, preferring to chuck things out the moment their usefulness was outlived. She stopped buying newspapers because they were nothing but clutter. Books were returned to the library posthaste. The occasional knick-knack, usually a Christmas gift from the uninformed, was admired, returned to its packaging, and stored until the giver had departed. Then she would frown at the gift and rhetorically ask “What am I supposed to do with this shittin’ thang?” By the next morning, it would be in the trash along with all of the paper, packaging, instructions, and effluvia. That was my mother.

Imagine my surprise when I opened a drawer (in the chesterdrawers, of course) and found three things: a photograph of my father from his Coast Guard days back in Galveston, Texas; a copy of their divorce decree from 1973; and an 8-track tape of Freddy Fender’s Wasted Days and Wasted Nights.

***

I recently did one of those “Discover your Heritage!” genetic testing kits; that thing where you spit into a tube and a lab somewhere tells you from whence you came. I am, according to the results, about 50% Scots-Irish, 25% unspecified European, and another 25% hodgepodge of Native American, Southeast Asian, and North African, with just a sprinkling of Jewish from somewhere. Unsurprisingly this raises a lot of questions.

A troll through ancestry.com offers zero answers. According to the records I can find, I come from a long line of hillbillies and rednecks. My mother’s side appears to have simply sprung fully-formed from the Missouri Ozarks, while my father’s side has Alabama red clay and Mississippi River water running through their veins. Except for that one ancestor back in the 1690s who claimed to be from Gloucester, Virginia, we’re all a bunch of good ole boys and girls. Which doesn’t come anywhere near explaining that 50% Scots-Irish thing.

If she were still alive, I would try to ask my mother about all of this though I already know what she would say. She had three stock responses to things perplexing. The first being “well how should I know?” The second and third were variations on the theme.

What I know for sure is that my mother was a farm kid, raised with her 5 siblings on a green patch in the middle of nowhere Missouri. When she was 18 she decided that she’d had enough of that and moved to St. Louis, where she got a job as a secretary. Eventually, the company she worked for offered her a transfer to Houston, Texas, and she took it. The details are pretty sketchy. “Why do you want to know that?” She’d ask, followed by a change of subject—usually about my shitty teenage years and what a brat I was. She wasn’t wrong about, but it didn’t get me the answers I wanted. Occasionally she’d let things slip, but mostly she kept her past as tidy and inaccessible as the Bounty bars she’d squirrel away in the back of the refrigerator, under the heads of iceberg lettuce that no one else would touch.

Even though she was arguably more cosmopolitan than most of her family, she was always an Ozarks hillbilly at the core. This was most evident in her speech patterns and cold, hard pragmatism. At least, I remember her as being a cold, hard pragmatist. As I’ve been exploring my stories, I’ve started questioning that perspective. I suspect I’ve gotten it all wrong, and that she was actually a disappointed romantic, and god knows there’s nothing meaner than a disappointed romantic.

She was the kind of control freak who would make control freaks cry. There was this one time, I was a young adult and living with her and my brother while trying to figure out how to get through college—that’s a thing they don’t tell you, btw, how to get through college when no one else in your family has even tried to go—I made some toast for breakfast. Because I knew how fastidious she was, I cleaned up after myself. Wiped off the counter AND the toaster, washed and put away my dishes. And still, she came home after work, looked around and said “you had toast for breakfast.” “How,” I asked her slowly, “did you know that? I cleaned up.”
“Oh,” she answered, “you moved the toaster a little to the left.”

That was the woman I grew up with. And the woman who left me with far more questions than answers. I know hers isn’t the most compelling story. She wasn’t famous, or funny, or fabulous. But she was definitely a mystery, and I’ve never met a mystery I didn’t want to solve.