Life on the Verge Road Trip

Day One

We arrive at the log-cabin-style Bozeman airport on the last flight of the evening. “If rabbits had an airport, it would be like this!” Eli shouts over his shoulder as he and Leo play wheeled luggage roller derby, weaving in and out of the stragglers walking toward the rental car area.

We turn into the parking lot of the Lewis and Clark Motel in downtown Bozeman at midnight. At first glance it looks like your typical rundown 1970’s kitsch–the real thing, not some groovy hipster version. It doesn’t take long for the visual to become far more complex. The lobby is a strange mix of Billie Holiday music, grandma’s living room, a casino and a Buddhist shrine. It smells of smoke and carpet cleaner – in a good way. It’s a sepia colored collage of mixed mediums.

We love it. Well, Leo and I love it.

We are greeted by Micheal-Ann and her most remarkable lilting voice.  She ends each sentence with an upswing that emphasizes the last vowel sound of the second to last word. We are all hypnotized.  Her co-worker is not.

The motel is famous for its banana bread which can be purchased by the loaf at the front desk. It’s made by the current owner’s mother who was the original owner. We eagerly request a loaf as we check-in.  Micheal-Ann goes to the back office and returns with an enormous frozen brick of the stuff wrapped in Saran Wrap. To speed up the defrosting process, Micheal-Ann suggests that we cut slices and hold the bread in our hands for 10 minutes. We go to the room and proceed to eat half the loaf while it’s still frozen. Who can hold banana bread in their hands for 10 minutes?

The best banana bread ever.

As you might expect from a motel with sliding glass doors to the rooms, portable AC units, plastic cups and a paper strip over the toilet seat, our non-smoking room smells liked smoke. Eli mentions that he wishes he had a black light to find out exactly what kind of trail has been left in the room during the last thirty years. Leo and I advise against it.

The best part of our first hours in Montana – the laughter. We are so giggly that Leo, our most nocturnal family member, scolds Eli and me to be quiet so he can sleep. This is the beginning of our Life on the Verge Road Trip. Leo is on his way to becoming a man, Eli a teenager, and me an old woman.

Let the journey unfold.

A Different Kind of Grownup

When I walked into my parent’s house and saw my dad coming down the stairs I immediately became a different kind of grownup.  I felt it come on lightning fast like a superhero costume change.  I’m now a frontline grownup at the edge of the mortality cliff.   

My father is evaporating.  He has recently been diagnosed with Pernicious Anemia. It has whittled his athletic six-foot build and mostly likely caused permanent neurological and cognitive damage.

Our conversations on the phone of late have been repetitive but at times lucid and linear.  What stood out more for me was his light tone and desire to keep the conversation going.  Standing in front of him, I waited to see how he would react to me in person.  I wasn’t sure if his memory loss would anchor him to his past resentment toward me or his softer recent acceptance.

I was never a daddy’s girl.  He was uncomfortable in the parental role past the baby stage.  If he was born today, with more flexible societal norms, he would probably choose not to have children.  His frustration with the chaos of parenting came out as rage.  His temper was most often directed at himself rather than others.  The implosions were messy, though, and cleared a room.  For me, his anger blotted out the sun and put a divide between us that was not easily bridged.

Let me be very clear, for all his rage he never raised a hand to anyone – not once.  He was hard-working and sacrificed his health for his family.  As an adult I have come to admire his restraint.  To keep that hurricane inside took a toll.  I will never know the source of the storm but I saw it lessen in strength when he retired from his law practice and had my mom to himself.

For fifty years my father has loved my mom with the loyalty and devotion of a turtle dove.  Fatherhood has been a very distant second to being my mom’s husband.  My mother was and still is a beauty at seventy-two.  Although he would never say it, I think that my father has always thought that my mom was a bit above him.  She is still robust and sharp.

The discrepancy is real now.

I’m not comfortable with the word spirit but it’s the only noun I can think to use to describe how my dad is evaporating.  I have seen it before with my grandmother and my friend Marcia as their physical selves were winding down.  There is a part of my dad that intermittently leaves as if practicing to leave for good.   I see it on his face and can feel it energetically when it happens.  My mom says that she see my dad hold on to himself when he is sitting – almost like he has to keep himself contained.  He is losing pixels right before our eyes and all we can do is be kind.

The new grownup I have become has enormous empathy for my father.  I want to be patient.  I find it easy to listen to the same stories and answer his questions again. My dad’s unwinding has made him more peaceful.  I was worried that he would be angrier but he is not.  There are still flashes of rage but they are short lived and during this past visit they were never directed at me.  He was happy I was there.  My kids didn’t bother him like they used to.

I had to leave at four in the morning to catch my flight.  While trying to sneak out and not disturb my parents, my dad appeared on the stairs.  He was confused at first about what I was doing but then remembered enough.  My mom had asked me to wake her when I left but this moment was for us.  I knew I would be back in a couple of weeks and I needed to be alone with my dad.

This was our first visit where the emotional undertow didn’t drown us.  It has taken thirty years for us to reach this point.  Neither of us are mad any more.

People can be haunted as much by what is left unsaid as said.  Too much has been left unsaid between my father and me.  On the stairs I told him that I cherished our visit and that I loved him very much.  We hugged and he walked me to the car in the darkness of the early morning.  He was all there for this moment.

As I drove into the sunrise I was certain that we have both forgotten why we didn’t get along.

Twenty on the Inside


We live in a neighborhood that serves as the main off-campus housing stock for the University of Texas.  I find comfort being around the students.  They make me feel the same hope for the future as I do when I hold a baby.   About two-thirds of our short dead-end street is college rentals.  I’m surrounded by migrating herds of twenty-something-year-olds which is not to be confused with feeling like a twenty-year-old.

We have a kitchen window above our sink that faces an identical window in the rental house across the fence.  My window seems too small and high for me to bother with a curtain.  The prior over-the-fence tenants always had theirs covered.  The young childless couple that moved in has pushed the curtains to the sides.

Our schedules are different.   We are rarely at our windows at the same time so our curtain game of chicken has been a benign exercise.  Yesterday our separate universes collided.  I looked up and caught them in an early morning embrace at the sink.  I couldn’t make myself look away until they saw me.  I plunged my gaze into the sudsy dishwater but looked up again.  It wasn’t the sweet embrace that had me mesmerized, it was a nostalgia for a freedom I had forgotten that drew my eyes back.

People my age and older are always saying that they feel the same on the inside as they did when they were twenty.  They obviously are not around herds of twenty-something-year-olds.  My insides don’t feel twenty and the couple next door made it screamingly apparent.  For one moment I felt, not just remembered, the scene I was witnessing – the simplicity of worrying just about yourself. When I was twenty I didn’t register this time-specific freedom, but I do now.

My almost-20-year-old man/teen son is even greater proof that I do not feel twenty on the inside.  He is home for the summer after his freshman year at college.  He is too old to be under our roof and too young to know how to make plans that are based on more than a belief that everything will work out.   As he awaits an epiphany, he is happy to sleep, hang out with his brother, help me and ride his bike.

It kills me to watch him loaf.  I have the industriousness of a Daughter of the American Revolution New Englander.  I worked summer jobs from the time I was thirteen.  Leo is caught in the golden handcuffs of a full academic scholarship.  There is a part of him that thinks it gives him an excuse to just let things unfold.  He has discovered that not much unfolds without a plan.

Leo believes that he can duct-tape a summer together with foolhardiness, a backpack, a ticket to Bonnaroo and what’s left of his Texas Tomorrow Fund moneys.  For him that is a recipe for happiness.  I’m not saying I can’t experience spontaneity and wonder as an almost-fifty-year-old parent to four kids but my happiness is far more rooted in other people’s survival and well being.  I have a friend with four kids who says that she can never be happier than her least happy kid.  This is something that a twenty-year-old can not understand.

What has changed my insides are the four kids I have on the outside.  Once I had kids the twenty-something part of my brain was wiped clean and a parenting app was installed.   Even on the days that I want to run away I begin my getaway plan with a grocery list for what the kids will need while I’m gone.  About halfway through, I realize that I can’t leave until I finish the alphabetical master list of where everything is located.  It just wouldn’t be fair.

I was much more like Leo when I was twenty.  Around him I see the aura of mania and fearlessness glowing from his seemingly endless youth. That feeling is not mine anymore nor should Leo understand my responsibilities.  He has the space to make spastic decisions and fork-in-the-road mistakes.  There is more room for him to roam. I had my turn and I played hard.  I don’t want to feel twenty again. I have lived my way into feeling fifty.

I have the perfect illustration of the difference between a twenty-something and a almost-fifty-something’s insides.  Leo left the two new suits I bought him over spring break on the bus when he returned to college.  He announced the loss with a shrug when I picked him up at the airport at the beginning of summer.  I forgave him readily. In contrast Leo gave me endless grief for not knowing the whereabouts of his air soft guns and pellets.  I asked him to ponder his his suit-less state of being while on his high horse.  He grinned a touché grin and said that he had expected more from me. After all I am supposed to know where everything is.

Let me say it again,  I do not feel twenty on the inside.

How My Son’s 8th Grade Graduation Made Me Realize I Had No Business Going To My 30th Reunion

May and June are not just for weddings. It’s also the graduation and reunion season. I’m not good at big events even though I truly wish I was one of those people who can glide effortlessly through hours and days of celebrations, small talk and smiling for the camera.  I know for certain that life is easier for those festive easygoing types.   

Planned events make me twitch.

My 30th high school reunion is next weekend.  It’s one of those things that happens when you’re almost fifty.  If I grew up on a normal trajectory, my 30th reunion would have occurred last year.  Instead I got an extra junior year in boarding school to make up for a catawampus fall semester swirling the drain in my hometown and a spring semester living with my Aunt Joanne and Uncle John in Trumansburg.

No I wasn’t pregnant, although that was the rumor.

My parents decided that they couldn’t fix me.  Aunt Joanne and Uncle John had a history of straightening out the cousins who went off course.  I wasn’t exactly a bad kid.  I was a cigarette smoking, Boone’s Farm drinking, walk-down-the-railroad-tracks-after-school kind of bad.  It was small town boredom and I didn’t see a bigger, brighter alternative.

It turns out that Aunt Joanne and Uncle John couldn’t fix me either.

So it was off to Northfield Mount Hermon, a boarding school in western Massachusetts.  Because my first junior year was a bit of mess, the plan was for me to repeat the year.  My advisor’s logic was that it would erase my first go-round as a junior and help to get me back on my academic feet.  In an instant my place in the ranks of the class of 1982 changed to the class 1983. It turns out that Northfield Mount Hermon did fix me.

Every time I think of the school, I thank my lucky stars for the fortunate turn in the road that got me there.  At the time I was incapable of understanding the significance of the opportunity but I took it nonetheless.  The enormous gratitude I feel for that second chance swayed me to think that I was capable of attending the weekend-long reunion in spite of my past head-on collisions with big events.  That and the constant stream of reunion invitations appearing in my mailbox and Facebook page.

My track record with all things pomp and circumstance is ridiculous.  I completely blocked out my high school graduation except for a blurry vision of myself in an ugly polka-dotted dress.  I didn’t attend my college graduation and spawned a first-born who refused to attend his high school graduation.  I made another attempt when I finished my master’s program.  The University of Texas scheduled the ceremony for the School of Social Work poolside at the aquatic center.  It was like getting my diploma at a swim meet.

Eli’s 8th grade graduation last week threw a much needed glass of cold water on my delusion that I could go to my 30th reunion.  I held to the hope that his ceremony was going to be different, maybe even perfect.  In this fantasy we all would be dressed nicely, cry appropriately, take lovely family pictures and go to dinner.

Piece of cake.

I will not go into too many details in order to protect the guilty.  Let’s just say that my second son also exhibits symptoms of a deep dislike of ceremonies and formal wear.  The tone was set when we were all running late.  I left without earrings and makeup on one eye.  There was screaming and crying on the drive.  Before we left the house Eli announced that he was not going to the planned school dinner after the ceremony but I figured he would come around.  A contrarian to the core, I have watched him soften and change his mind a million times.

My fantasy didn’t have a chance.  There were no pictures or dinner.  His version of perfect was to go home and start his summer.

After the graduation experience I stopped looking for last minute flights to Boston. Although I have never been to a reunion, I know I would not do it well.  My children have confirmed that I have an anti-ceremony gene.  There is something about the confines of event-generated emotional expectations that just makes me crazy.

I absolutely treasure my time at Northfield Mount Hermon but I don’t have to attend my reunion to prove it to myself.  I’m not like the smiling people in the reunion propaganda emails who have kept in touch with their friends from school. Sometimes I wish I was but I accept that I’m not.

I have built another life – a good life.  My most meaningful days tend to be the ones that just appear and often come in small packages like playing ping pong in the backyard or a spontaneous beer on the porch with a friend. I do have to admit that there is a quiet voice that says that it just might be different with the girls.

A graduation or two will tell.