The Unexpected

As I walk into the airport bathroom, a nun is putting a bouquet of fresh flowers in the center of the counter supporting a long row of sinks.  She is a tiny old woman wearing a neat blue and white habit, a pressed matching belted dress and comfortable shoes. It isn’t until I’m in the stall that I appreciate the quirkiness of the scene.  Determined to ask the nun about her unorthodox altar, I hurry in the cramped stall, caught in the tangle of my computer bag, luggage and purse.

Another voice enters the bathroom and compliments the flowers.  The conversation quickly turns to tears as the admirer tells the nun that her son and his wife refuse to baptize her only grandchild. She also confesses to not liking her grandson’s name – Wolf, short for Wolfgang.  By this time I’m standing at the sink watching their conversation reflected in the mirror. The miniature nun takes the lanky grandmother’s arm and tells her – in a voice loud enough for everyone to hear – to love her son, his wife and Wolf and then let go.

I like her practicality.  If there is a God, I think God approves of the nun’s suggestion.

The two walk out of the bathroom shrouded in a discussion about prayer. I want to follow them and listen but I need to be at my gate. I never get to ask the nun to explain her mission. Perhaps she is the patron saint for travelers like me. Travel is my go-to remedy for spiritual discomfort.

At almost fifty I’m at a natural place to make changes to my life.  I’m having a hard time figuring out how that will translate into action.  I don’t want to shake the Etch-A-Sketch clean but I know I need to draw things differently to better match my goals. My Mother & Sons’  Road Trip through Grand Teton, Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks was in my mind going to be the headwaters of all cures.  I imagined epiphanies of intense beauty and majesty.  There was the hope that geysers, snowcapped mountains, red rock canyons, and summertime icebergs would clear the fog and a focused vision of my future would appear.

It didn’t happen that way.

It has been almost three weeks since the boys and I returned from Montana and I find it hard to describe our eighteen days together.  I would like to report that we all came back as improved 2.0 versions of ourselves but that would be too predictable and neat.

The scenery was spectacular and yet each of us saw it through a different lens.  For me the landscape was endlessly invigorating and just the fuel for the forward momentum I crave.  Leo saw the tactile earthiness of it, a test of his physicality. More often than not Eli saw monotony in so many mountains and lakes and liked our days in Missoula and Bozeman best.

The differences surprised me.

Instead, the common ground that best shapes my memory of the trip is more subtle and usually comes with a DQ vanilla cone while listening to Leo give a tutorial on new music or Eli’s hilarious recounting of Greek mythology.  All garden variety experiences that could have happened anywhere but became more noticeable in the confines of the Ford Focus.  It had nothing to do with the dramatic gestures that the landscape had to offer. The road trip stripped away the routine of daily life and left us exposed. We did not have our usual places to hide and there was an unspoken contract to negotiate new rules of engagement.

Some days were more successful than others.

It starts as a friendly Romaine lettuce leaf war between the boys while I am driving the country roads of Montana on the last leg of our trip.  Leo, in the back seat with our box of leftover food from the previous stop, starts eating lettuce loudly, bothering Eli our resident mesophonic.  From behind the driver’s seat headrest, Leo begins hiding my eyes with lettuce as I drive.  It’s funny the first couple of times.

He tries to force feed Eli lettuce, which ends with both boys taking off their seat belts in preparation for in-car combat. At the same time I discover I missed our turn and have driven sixty miles out of our way, adding another hour to our three-hundred-mile drive. The lettuce blinders, Eli’s refusal to re-belt and the Code Red level of teenage boy excess energy bouncing around the car has me yelling and threatening like a scene out of a formulaic road trip movie.  I pull over and abandon the Ford Focus.

I could not have found a stranger place to stop.  The wide gravel roadside is more like a parking lot.  There is a deserted rusted trailer, the kind that delivers new cars to dealerships; a guy cleaning out his car, furtively watching our antics; and an odd dilapidated ranch house at the far edge with a sign in the window that read Sodas 50 Cents.  I decide to grandstand and tell the boys that I will not get back in the car until they apologize.  As predicted, the game is on for Eli and Leo digs around the car for change to buy soda at the misplaced ranch house.

We are at that point in the cycle of a family meltdown where we all bring out our lists of each other’s faults. I find that we carry our clipboards a little too close. The boys love to make fun of my yoga practice and warn me not to hit them with my hippie-yogic-bullshit.  I do the adult thing and break out into a few yoga moves next to the trailer.  Mind you, we still have an audience of one during this tirade.

At this point nothing makes sense.

I’m in Down Dog ready to be the last Warrior standing. I look at my hands pressed into the cracked ground and realize I’m being swarmed by raisin-sized ants. My arms and legs are covered. I scream and Eli comes to my rescue.  Meanwhile Leo is walking back from the ranch house with cans of soda and gives me a Diet Coke. Truce.

Ants save the moment.  A reminder that the smallest things can both start and stop the biggest arguments.

We make it back to Bozeman without further mayhem but it takes us until the next morning to catch our rhythm again.  We have breakfast on the postcard-perfect Bozeman main drag, visit the world class dinosaur exhibit at the Museum of the Rockies and slack-line at a local park before catching our plane back to Austin.

A perfect last day together, the yin to the prior day’s yang.

My tendency after a lettuce-like incident is to over-analyze and pathologize the situation to death.  If it were up to me we would talk it out ad nauseam.  In contrast, my teenage boys have no use for my armchair middle-aged-mom psychology. They roll with the absurdity of life more readily and don’t nail their self worth to every itchy interaction.  We have all come out of this trip with a higher tolerance for the fluctuations within our relationships.  One moment does not have to define the next.

Without a lecture or forced meaningful conversation the boys re-taught me the power of second chances and DQ vanilla cones.  I don’t have to take everything so seriously.

During our road trip I did not have an epiphany to guide me through my fifties and I was certainly not cured of my defects.  I’m a little more comfortable with life’s messiness, my own loose ends.  I learned that my constant need to move brings me full circle to the value of standing still and that inside jokes and road trip theme songs are as life-affirming as any mountain vista.  The tiny nun told me everything I needed to know in the airport bathroom three months before I headed to Montana with my boys.

We need to love each other and just let go.


At each place we stop on our trip through the Grand Teton, Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks the quarters are close.  I have a ringside seat to the lives of other travelers. This morning at Lake Yellowstone, while the boys sleep, I stand at our cabin’s bathroom window and watch as parents with two girls load up their car. They are tidy in matching outdoor attire, hair brushed and breakfast bars in hands.  The packing process is orderly and efficient.  Their coolers, tote bags and supplies are color coded and all have predetermined places in the back of their car.  The entire process takes minutes and not one outside voice is used by any family member.

This is the norm of the families I watch at the National Parks which adds to my suspicion that my family is a bit high strung.

In contrast, we are loud and emotionally messier than any of the families I have encountered.  I find this at home too, so I should not be surprised – but I am.  Our departure is always chaotic as we push our need for one more experience to the edge. I beg for a late check-out as the boys haphazardly stuff things into our suitcases. Once again we decide that we’ll shower at the next stop.  Leo and I grab something to eat but Eli is vociferously complaining that he does not have access to any of the four foods that he finds acceptable.

Like the spectacular physical surroundings of the parks, the emotional terrain has been humbling too.  We all come to this trip with different motives. I have the dream that this will be the ultimate bonding experience for me and the boys.  Our eighteen days together will absolve us from all our sins and we will be saved.  Saved from every slight that has occurred between us.

Now I admit that’s a colossal expectation to put on one road trip.  I have a pragmatic front that I wear on the outside.  My realistic self tells friends that I have no expectations and that my only goal is for us to get along. Both are true, like a novel with two plot lines.

Leo has no time for absolution. I keep forgetting what nineteen is like.  His energy and focus is all about experimenting with his newly minted adulthood and the physical challenges of climbing and pushing past his previous limits.  His expectations are as simple as what mountain to climb.

Leo can’t even fathom my middle-aged desire for emotional closure.  He is at the beginning of his life and absolution is something for the old.

This road trip has been most challenging for Eli.  He is thirteen and still has one foot in childhood and another in teenagehood, which makes him almost impossible to predict.  He can go from being sweet, to angrier than a cornered badger, and back to sweet again in one afternoon.   He wants Leo to be his best friend and that is this trip’s greatest hot spot.

What has surprised me the most is how they both accept me as one of them.  I feel myself morphing into a teenage boy.  I eat more junk than I have in the last decade, don’t shower, run up mountains, swear more than I should, and am amused by their scatalogical jokes.  I have to stop short of a complete transformation though.  In order for this trip to keep moving forward without bloodshed, I must access my most potent and covert parenting skills.

I learned that I am a mother first – the ringmaster of the road trip show.

Our car rides are the weakest link.  At some point in every leg of the trip the boys begin trash-talking and wrestle over the seats of the car. It’s all fun and games until one is pushed too far and then they fight like bear cubs.  Eli is always the loser. When we arrive at our destination, the emotions pour out of our car as if our Ford Focus was just pulled from a lake.

The boys go to their corners and I manage the detente.  It usually involves Leo taking a short hike by himself and Eli and I going off on our own.  In a couple of hours we regroup and the slate has been miraculously cleaned.  Then there is laughter, campfires, and plans for the next activity.  We are loud, unkempt, and definitely don’t do transitions well, but our in-betweens are pretty darn good.

Therein lies all the absolution I need.