Our First Roadtrip
Updated: Aug 3, 2019
In July 1994, my mother, Sam, and I drove Route 66 from Los Angeles to Louisville.
Mom needed to drive their second car from Los Angeles to Louisville, to complete their move out of LA. She and my father had already driven their first car and the cat across earlier in the year. My son Sam was about a month old and I was home with him, not working. When Mom said she and her friend Brenda were making the trip, I invited Sam and myself along.
I arrive in LA the night before we are to leave. Mom says that Brenda is no longer coming. Her husband, David, has cornered my mom in her driveway and said, "Please do not make this trip. You haven't maintained the car properly and it is going to break down in the middle of the desert, and you are going to be three women and a baby standing by the side of the road, and we will never hear from you again."
In deference to David, Mom has told Brenda that I am bringing too much baby stuff and there is not room for her in the car any more. (Full disclosure - when I told Brenda this story a few years ago, she did not remember that she had ever considered going and was sure David would not have intervened if she had. However, as they say on the Moth Radio Show, this story is true to the best of storyteller's recollection.)
Mom and I set off along Route 66. We have an iconic trip and several of my best party stories originate during it. We stay one night at the Del Coronado hotel, the next night in a small motel on Rt 66 that we pick as we drive by. All the rooms are named for 1950's movie stars, who the owner claims stayed in the hotel. (See the La Posada post of a similar situation.) The next night we pick a motel in which every surface is draped with custom-fit, hand crocheted covers: the Kleenex box, the extra roll of toilet paper, the toilet seat, the pillows on the beds, the TV, the lamp, the backs of the chairs, the doorhandles. Someone really likes to crochet.
David said, "You are going to be three women and a baby standing by the side of the road in the middle of nowhere, and we will never hear from you again."
On the fourth day, we enter Oklahoma. The road stretches long in front of us and long behind us, empty of other cars or trucks. A piercingly blue sky caps the world above and around, and between the road and the sky, a narrow strip of desiccated grass tiredly holds up a few thin trees and not much else. The car coughs, "Hurmph clunk," and gently slows to the side of the road. Click, click, click, says the starter.
Mom and I get out and lean on the car. I hold Sam in my arms, shielding his face from the strong sun with my hand. We survey. It does not look good. (These are the days before cell phones.) David was right. We are two women and a baby on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere...
In the distance, to the west, the direction we have come, a cloud of dust appears. In time, it solidifies into an old, beaten looking car, front bumper askew, brown paint sun seared and peeling. The car comes to a stop by us and the passenger window rolls down.
The occupants are two youngish men, lounging. We can see piles of things disarrayed in the back seat. They have long, unkempt hair and teeth unfamiliar of dentists.
"You broke down," the passenger says, flat-toned, more statement than question.
"Yes," my mother answers. I can tell she is trying to sound matter-of-fact but wariness edges in. A look passes between the two men but I cannot tell what it means.
"Well, we can't help you," the drivers says. We wait, silent.
Finally, the driver says, "You got water?"
"Some," my mom allows.
Languidly the driver says, as if considering, "There's a garage about five miles up. We'll tell 'um you need a tow." Abruptly, they drive off. We watch them pull away east and become, again, a distant cloud of dust. We do not say it but we have our doubts that they will tell the garage to come rescue us.
Twenty or so minutes later, we again see dust, this time coming from the east. Soon enough, we recognize the same old car. It speeds toward us and pulls an abrupt U-turn, fish-tailing to a halt next to us. Mom glances at me, worry frowning between her brows and I wrap my arms more tightly around Sam. The passenger window rolls down. Two white gallon buckets of water, beaded with sweat because they are cold, are thrust out. "Here," says the young man. "You'll need these. Tom said he'll be here as soon as he can." The car peels away again, leaving Mom holding the gallons of water.
Another twenty minutes and we see a large, brand-new looking tow truck coming toward us. A friendly looking man, wearing a baseball cap, a clean white t-shirt, and work jeans gets out and starts hooking our car up to the wrecker. This is Tom and he is chatty, with a slight southwest twang, asking about our trip and what we'd like to do with the car. He says he can take it to the shop he owns with Jerry to see if they can fix it. He points out the Tom and Jerry cartoon characters painted on the door of the truck. "We're Tom and Jerry, see," he laughs.
He helps us into the cab of the big tow truck. The seat is so high off the ground, it is like climbing up half a flight of stairs. As he guides us up, Tom asks, "Do you like to listen to the radio? You want to listen to NPR? You look like NPR kind of folks."
Mom and I both guffaw with delight, we are so surprised that a) Tom knows about NPR and b) pegged us so accurately so fast.
Part II: Miss Tilly lives.
Jerry says they can fix the car. But it will take 5 days to a week to get the part. I have a plane ticket from Louisville back to Maine in four days. Mom says to Tom, "You've lived here your whole life. You must have a friend who sells cars. Give him a call and tell him I will buy a car from him this afternoon. He just has to agree to help me take all the stuff out of this car and load it into the new car."
Tom does have a friend and he drives us to the used car lot across town. Mom tells Tom's friend the salesman John she wants a "Church Lady car" owed by an older woman who drove it to church on Sundays and the grocery on Mondays and not much else. John has just the car and they head out for test drive.
Sam and I do not go on the test drive. We spend our time taking things out of the old car, readying for the new car. Many of the things seem to me to be flotsam of a long life in one house, the things that are left behind after the house is almost cleaned out, things of sentimental value that, in truth, would be better jettisoned. I put several items in a nearby trashcan. When Mom comes back, she notices their absence and retrieves them. Thereafter, I am not allowed to help repack. She and John shoehorn everything in. The new car is slightly smaller inside than the old. All packed, I no longer have room on the front floor. I must ride with my feet on the dashboard. Adolescent me, hiding inside adult me, takes delight in this because formerly my mother would never let me ride with me feet on the dash. Ungainly, she would say. Unladylike.
Just this year (2019), Mom tells me that as she test drove the car around El Reno, people on the street waved at her with such enthusiasm that she felt compelled to comment. John told her everyone in town knew Miss Tilly, the car's original owner. "She passed a few months ago. But you look a bit like her. People must be thinking you are her and wondering if she is really..."
Part III: Grandma lives.
We stop at a rest area just before Chicago that has a phone booth and call my dad in Louisville. Our plan is to go to Chicago for a day, stay in a fancy hotel, visit the Art Institute and a church on the Southside that mother loves for its magnificent Tiffany stained glass windows.
But Dad says, "Grandma Tanguay [his mother] is fading fast. She seems to be slipping into a coma. We think she won't last the night." We get back into the car, dash as fast as we can to Louisville, and go straight to the nursing home.
Grandma lies in her high hospital bed, pale as white marble. I whisper to my dad, "Is she gone?"
"No, still here, maybe barely."
I stand by the bedside, holding Sam, who is cooing. "Grandma, it's Heather. I brought baby Sam, your first great-grandchild, for you to see."
She opens her eyes and rolls her head toward me. "Heather!" She seems delighted. "I never expected to see you here. And the baby too." (In later years, it occurs to me to wonder what she meant by "here.")
Soon she is sitting up, rocking Sam in her arms. By later evening, she is out of bed, having dinner with us, giving no evidence of her near death.
In the years to come, she will experience a number of episodes like this. Like a battery, she powers down, rests in a near coma, and powers back up again. By the time she is in her late nineties, a lesser version of this powering down is her normal state. She sits quietly, apparently resting in inward reflection, but rouses herself to focus her attention completely on us for few minutes, and then seems to drift away into the lower energy.
She dies in her sleep at 99, having lived from the time of horse drawn conveyances into the age of automobiles, through two world wars, the Great Depression, the Cold War, man's trip to the moon, the ending of the Cold War, from letters and telegraphs to typewriters and telephones, from books (which she loved) and radio to television (which she also loved), from counting on fingers to calculators to the dawn of the age of computers. All with grace and interest in the new and young people and life in general.