Driving North, 1959

Submitted by Virginia Watts on Sat, 01/10/2015 - 12:34

Driving North, 1959

The silence was stacked like blocks of ice between them. Dad was driving, his shoulders defeated, and mom sat in the passenger seat, her lips a thin, tight line. I was in the back seat trying to keep my brothers interested in a game of Alphabet. No Quaker State Oil signs to be had, so we were stuck at Q. The boys finally slept after watching miles of California mountains fade to black as the sun sank behind them.

The car smelled faintly of dirty socks and cold cuts. We had been on the road for a week, rushing from campground to campground on our way to Canada. It was June, and the weather was unpredictable – rain hit the first night out and there was a hole in the tent where I slept with the two boys. Dad had backed the car into the side of the tent after he set it up, leaving a hole the size of a basketball.  He and mom were in the station wagon, warm and dry.

It was to be a family vacation, something we rarely experienced. Family church camps, yes. Day trips to the beach or mountains, yes. But a real family vacation where you pack a suitcase and go someplace for a week or two? No.

Mom had been in a dark place for weeks. She was sleeping a lot, not eating, and the boys were left on their own too much.  I had just graduated from high school and had my own life. I had a job, and was planning to leave for college in September. I had a big life outside, away, but here I was locked in the car trying to help my dad execute just one more plan to shock my mother back to reality, to a life that mattered to her. She wasn’t really with us. Her mind was far away from the practical, the mundane, taken over by ghosts and shadows.

When you’re locked in a relationship with someone who suffers things you can’t even imagine, you try to make sense of it. Who caused this pain? What could be done to mitigate its power? Who put those blinkers on that closed the world down to a small, dark place? How can you yank them off, wake her up, pull her back into a world full of light and possibility? It was a long, long time until I realized that I couldn’t do that, couldn’t reach her, couldn’t solve the puzzle or pull her away from it.

The gloom had settled on all of us until we were smothering. My dad was helpless to extricate us, or himself. So he took us away from the misery of the daily, and into the hope of seeing more places, the bigger world, something different. I know how he hoped it would work, to bring her out of herself and back to him. He was lonely. We all were lonely. We all felt responsible. That was the curse. It wasn’t our fault, but it was. We couldn’t fix it, but we should.

We drove for hours every day. It’s a long way from Los Angeles to Vancouver. And we had limited time. At Crater Lake I stayed in the camp and boiled the dirty socks while the rest of the family went for a hike. My dad did all the driving, did all the cooking. I tried to keep the kids clean and entertained. My mother just wasn’t there. She occupied a place in the car, but that was it.

The plan worked for us kids. We loved sleeping in a tent, or under the stars. The boys collected rocks, sticks, pine cones – I dreamed of a different life and took some pride in keeping things clean, tidy and cozy.

My dad exhausted himself trying to engage my mother, to catch something that would put the sparkle back in her eyes or turn up the corners of her mouth. It wasn’t working for her, or for him.

And he didn’t have a lot of money for this trip. We ate all of our meals around a campfire or park barbecue. He bought canned salmon and made salmon cakes, something we had never had before. New foods, new sights, new experiences, new places were a tonic. But not one that worked for mom.

On the way back home we really did run out of money. Dad talked his way to some extra cash on a gas credit card so we could eat those last few days. We drove even longer each day to get home again. Lighted windows in neat little houses we passed made me long for home-cooked meals and my own comfortable bed.

But I knew, really, that those home-cooked meals would be ones dad or I would make. That my comfortable bed would not give me any easy rest. We all would be waiting for mom’s emotional tide to change, longing for the space where life was brighter, cozier. Wanting our world to be full of color again, our world to be safer.

We waited a long, long time. Her world was our world until we could make our way out. But have we? Can we? Will we? Some part of us is still waiting, watching, hoping.