It began as an idea in the shower. That’s when my best ideas float by. A road trip. With Mom. I’ve never done anything with my mom alone, except for a shopping day in junior high when she kept me out of school to go to Tulsa. I still remember the red tank I got that day at Gordman’s. “Fallen Angel” was scrolled across the front in silver glitter. I wore it to my step-nephew’s christening, reveling in the irony. I remember the hot Krispy Kreme doughnuts we ate, how my stomach did flips from the surge of sugar. We spent all day hopping from store to store and the mall. At the checkout, receipt in hand, my mom would turn to me and say, “I don’t know if you’re worth this,” just loud enough for the cashier to hear. A joke, I know. But to an insecure thirteen year old girl, I wondered the same thing. Was I worth it? Was I worth it to her?
One day. I’m sure there were other times, but that was the only one in my recollection that felt intentional. Like she wanted time to just be with me. A year later we would embark on a forced mother-daughter date night in a desperate attempt to keep our family together. It only occurred twice. My brother left to live with our dad. And I surmised that I was too much to continue the effort for another month.
My mother and I have never been close. This “uncloseness” was a dull ache that thrummed through my adolescence, sometimes tearing through when my friends would say things like “I can tell my mom anything!” “My mom and I talk about everything!” “My mom is my best friend!” Now, I must state: My mother loved (and still loves) me and provided for me and my two brothers. We were told we were loved. We never missed a meal. We had new shoes every school year and got what we wanted most from Santa Claus. But what I really wanted was her. Time with her. I wanted her to know me. I wanted her to hear me. I desperately needed someone to know everything I was holding inside. Someone who would love me regardless. And I knew she would, but I didn’t feel like she wanted to hear my deepest thoughts and fears and secrets. I longed to be seen and noticed.
To be fair, these are the sentiments of a teenage girl whose frontal lobe had not yet developed. You feel so much when you’re a teenager. In addition, my mother had a lot on her plate. She was very young when she married my dad. Just eighteen. Babies! She had my older brother when she was twenty and was a mother of three by twenty six. Shortly after, my parents divorced and she took on the role of single mom to three young children. She worked full time as a teller at a bank in Bartlesville. She took care of us, she pushed through the brokenness of a failed marriage. My mom is tough. She is beautiful and strong and resilient. But we were never close, and this continued into my adulthood.
So. A road trip.
As an adult, and after analyzing and weighing much of my life thus far, I have come to the conclusion that if I want a relationship with my family members (or anyone for that matter), then I have to be the one to pursue them. And so I have. Not perfectly, by any means, but I have decided that I want a closer relationship with my mom, my brothers, my dad. And so by helping them move, attending their parties, organizing Christmas dinners, and inviting them to my home, I have attempted to show them that I love them and want them, even if the efforts are not reciprocated. And then in early April, while getting ready for church, the idea of a road trip popped into my mind. I lolled it around all morning until muttering it into existence to my husband on our way home from church. “Hey, what do you think about me going on a road trip? With my mom.” He looked at me from the corner of his eye. “Just you two?” I could hear the skepticism in his voice. So I unveiled the plan that had been pieced together in my head while listening to our pastor preach on love. By the time we got home, he said “I think it’s a great idea. I think it would be really good for you and your mom.” My sweet husband. He’s always supported me like that. Without reserve. “How may I assist you with your quest, ma’am?” support.
I would give this as a Mother’s Day gift. I planned a twelve day journey up the East coast that would eventually get us all the way to Canada. I would put a Bible study together for us to do everyday and deep questions to ask each other while driving. We would camp out to save money and add to the adventurous spirit of a road trip. We both love to tent camp, anyway. And my three year old daughter would come. It was important to me that she come along. Well, one, I couldn’t stand to be away from her for that long. But more than that, it was important to me that she watch me pursuing love. Not that she would understand or even remember this trip, but that she see how we are to love and seek to show love to others, no matter what. So I planned and mapped out the trip, created a cute pictograph to present our itinerary, and conspired with my stepdad to ensure my mom’s calendar stayed clear for the last week of June and beginning of July. I folded up my best intentions and the desires of my heart, stuffed them into a pink envelope, and sent them to the post office. Then I waited.
The day before Mother’s Day, my mom called. She had tears and excitement in her voice as she fired questions at me. “We’re going on a road trip? We’re going to Canada? I’ve never been up North! Clara’s coming, too?!” It was the best response I could have hoped for and my chest swelled with happiness. Over the next few weeks, we exchanged phone calls almost everyday, finalizing reservations and smoothing out the little details. It was the most I think we’ve ever talked. A good start.
On sunny June 23rd, we set off on our journey, the back of my mom’s green Ford bursting with sleeping bags, snacks, and glitter jellies. We were fully prepared for our trip. Mom had gone a bit crazy and stocked a camp box complete with solar lights to create a lit path to our tent and a welcome mat. Totally a girls’ camping trip. Our first drive would be a long one. We left Cherry Grove Beach, SC and set on Shenandoah National Park as our destination. Since it was an eight hour drive, we concocted an ingenious plan to cook while driving to save us food prep time. We knew we’d be arriving near nightfall and would have to set up camp without time to get dinner ready. I had previously purchased an inverter off Amazon for the trip, and we used that to power a bungeed down crock-pot full of roast and carrots. While this successfully delivered us a delicious and easy dinner, there were some problems that sprang up: 1) By the last hour and a half of our drive, the aroma of a nearly cooked meal permeated the car. And we were starving. This made the last hour drag by, our stomachs growling in time with each sluggishly passing mile. 2) The aroma of a nearly cooked meal permeated the car, and e.v.e.r.y.t.h.i.n.g. in it. And it turns out our campground was in bear country. Where there are bear containers at the camp spots to store food, otherwise it has to be locked in your car. I didn’t really get the gravity of the situation until we walked up to the restrooms to get ready for bed and noticed the sign posted above the trash can discouraging the disposal of food wrappers because bears could enter the bathroom in search of the delicious smelling wrappers and get trapped. I looked at the door. The heavy door with a difficult to turn handle, not just a push door, turned to Mom with wide eyes, and eloquently said, “Oh crap.” We returned to our tent, smelling of our dinner, and hoping not to be dinner to the local wildlife. We settled into our blow up mattress and dissolved into a fit of giggles as we strategized our escape plan if a bear came aknockin’. It was absolute hysterics. We could not stop laughing, Clara spit up from laughing too hard, but at the same time we were terrified of a bear attack. Everything smelled like roast. We were bear bait. Around 1:30 am I couldn’t handle it anymore and got up to put my beefy smelling pillow in the car. Shortly after, it began to rain and then storm. By this time, Clara had fallen asleep. The wind tore up the side of the mountain in a roar like I’ve never heard, blowing in every direction, but never wrenching our tent. I glanced at my phone at just past 3:00 am, still bright eyed and bushy tailed, and a breezy tendril happened to catch a corner of our rain fly just right and ripped it open. Mom jumped out of bed to restore the fly as fat droplets snuck into our tent, settling on the duffle bag with her clothes. Fly secured, Mom returned to our deflating bed and we collapsed into giggles once more. A little after 4:00 am the storm began to dissipate and we gave up on the air mattress, opening the valve to let the little air remaining, escape. Around 5:00 am we finally got to sleep. The well-rested toddler awoke at 8:28 am. Day one.
The next day was marked by a drive to the shower house where we plunked quarters into a machine like a car wash to keep the shower head spraying, inhaling purple flora at the White Oak lavender festival, a frantic search for safe, dry lodging, the resignation of “no vacancy,” purchasing a new air mattress, and a sunset over the Shenandoah Valley we’ll never forget. We packed up as quickly as possible the following morning and set out for Clinton, New Jersey, eager to sleep without the looming threat of bear visitors. The trip was going well. I mean, there were some hiccups and pretty much everything that could go wrong the first night, did, but spirits were high, guards were down, and good coffee at a cute cafe rejuvenated our tired eyes. Mom drove, I lead us through our Bible study on the foundations of the Christian faith in Matthew 5, Clara watched Fern Gully and napped. We took a pit stop at Hershey’s Chocolate World to tour the factory and guzzle frozen cocoas. When in Pennsylvania, right? Then hopped back in the car and arrived at our destination just before dark, once again.
New Jersey proved to have pink sunsets that rivaled those of the valley’s and delectable eateries set on rivers that overlooked antiquated red mills. To use the overused and trendy adjective, New Jersey was dreamy. We camped at a lake harbored by tall, deep green hardwoods just outside of Clinton. During the day, we ventured into town and lunched on a riverside patio at a vegetarian restaurant where ducks waddled up from the water and begged for treats like dogs. We then frequented the local shops, got our daily scoop of ice cream, and returned to our campsite to cook up marinated lamb chops and herb potatoes before going for an evening walk and watching Clara dance around with her glow bracelets. By this time, we were four days into our Bible study and questions. We were digging into passages that showed how much God must love us to restore us even when we haven’t been choosing Him. We plunged into Ezekiel 16 and discussed how the choices we’ve made, good and bad, have affected the course of our lives. I think it’s the most candid we’ve ever been with each other. It felt good and right, but I could tell we were both holding things back. She couldn’t tell me her biggest regrets, and maybe I didn’t really want to hear them. Maybe it’s better not to know. I couldn’t bring myself to it either. Maybe it’s better she doesn’t know. The paradox of establishing relationships. How do you allow yourself to be vulnerable to someone you don’t entirely trust? How do you build trust without being vulnerable? That’s where we were… are. Stuck in the purgatory of “establishing a relationship.” Then we went to the Hamptons.
We arrived in the Hamptons around lunch time, on June 27, to temps in the low seventies and a languid breeze. We stopped, first, to wash the most expensive load of laundry we’ve ever purchased at a laundry mat. We were in the most expensive zip code in the U.S., so what’d we expect. We then went to the famed Lunch to eat an expensive lobster roll (because that’s what one eats in the Hamptons) and relished every expensively delectable bite. After eating, we got the most expensive polish change (and I must say, not a very good one) and started counting up the damage done to our cash stash in less than a day. In case you haven’t caught the theme, the Hamptons are expensive. Licking our wounds, we punched in the address for our campground and set off through the tree covered back roads to find that night’s resting spot. This is where the costs became too much.
Upon arrival, we found a campground that, at one time, must have been lovely and full of campfire smoke and children’s laughter, but not anymore. The stores and buildings were shut down, the roads washed out, and the bathrooms unkept. There was no attendant to check in with and only a small smattering of campers in a vast, sketchy campground. Additionally, we had no cell service. It didn’t take long for Mom and I both to agree that this was not a safe place to be staying with a toddler. Back in the car, we headed toward Montauk and started searching for affordable places to stay. Allow me to clarify that the word “affordable” and “the Hamptons” do not play nicely in the same sentence. Hotel Tonight saved the day with a 40% off deal. While The Montauk Yacht Club is not affordable, we figured if we were going to spend that much money for just two nights, we might as well pay a little more and make it worth our while. But Mom had become angry. Clara and I took a luxuriously long shower, without the need of shower shoes, and plopped into a bed where Marilyn Monroe had stayed, while Mom simmered. I’m not sure why she became so angry and I don’t think she did either. After a while, she settled down and apologized and we left it at that. We donned lavender masks, completed our Bible study, and drifted into the deepest sleep thus far.
Awakening the next morning, I could feel the tension had returned once more. Clara and I had breakfast in bed and slowly got ready for the day. Mom went out to walk around and get more ice for our cooler. I took this opportunity to call my stepdad for advice. “She’s still really mad from last night.” “She’s not mad anymore. She just feels like she was taken advantage of. She’ll be ok.” “What should I do?” “Just give her some space.” So that’s what I did. That afternoon, we jumped on a sail boat and karaoked Moana songs while learning the basics of sailing and the history of Montauk from our guide. Afterwards, we changed and drove up to the Montauk lighthouse to stroll the rocky beach and collect stones for Daddy. The whole time, Mom stayed back and Clara and I traversed the beach mostly on our own. It wasn’t getting better. By dinner, I couldn’t take it anymore.
In a corner booth of a tiny pizzeria, I opened my big mouth and said, “Let’s talk.” What followed wasn’t pretty. I knew this would happen at some point in the trip. Knew it had to for us to ever move forward. Tears fell, emotions were indulged, and hurtful words slithered across the table. A looming wall shot up between us, or maybe it was always there. Too much pain and our own history to climb over and see the other side. I told her how I felt, how I wanted a relationship with her, how I loved her no matter what and wanted her regardless of the past. But I don’t know if she could hear me. I was saying those words, but she couldn’t hear them. As if I were speaking another language or the wall had just muffled the sound to incoherence. I don’t know if it was the same for her, but for me it was a realization that we will never be what I had always hoped for. It wasn’t her words that hurt so much as the death of hope. A hope I had clung to for so many years. Back in the car, we hugged each other and resolved to keep trying. But now it was my turn to shroud my heart. Although I rebuked and would not accept belief in some things that were stated in anger, I was grieving the awareness that I would never be best friends with my mom.
We left the yacht club the following morning for our last stretch North. We stopped in New Haven to picnic on the hallowed grounds of Yale and continued into Vermont where the cool rain began to fall. The somber weather reflected my internal strife as I struggled to remain chipper and enjoy the rest of the trip. I must say, though, out of all the states we wandered through, Vermont was the prettiest. The entire state was covered in green mountains of firs and birch trees like you see in the fireplaces of a Pottery Barn magazine. It was breathtaking, but wet. So, once again, we ended up in a hotel room, this one just about seven minutes south of the Canadian border. We got up the next morning, hopped in the car, and raced to the border in search of Bleu Lavande. With a break in the rain, we were afforded a few hours to stroll through one hundred and forty two acres of lavender fields with lavender lemonade in hand and French accents weaving through the air. It was like transporting ourselves to Europe without the expensive plane ticket. Clara was delighted (already in a good mood because the border patrol recognized her royal heritage by looking at her papers and remarking, “And this is princess Clara in the back?”). She ran around, nibbled on lavender sugared beignets, stole sips from our lemonade, and had a grand time swinging with her Nana on the playset. After packing a shopping basket full of lavender infused products, we skipped over to a recommended abbey to purchase chocolates and cheese from the monks whom lived there. A lovely day.
Once we reached Canada, we commenced our trek home, stopping for a night in Pennsylvania before continuing on to my brother-in-law’s home in D.C. where we would meet my husband for the Fourth of July and our road trip would end. By this time, the authenticity in our Bible study questions had dwindled. There was a sense of guardedness and masked timidity. Once we arrived in D.C. we stopped our study and our discussion. I retreated into the safety of my husband. She retreated into the solidarity of an upstairs room to herself. It didn’t surprise me the morning of the fourth when I awoke to my mom packed up and ready to return home. She had mentioned the day before of maybe leaving early, but I tried to talk her into staying, not wanting her to miss out on the opportunity to watch fireworks from the south lawn of the White House. But I knew once she had mentioned the idea, that it’s allure would grow in her mind and she would probably leave. With my husband and daughter slumbering downstairs, we embraced each other and said goodbye. From the front window, I watched her get in her car, set her address in her phone, and pull away, while warm tears puddled in my eyes and leapt down my cheeks.
It’s taken me a few weeks to sort through my feelings on this trip. There were wonderful laughter-filled moments and beautiful memories created, but it left a tempered pang of loss, as well. Before we left, I called upon some beloved prayer warriors to pray for safety and unity on this quest for redemption. Throughout the trip they lavished me with scripture and encouragement. At the end of the journey, I felt like I had failed. I expressed this to a friend who admonished me with, “Theryne, you don’t know what God is going to do with this, yet.” I didn’t know if my mom and I were any closer due to this trip than we had been before it. I was sad that my idea of our mother-daughter relationship would never come to fruition. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to say “my mom is my best friend!” Or that we’ll go on shopping trips together and divulge secrets to each other. That fantasy is dead. And you know what, I’m glad. Because it needed to die. Just as I have always felt that I could never be enough for my mother, I had pinned the exact same expectations on her. My ideal of how I want my mother to treat me and love me is just that: an ideal. That unrealistic expectation was holding me back from loving her the way I need to love her and seeing her the way I should be seeing her. At the end of the day, she’s just a woman. And so am I. We promised to keep trying, to persevere. And I’m good with that. Because I don’t want an idea, I want my imperfect mom. I can only pray that my daughter will extend the same grace to me. And I can’t wait to see what God will do with this.
Note: After writing this post, I shared it with my mom before allowing anyone else to see it. I was terrified to have her read it, but knew that I had really written it as a letter from my heart to hers. When she called me a few minutes later, we were able to have one of the most honest conversations we’ve ever had. One of hope and love and grace and real vulnerability. I won’t go into the details, they belong to us, but we both agreed that our memory verse for the trip was given to us to speak to our hearts during that trip and after. “Commit to the Lord whatever you do, and your plans will succeed.” Proverbs 16:3