Laura Nicole Diamond is the award-winning author of the novel SHELTER US, winner of the 2016 National Indie Excellence Award for Literary Fiction and Independent Publisher Gold Medal for Fiction, and 2015 So Cal Independent Booksellers Award (SCIBA) Fiction Finalist. Laura is also the editor of the anthology, DELIVER ME: True Confessions of Motherhood, proceeds from which benefit homeless families. Laura is also a civil rights attorney in Los Angeles, California, where she lives with her husband and children.
This petitememoir is a love story — love between parents and children, husband and wife, grandparents and grandchildren. Between dancers and dance. Between humans and being.
Maybe this is a love story about love itself.
Written it in staggered moments over the three years since my grandmother Lilli Diamond died, it is no accident that it came to completion during a time of isolation, a time when pandemic sent everyone home and took our cherished gatherings away — for me, my Sunday dance class, a place where I felt my grandmother’s presence so vividly.
Today, October 16, 2020, would have been her 105th birthday. Let this be my small gift from the heart to her and to you. Dance with me.
Let’s talk about despair for a minute, and then let’s get to joy.
There is a low-grade despair that alternates with joyful moments, a dance of emotion I’ve gotten used to over this period of isolation. But sometimes the despair piles on, and there is a giving up. I retreat to a dark bedroom, disengage, until I become impatient with my own desolation, annoyed by my stillness. Until I say to myself, I do not like this feeling, and I am not going to stay here. I set my mind to find a way out.
A friend once told me: The mind cannot hold despair and gratitude at once.
I start with a breath. I sit up in my sweaty, wrinkled t-shirt, and stand up on solid legs. I feel my feet connect to floor, every dutiful achy bone balancing me, and I thank my legs and feet. I take another breath, another step, and one by one I open the shutters over the windows that line the wall, like cells in a jail opening. When I feel despair, I start with light.
When I feel despair, I go outside. I notice the feeling of air on my skin of my face, my arms. I thank my skin, the air. I look at the wide sky, or walk to where I can see the ocean, anything that can remind me of my smallness.
When I feel despair, I turn on music and dance.
In this I am not alone. An NPR article on loneliness during the pandemic shared:
Dana and Jeanne say they’ve always been very social — Dana with her nightly salsa dance with friends, her mom with trips to the theater, ballet, bridge groups and two book clubs. Stopping those activities was difficult for Jeanne.
“It was very traumatic at first,” she says. “You don’t know what to do with yourself.”
The neighborhood had taken to banging on pots every night at 8 p.m., partly as an affirmation of community, but Dana and Jeanne wanted to do more. Dana said to her mom, “Why don’t we just dance?”
Jeanne, though she always loved to dance, says she initially found the suggestion “a little ridiculous,” but figured it was worth a try. So they put up a sign on their garage door saying they would play recorded music and be out dancing in front of their house every Saturday evening. The sign invited neighbors to join them in the weekly dance party — at a distance.
For the first seven weeks they danced alone. Then neighbors started coming, some to watch, some to dance, some to chat. “Dancing is healing medicine,” Dana says.
It has been more than six months since my Sunday morning dance class was canceled indefinitely. I’ve talked about this class before. It may be called “cardio funk” but it is actually group therapy, or “planned joy,” according to a classmate who once scheduled her chemo treatments around it. We enter the room, join this gathering of persistent dancers, greet our own reflections, leave our outside worries at the door. We enter our sanctuary, knowing we will be rewarded for coming.
Our teacher, our Moses, leads us out of our private thoughts and distractions with pumping music that fills the space, and with the outsized persona he dons for these two hours. We become different people from who we are every day.
I often wished my sons would come and see me dance, as if I wanted them to see who I really am. Not the person in the kitchen asking them to put their dishes all the way in the dishwasher, or who provides them dinner without their second thought, who helps with homework or plunges a toilet, the person they rely on. I am that person, but not only her. I am also the woman standing in the front of the dance studio, learning the steps, sweating and smiling, striving and messing up and doing it again, until the last measure of music. I want my boys to understand the whole of me.
I had tried zoom dance classes in March and April, but the medium shrank the joy, only reminding me of what was lost. But last Saturday night, in a quiet house where only three of us now live, I could no longer ignore the sense of despair slowly seeping into my marrow. I knew the cure I needed.
Christopher and Emmett were in the family room watching NBA playoffs, a welcome opium for our masses so needing of distraction and entertainment.
I took my phone into the dark living room and turned on music, turned the sound all the way up, and set it in a rounded glass to expand its reach, my own personal disco. I sang with Alicia Keys about being girls on fire, and we hit the drumbeats hard. Swirling and singing, legs aching toward exhaustion, a state I have not found these past months of plodding fearfulness, Lady Gaga and I proclaimed that we were born this way: born in bodies needing to move to music, bodies that cannot contain our longing for joy, that we are all of us on the edge of glory.
Christopher, hearing the music and my thumping jumping around, my adamant, breathless, off-key singing, wandered away from the basketball game and into my darkened dance hall. As I kicked and hopped and expelled the last cells of my despair, emptying my vessel and refilling it, he sat on the couch and watched.
I smiled an invitation. Get up and dance with me.
P.S. Stay tuned for the release later this month of a short and sweet e-book,
Yesterday I stepped into adulthood: I pre-ordered a round challah from the Gelson’s bakery. As I ordered on the phone, I lingered over the idea of ordering my favorite, one with sweet raisins dotting the soft, airy middle, but resisted and instead asked for plain, what my boys like best.
Of course, our older son won’t be having any challah with us. He is in Eugene, finally released from the confines of pandemic shutdown with his parents and brother, only to have to lock himself in with his roommates to avoid unbreathable air from nearby fires. We are now familiar with the government’s Air Quality Index. He texted me today: “70 air quality this morning!” Seventy is almost “healthy,” down from an off-the-scale high of 496! I reply, “Woot woot! Just in time for the freakin new year…things are looking up!”
Such promising news prompts me to search Yelp for take-out/delivery brisket near him, hoping to delight him with a favorite taste of the Jewish new year. The best I can find is a food truck, and I direct him to its location. I say, take your friends, my treat. Only later does he ask me when is Rosh Hashana, not realizing that my offer relates to it beginning today. Who can blame him? Does anyone really know what day or month it is?
His younger brother, adjusting to life as the only child home — which means home all the time with his parents — asks if he can go to his friend’s house tonight to hang out in the backyard.
I pause to think. Friends are important. Especially in this remote year. Then, to make his case, he says, “I’m just not religious.”
He knows that this assertion will be met with a lecture, or what I think of as parental wisdom. I say, “You don’t have to believe in God. It’s about the ritual, and the communal self-reflection, and asking yourself what kind of a world you would like to live in, and how can we help create that in the coming year.”
I know this must sound like “mwa mwa mwa mwa,” but I also know this: This child is a close listener. He misses nothing. I have sighed at my desk across the long hall that separates where I do my work from where he is doing virtual school, and his voice has returned to me with a gentle, “Mom? Are you okay?” He hears what I am telling him. I know it sticks.
“Sure, you can be with friends tonight.” But I issue an asterisk: in non-pandemic years you will have dinner with your family on Rosh Hashanah. Also, I tell him I will send him with some apples and honey and, yes, some of the plain challah I’ve ordered, and to make sure he remembers the meaning of all this sweetness.
Before I run out to the bakery to pick up the challah, the doorbell rings with what I can only describe as a New Year’s miracle: a friend bearing a Rosh Hashanah gift bag — yellow tulips, sweet apples, a jar of honey, and a challah fresh-baked from her oven. She is a talented chef and hostess, and I know she feels the loss of being able to gather loved ones around her table and nurture and nourish them. I see how she created a new outlet to express her love, and that we are her lucky recipients.
Two challahs; it’s as if abundance multiplies itself! As I head to the store I wonder if there’s anyone without? I call one friend to see if she’s in need. Nope, challah abundance everywhere.
At the bakery I run into friends who are also there for challahs. The challah line is the only place we will gather in person this Rosh Hashanah.
I give my name to the bakery man, and as he searches for my plain challah — the very last one — I share with my friends how proud I was to have acted like my mother and mother-in-law rather than the juvenile I usually am in these matters. I had assumed everyone was more grown up than I, but it turns out I’m not the only late bloomer. One of them had not pre-ordered; she was stuck, unhappily, with raisins.
When the bakery man comes with my plain challah, we already know this was meant to be. The trade is made. He brings me her raisin challah that is so warm from the oven he advises me not to seal the bag yet. As I go to check out, Maria calls to say Happy New Year. Miracles multiply.
Both challahs sit side by side on the kitchen counter now, tempting me. In a little while, we will send our son off to his friend’s house with some of the tastes he loves, symbols of rituals that he may come around to some later day or year. Christopher and I will head to my parents’ house, and along with my sister and niece, we will sit outside on either end of a table recently wiped of ash, and taste the sweetness of choosing to be together, of everyone getting a little something they wanted, and pray for a new year with the healing and repair the world so deserves.
I have been cheating on you. But they mean nothing to me, I swear! At night, after my husband turns off the light, and we say goodnight with a kiss, and the doggies settle into sleep, I switch on my iPhone’s flashlight with the intention of reading my book, but I am seduced. My finger touches the phone’s smooth surface, presses lightly, and scrolls through comments of anonymous strangers about what I might have missed. I don’t even know all their real names. It started innocently. Birthday wishes, adorable photos, reunions. But those have virtually disappeared as angrier, outraged posts overtook them. Did you know the Facebook “Like” button was intended to put positive feelings in the world? I’ll let that sit a minute.
Last night I had an intervention: The Social Dilemma, a must-watch documentary on Netflix that pulls the curtain back, showing me what I have known for a long time but have not wanted to admit:
I am an addict, a user. Of social media and the device that delivers their hit. Sure, I can go days without it, but then the need for a hit is strong and I’m using again. Social media is destroying the real social fabric (an even greater irony than the fact you may reading this on Facebook; but, hey, let the medium carry the means of its demise. We know they’re listening.)
My drugs of choice are Facebook and Twitter, and they are doing existential damage, stressing my body and our body politic. Their algorithms are designed to manipulate our minds, to feed us more of what we “like” and linger over, so that by now what I see is not what you see, and we are led to believe that the “others guys” are insane or evil or stupid. Then we call each other names and the world sinks of its own weight. It is time to quit.
My addiction is also the delivery device. With every notification, the phone seduces me. Someone tagged me in a photo? I’m back using. I got a text? Let me read it this very second, no matter that I’m mid-conversation with my child, mid-searching for a word to write, mid-epiphany in a quiet moment. An invasion of the mind and body snatchers.
Good news — there is a cure. It involves some withdrawal. But it will be easier if we are in this together. We are not going off the grid, throwing our phones in the ocean, as lovely as that sounds. But I don’t have a landline, and so the phone stays. Here’s my plan, and I encourage you to try it with me.
First, the easy ones.
Turn off all notifications. (Go to Settings, Notifications, and press “off”). I already feel better.
Leave the phone in another room while I’m working, so I am the one who decides when to check it, not the buzzing or flashing device itself that wants to grab my attention. I haven’t checked all morning, and that asking me if I’ve donated to a campaign yet this week can surely wait an hour or two for me to respond. But folks, it has to be out of the room, not face down on the desk, in arm’s reach.
With me so far? Let’s keep going.
3. Delete social media apps from the phone. (Come on! You can always put them back if it makes your life worse, but I don’t think it will. I think it will be a relief.) I already slept better last night, without “doom-scrolling” Twitter.
Here’s the biggest, hardest one, which I haven’t done yet.
4. Delete my accounts. Deleting apps from my phone won’t be enough; I use Facebook on my computer. And though sometimes I use it for good, it is so broken, and doing so much damage, that until it gets its act together, or Congress acts like the grownup and makes it, I am gone. Let these words be my goodbye post, @MarkZuckerberg.
If you can’t go this far yet, start with setting limits: only visit weekly, for a pre-set amount of time; avoid the angry manipulation from nefarious actors dividing us more; read and post only positive and loving stories, and baby photos, and books you love and prayers for healing. I’m not saying stop your activism. I’m saying get offline and actually do activism. Or do more of it.
There will be withdrawal. Let’s learn from that. Let’s learn from how often we reach for that phantom phone. Ask ourselves what exactly are we seeking distraction from — uncomfortable thoughts, or pain, or boredom? Let our twitching fingers show us that how powerful the addiction is, and let us feel the strength of taking our power back.
You can still call and text and e-mail me, or find me here, I just may not reply as quickly. Let’s take a walk, or have a chat on that phone. Let’s catch up where we left off. With each other.
Ten unplanned days in Washington Crossing flowed into one another like a ribbon of syrup poured over the challah French toast Joyce made our first morning here (and our second, and any other day her grandsons asked for it), sweet and slow. Instead of schedules and reservations (e.g., our last visit featured a dozen cousins at GoKart races, ax-throwing, and a New Year’s Eve Party — all on the same day), these shutdown days were somehow filled by dog walks and Bananagram tourneys, shooting hoops and watching NBA games, teaching Emmett to drive stick shift on Peter’s 2005 Mini Cooper, showing Maria the real-life settings of her favorite stories from Christopher’s childhood, cooking and eating and stretching and reading, and choosing keepsakes from Peter’s closet — the plaid flannel shirts that will be tactile memories of a grandfather’s and father’s embrace. In many ways, this has been our fullest visit yet.
I started counting the days when there were two nights left. It was the same when we were on the RV. When there are only two nights left, you can feel the end coming. You lose your sense of being in the moment and start thinking of what comes next.
Our leaving would go in stages: Emmett and me flying straight home, Aaron visiting college friends in D.C. and Denver first, and Christopher staying here two weeks, to take care of his mom and let her take care of him.
The night before we left, Aaron asked if I would be getting up early to see him off. As if I have ever not said goodbye.
“Want a bagel?” I offer in the morning when he comes out of his room at 6:15 a.m. I am happy he says yes and lets me do this last mothering before he slips away. Christopher is ready to take him to the Amtrak station. He has been the keeper of the travel file during this journey — every campground reservation printed out, in order — and Aaron’s train ticket is the final piece of paper in that neat stack. Everything we have planned has passed.
Emmett the night owl is still sleeping, though he will have to get up soon to leave for our flight. Aaron is almost out the door when he pauses to ask if he should wake his brother to say goodbye. Yes, I say. Go hug him. Final goodbyes are on my mind. It’s unthinkable, but you never know which will be your last.
Aaron goes up the carpeted stairs to say goodbye, and I follow to watch this unfold. I take internal bets on whether Emmett will be receptive to his brother’s attention or annoyed at being woken, whether Aaron will act with grace or brotherly poking, whether their goodbye will turn into a squabble. I put the odds at 50/50.
Aaron pushes open the door to the room where Emmett sleeps on the sofabed they used to share, before they grew taller than us all and got separate rooms here. I keep my distance, not wanting to infect their moment with my gaze, but desperate to know how it unfolds. Sunlight bounces off the open door. I hear murmurs. I move closer. I can see Aaron standing facing the sofabed. He says something. Then waits. I inch closer. I see Emmett come to his feet, a film of sleep around him and eyes half-closed, and reach his arms wide for a full body hug. I retreat down the stairs blinking my eyes.
Aaron comes down behind me. He is ready ready ready to leave, but he lets me squeeze him twice. He beams with the freedom that is almost his. He has been counting down to this day since mid-March, and for the past five nights he has held up his fingers to show us how much longer until he is set free. After a brief visit with his friend in D.C., he’ll fly to Denver to spend a week with another friend, before they drive together to L.A. to pack up and get the heck to Eugene. These kids have had almost as much time apart as they had getting to know each other before they were buckshotted out of their dorms and scattered to their parents. They are ready to pick up where they left off.
Christopher and Aaron leave for the train station, and I finish preparing for our departure. Christopher will walk Aaron to the track like he is a little boy, not a young man who has done this before. Maria arrives to drive with us to Newark airport for one more in-person visit.
At the curb, still in the car, I put on my mask and a plastic shield, then remove them to kiss Christopher goodbye. I hug Maria, and quickly quash the thought that I do not know when I will see her again. I move through Newark airport with my double layer of armor. Looking out through plastic creates a reverse-telescoping effect. I make the minimal movements necessary to process through here, swerving away from others’ bodies as they swerve from me.
At the gate, I suggest we wait until the end to board, and Emmett defers to me. Whatever you want mom — not defiant, but gentle. He does not sound like the youngest in the family, but has taken up the space of his older brother and father, handling his nervous mom with kid gloves.
When we step up to board, he makes a show of patience while I present our digital boarding passes. I do know how to do this, I want to say to him, but I let him think I’m a slow “Boomer” and he is the grownup. Down the hallway we go. It is placid and empty, everyone cooperating and distanced. We walk through the oval entrance to the plane, where a young flight attendant who looks barely out of his teens welcomes us. Our seats are the very first row, bought with miles gifted by my mother. (“I won’t be needing these any time soon, and I’ll feel better if you use them,” she had said.) Emmett and I look at each other in wide-eyed amazement, masks hiding our dropped jaws, and stifle our inclinations to shout: “Wow! Are you kidding me?!” Our seats are large, face away from the aisle, and have footrests so far from the chair that I have to scoot mine closer for my feet to reach it. Two bottles of water and a biscotti wrapped in plastic sit on the wide space between armrests. Emmett asks, “Is this for us?”
We settle in. I will hold this position for the next six hours. I will not get up to stretch, or use the bathroom, or even turn around to plug in a charger or the airline’s headphones. I will doze and scroll through my memory bank of the last two weeks. I smile with the knowledge that we will fly across the entire country in the amount of hours we spent driving it each day for eight consecutive days. And while it is a relief to make the return so efficiently, in such comfort, I will be forever grateful that we took our time on the initial journey. I would have missed so much.
I am at the wheel ascending a stretch of the Appalachians in West Virginia, thinking about how much I have savored this stolen week with our foursome. I even manage to remember that no one can hear my thoughts and say this out loud. I get a patient, if tepid, response. “Yeah, mom. Uh-huh.”
A mile marker announces Maryland is coming soon. Aaron snaps to attention and switches his phone to camera mode in the nick of time. Not long after, we sneak up on Pennsylvania, come in through the side door, greeted by a motto I’ve never seen: Welcome to Pennsylvania. Pursue your happiness.
We are so close now. We have only to cross the state. We pass farmland, red barns and silver silos. Big rig trucks get stuck behind me, and I balance my concern over annoying them against my concern over keeping my family safe. I choose safety: Let them tell the story over beers later tonight, of getting stuck behind a filthy RV with California plates driving the speed limit.
I pull over to gas up before we get onto the Pennsylvania Turnpike. To all three boys’ rapture, there’s a McDonald’s sharing this corner. After 3000 miles, the first and only McDonald’s run; it is now officially a road trip.
“We used to ride the Pennsylvania Turnpike to debate competitions in high school. We would get off at the rest areas with these giant food courts…all the high school kids…you can imagine…” Christopher trails off into memory. The rest stops are infrequent, he cautions me, miles and miles before your next chance to take a break. So before I get too tired, and before darkness covers the night completely, we switch places. I leave the last two hours of driving to him. This is partly out of selfishness — it is harder driving at night — and partly out of generosity. I want him to have the sense of completion and success in bringing this 8-day trek to a close, of bringing us home.
Singing makes the driving easier. Back in Kansas, we finally figured out how to connect his phone to the Bluetooth, and since then we have overplayed Billy Joel, Bruce Springsteen, and my 50th birthday party mix. Now we sing along with the Indigo Girls, songs that bring me back to my apartment in Berkeley during law school, its dark wood floors and big windows looking out on the neighborhood’s umbrella of trees. I loved living by myself, singing as I made dinner or danced around my living room. I close my eyes; is it disloyal of me to revel in these memories of solitude? Not after a week of being together in an RV. I try a thought experiment: I put “today me” in that apartment alone, without Christopher or my sons, and it is another thing entirely. A missing, a loneliness.
The Bluetooth music cuts out, and we let it be quiet for a stretch. The sounds of our boys screaming at each other make me jump. I can’t tell if they are angry or having fun. I sigh, knowing that in an hour or so we will de-board this beast, get real showers, real beds and room to spread out and away from each other. I can picture the moment when we will exit I-95, maneuver around the nearly-360-degree exit ramp that will require Christopher to slow waaay down to keep the bowls and glasses and cutlery from making their spine-rattling crashing sounds. I can picture the familiar stop light at the end of the exit, and the wide left turn onto Taylorsville Road a couple of miles from where he grew up. I can predict how we will feel on that stretch of road knowing we are ten minutes away. Anticipation. Relief.
I lean forward to pick up Christopher’s phone to get the music playing again, and there is a green rectangle, a text message for him. “Mitch passed away,” it says.
My heart fills with something acrid, rotten. Turned lemons. A bag of sand. This? What is this? At that moment, Aaron comes forward to ask me something, and he is over my shoulder and reading the message at the same time I am. Christopher sits straight at the wheel, his hands at “ten and two,” his mind focused on our arrival, the first time home since his father died. This message would be a three-car pile-up. These words are us swerving out of our lane into the wall. I give Aaron a look that says, Don’t say anything yet.
I swallow. “Can we pull over at the next rest area?”
“Are you feeling sick?”
“Is it your stomach?”
We keep driving in silence, Aaron and I holding the information that has been true for maybe a couple of hours, and which has changed everything. Mitch, my cousin Liz’s husband. Mitch, Christopher’s friend and hiking companion; his confidant and sounding board; his fellow long-suffering-now-finally-victorious Philadelphia Eagles fan. Mitch is his person at big family gatherings. The person who inspired him to hike the Grand Canyon from rim to rim last year, and with whom he planned a repeat trip this year, until it was postponed by COVID. Mitch, who is kind and gentle and thoughtful and curious and true. And only 58.
The blue sign approaches: Rest stop 2 Miles. Gas. Food. Diesel. Pretzels. Christopher signals, checks the mirrors, and pulls off. He looks for a place to park. There’s room everywhere. “Just stop,” I say.
The engine goes dark. I swivel my feet to face him. I take a breath like you’d take before jumping into a deep cold lake, fingers pinching your nose, body clenched in anticipation of the shock. “You got a text. It’s bad news.” He nods. How odd that he looks as if he knows what I’m going to say. But then I say it and his face opens like a gaping hole.
“No.” His head shakes. This is not what he was expecting. He takes the phone from me. Reads it. “No.”
He gets up, passes Aaron and Emmett who are now silent on the couch, and flees out the door, as if he can get away from this news by going outside. I know that he will be calling Mitch’s son Nathan, who is only few years older than Aaron, and who Christopher has spoken with almost every day since he and his father brought him into their business as a brilliant computer coder a couple years ago. I kneel in front of my boys, and pull them to me. They hold me in answer. The shock lifts for a moment to let tears roll before it settles over me again.
I release them and say, “I’m going to go get Dad.” I walk out in the yellow light and damp air, scan the rest stop, and see him thirty yards away next to a wall of some kind, phone held to his ear, bent in a ninety degree angle as if in bowing in prayer. I get to him, rub his back in circles with my right hand, and hold his shoulder with my left hand, as if my touch can keep him grounded in his body where we need him to be for one more hour, not soaring on a flight of fresh sorrow, not yet. I hear him telling Nathan how much Mitch loved him. When he stops, I take the phone and speak to Nathan, too, as if words could be beads of love placed around his neck. I repeat myself, useless phrases, trying to lay another strand. “We love you, Nathan.” And somehow we say goodbye.
I guide Christopher back to the RV, which is halfway into a diesel filling spot. Inside, the four of us sit facing each other and talk about the father and husband and friend we just learned we have lost. Christopher says he has been sending Mitch photos from our trip, of Zion and the Rocky Mountains, hikes they might do together some day. I touch the edge of understanding that maybe my boys are thinking about their father’s mortality. I think about how Nathan and Christopher have both suffered the loss of their fathers within five months. What more can be said? Life is exactly this absurd.
“I’ll drive,” I say, but Christopher insists he’s okay to finish this. He starts the engine and pulls out. Aaron takes my place in the front passenger seat, keeping his father company, and I take his place on the couch. Emmett puts his head on my lap, and I lift my arm to stroke it. I am not sure if he is seeking comfort or offering it, but the movement does both. I work up the courage to call Liz. We have been childhood playmates and led parallel adult lives, and now we are here. We talk for a few minutes. I tell her that on our first day of the trip, Christopher told me that Mitch had called him a little while back saying there was great hiking weather in Zion, and did he want to drop everything and go? He couldn’t then, but Mitch showed him that paradise is within reach, closer than we think. All we have to do is decide to go.
Now we are circling the exit ramp. It is both as I had pictured it would be, and ghastly different. We whisk past tree branches and 18th century farmhouses and bridges crossing over the canal to our right. Emmett makes a guess as to how many minutes until we pull into the driveway, the game we used to play on rides home from the airport, when Christopher’s dad would pick us up and move into the passenger seat for Christopher to drive home. “I’ve got 10:52,” he says. No one else makes a different guess.
We make our final turn. We are two blocks away. I hadn’t remembered the speed bumps. They make our final approach as slow as our tentative beginning had been. I can’t believe we drove here from our house.
We look for the mailbox shaped like an English Springer Spaniel, but it has been replaced by a plain rectangular box. It is one of several things that will look different this week. Christopher pulls in front of the house as close to the curb as he can, trying to fit between his mother’s driveway and the neighbors.
“Dad you’re going to hit the curb,” Aaron says three times before Christopher hits it.
And then he turns the key, cuts the engine and the sound lifts away. Our bodies get up, squeeze around one another, gathering what we think we need with us tonight. One of the boys opens the door. It stops halfway, blocked by the rise of the grassy hill in front, but they push their way out and walk up the long driveway. Christopher and I gather a few more items — a laundry bag with the week’s dirtiest clothing, a computer case, a few more toiletries. We gather ourselves. It takes a few minutes. Then we descend into the thick night, into the songs of unseen birds and insects. The grass scratches my feet over my flipflops. We walk the dark curve of driveway toward the small figure in pajamas who has come out to see what is taking the parents so much longer than the teenagers. We open our arms as we approach.
I am dreaming that someone is driving our RV while we sleep. This concerns me because it isn’t supposed to be driven with beds open. I wake to realize that the sound of the engine is only the air conditioner, and the RV’s rocking is from someone walking around, not rolling roads. Rain pelts our roof and I peek outside. We are nestled in a copse of trees that seem to meet at a point above us.
This is either our last day, or second to last. Christopher checks his map app one more time. Yesterday it told us we were 12 hours from our goal — twice as long as our average drive, and well worth another night on the road. But at this moment it says we are only 9 hours away, and hopes rise.
But I draw a line: we are not busting out of here until I get some exercise. If I don’t move my body before we start driving again, there will be levels of crankiness no one wants to see. Besides, we are in the forest! Next to a lake! We don’t get that every day.
“Let’s go over to the beach.” Christopher and I are in agreement, and the boys do not protest.
We need to drive to get to the beach part of the lake, so we clean up, put everything back in its place so that we’ll be ready to roll when we’re done swimming. We pull away from our campsite and find a locked barrier across the final stretch of road leading to the beach. A sign says “Beach Opens 11 a.m.” Another says “Road Closed.”
Thank goodness for my grandfather’s guiding philosophy, a posthumous life lesson that has stood me well in countless settings like these: “It doesn’t say ‘absolutely.'”
We park our rig and walk around the barrier.
Actually, I jog — and I do not like jogging. But my legs and heart are greedy for exertion, and they are taking what they want, step after step. It feels good to move, and to separate ahead of my family, to be alone in a circle of space for a moment, to hear the sounds of insects and squirrels and birds and leaves whispering. The road curves, and for a fleeting moment it occurs to me to hide and shout “Boo!” when they appear, as if my boys might find me amusing.
In the humidity, the jogging lasts maybe ten minutes. I keep walking, and the lake opens before me. It is wider than the state park lake in Kansas, and wilder. I descend down a grassy panoramic expanse to water’s edge. About fifty yards to my left is the sandy beach and a small section of lake cordoned off by buoys and rope to designate a swimming area.
“I wish I brought my bathing suit!” Christopher exclaims as he catches up to me, his voice the definition of wistful. I know he is disappointed to miss a chance to submerge and swim.
“Take your clothes off and go in,” I encourage him.
A quarter century ago, before we were engaged, he and I walked along a stretch of beach near my apartment in Venice. There must have been moonlight. I must have had my shoes off, feet in the water, and it must have felt warm. There must have been a siren song, too, because I stripped and swam in. He added his clothes to my pile on the sand, and we floated and bobbed over waves. That was the first and last time.
I turn to look up the hill at my boys approaching, and when I look back for Christopher, I see his clothes hung on a hook and him gliding into the water, a look of peace on his face. We all walk toward him, each of us is weighing our options. He looks so content. The water is so warm. The boys take off their shoes and socks. Emmett removes his shorts, and Aaron pulls his sweatpants up to his knees. I remove my shoes and socks and roll up my sweatpants like Aaron, thinking it will be enough to wade in up to my shins.
It will not.
“Sorry, boys, you’re doing to have to deal,” I say, taking off my pants. I wade in to the height of my thighs, my hands gracing the water. Better, but still not enough. Back I go to the sand to hang up my shirt and — “Sorry again, kids” — and I am down to my skivvies. I plunge in. Emmett is in all the way, too. The three of us encourage Aaron to do the same, to come further, to do what we like. “Stop inviting me!” he implores. “I always thought I wanted to be included, but now I don’t.” He’s joking, and he’s not.
The water is as warm and soft as the air. I swim to the buoy, and repeating my grandfather’s mantra, “It doesn’t say absolutely,” I go beyond it. There is something in me that needs to prove — usually to myself — that I am not contained by others’ artificial boundaries. Is this despite my conventional life that appears completely contained by boundaries? Or because of it?
Later we will stand in our wet underclothes trying to air dry enough to put our clothes back on. It’s not working, so I tell the boys that if they don’t want to see me naked they should look away, and then take off my wet underclothes so I can put on my shirt and pants without soaking them. Feeling renewed, we head back to where we left the RV. Just then, the National Forest staff pull up. Clothed, in the nick of time.
“That your RV back there?” The man has a silver mustache and is driving a green golf cart. His voice drips Kentucky molasses.
“Yes sir, we thought we’d swim before we have to leave before a long travel day,” Christopher explains. I stand off to the side, my arms folded across my chest for modesty.
There is no reckoning or admonishment. There is only small talk and kindness. “Y’all be safe now, and y’all come back.”
I have known since the time I can remember knowing anything, that Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, holding that “separate but equal is inherently unequal,” was decided on May 17, 1954, my father’s 11th birthday. He pronounced this fact often, as if it was greatest birthday honor an eleven year old could dream of. This was my father’s liturgy and his lesson: the pursuit of justice and equality is the highest good, and is the domain of law and lawyers.
So when Christopher and I stretched out our paper map on the kitchen counter and trailed a finger along possible routes across the country, my heart quickened when I saw that one route would take us through Topeka, Kansas, hallowed ground.
Is it the rare person who gets excited to see Topeka? We follow directions off the I-70 to the Monroe Elementary School, the segregated school that Linda Brown attended, and now a National Historic Site run by the National Park Service.
It is Sunday, and there’s the matter of the pandemic, so the building is closed. But signs and photos outside tell its story and give visitors a sense of its place in history.
A mural across the street honors civil rights leaders, and includes the legal citation to Brown v. Board of Education in the official U.S. Supreme Court Reporter, volume and page number. My father could have recited it without prompting.
This stop leaves me full up. But the next stop is to fill up with Kansas City steaks. This is Christopher’s domain. He finds a charming little historic district in Kansas City, Missouri, with a local butcher and a soda shop.
Once we are arrive at our campsite, he is determined to grill these steaks over an open flame, despite the remaining heat from the 95 degree day. As the sunlight fades and we sit down to eat, an eery quiet descends around us. The sky turns a dark blue. The river beside us is still. This is when we notice that we are the only ones eating outside; all the other RVs are buttoned up and battened down. No one else is outside. And then we feel it, little bites on our ankles and shins. We are suddenly being eaten alive by mosquitos. The citronella candle in the center of the table is useless. We make a dash inside, but it is too late to outrun these villains. We have to make several trips in and out, carrying our plates, the cast iron pan, used foil, a salad bowl, camp chairs, and the impotent citronella candle.
We are no safer inside. The mosquitoes infiltrate, then multiply, like some B-movie, RV-horror flick. No one knows how they’re getting in, but new ones keep replacing smashed ones, avenging the blood on our hands and fingers — even though it is our own blood.
We clap our hands as if in random spaces, high and low, left and right. Christopher keels to one side: “My back is in spasm from that last smack.” We are locked inside the RV at 10:22 p.m., scratching at our arms and legs, cursing Missouri.
We wake to pouring rain. So much for the kayaks and bikes available to rent. We cut our losses and hit the road, destination Kentucky, Christopher’s 49th state. We wave to St. Louis from the highway, a small fraction of the St. Louis Arch visible behind buildings. “Boys! The arch!” Christopher shouts.
“Yay, the arch.” They murmur the barest acknowledgement, a faux excitement.
We cross southern Illinois without stopping, and pause in Indiana only to fill the gas tank. Filling up is a clunky, time-consuming effort, which requires constant pressure on the handle or it will stop fueling. This does not even begin to describe what is required to remove the bugs that mar our view through the windshield. Holding my arm high above my head, dirty water drips down my forearm and into my blue glove. The bloom, as they say, is off the rose.
After lunch I take over the driving. “I want to be the one to take you to Kentucky.”
We are feeling better now, and have just enough time to make two essential Kentucky stops: Churchill Downs for a photo op, and take-out authentic fried chicken.
The RV smells simultaneously like hunger and satisfaction, as we meander to our campsite in the Daniel Boon National Forest. There we will dive into the best fried chicken any of us has had (and mashed potatoes, creamed corn, mac and cheese, roasted corn, green beans, corn bread, and something else unidentifiable that is likely made from corn). We walk to the lake, and then we go to bed full. We do not know if this will turn out to be the last night of our trip, or second to last, but the kids are pushing to make the long drive home tomorrow. We are all ready for real beds and clean sheets, and tired of transforming the couch and table into beds at night and back again to couch and table each morning.
We have been traveling for a week, making serious mileage every day. The odometer measures our distance from home at almost 2400. It has not been a straight line, but includes detours that are almost enough to satisfy my dual cravings for adventure and captive time with my children — and more than enough to satisfy theirs.
Before we leave the KOA in eastern Colorado and head to Kansas, there is one dirty job to do. Christopher dons rubber gloves and heads outside to connect the toilet discharge tank via plastic tubing to a hole in the ground. I am still lying in the bed that we’ll need to fold up and slide back into driving shape before we leave.
“I love you more than ever,” I say, and I mean it with every cell in my body. “Boys, go help your father!” I implore. “Or at least go record him.” At this, Emmett goes out. In a moment I hear his news announcer voice through the window. It is 6:45 a.m., Mountain Time.
When Emmett returns, I go outside to offer moral support. I see my hero bent over a yellow hole in the ground, inspecting the connection between it and the tube he has inserted. My gaze follows the tube to its connection point at an output under our RV, and observe with a queasy repulsion a steady drip of liquid falling.
“Oh my–!” I whip my head back to Christopher, who is watching me go through the same series of realizations he has already been through.
“I know, baby.” He nods solemnly.
We cannot wait to get out of here. We can have breakfast somewhere else, anywhere else. We return the RV to driving shape, and head past rows of RVs holding sleeping families toward the exit.
A yellow sign bears friendly reminders — don’t forget to detach your hookups, cover your valves, and bring your wife. Hardy har har. (You know that I do not let this teachable moment pass me by, and am heartened that my boys see the gender stereotype for themselves.)
And then, the open road. Kansas, here we come. For years we have looked down on these miles as we crossed the sky from California to Pennsylvania. About halfway through every flight one of the kids has asked Christopher where we were, and every time Christopher has looked out a window and answered, “Kansas,” yielding an aggrieved observation: “Kansas is SO BIG!”
As I drive, Gig sets about figuring out how to connect to the Bluetooth so we can listen to music. Through the middle of the country, tunes will be essential.
We sing along with Pink and Bruce and Mellencamp, and each of their songs lend a different spirit to our drive. We “Raise a Glass” with abandon; we meander down Thunder Road; and when we sing, Ain’t that America, you and me/Ain’t that America, something to see/Ain’t that America, almost free…, it feels as if we are singing these words differently than before, as if they are a prayer for justice that is almost within reach.
Kansas is not all flat, but a series of swooning green pastures. I hold the wheel steady during bumpy, windy stretches, passing cornfields for ethanol and wind farms. We switch drivers, and when Christopher pulls off the interstate and heads us north a few miles to a state park he found on Recreation.gov, I am made breathless by bales of hay scattered across the hills, punctuating groves of wild sunflowers. “It looks like Monet.”
We pull into our campsite overlooking Lake Wilson, and our jaws open at our good fortune. “Full hookups and a pull through spot!” Christopher says .Then, “I can’t believe that’s what I’m excited about first, and not the lake.”
Hot wind hits us as we step off the RV. Seeing no shade, the boys and I start setting up our portable canopy, which until this week has known only our front yard on the Fourth of July, and the rain in the Rockies two nights ago. We struggle as its blue tarp blows like a sail. A fellow camper rolls up in a pickup truck and stops to chat.
“Cleanest lake in Kansas,” he says, nodding at the water. His job is running the wastewater plant here in Russell County, so I guess his information is good. “But that canopy won’t last a minute,” he warns. The boys and I squeeze its white legs back together and lay it down in the grass to deal with later. It’s too hot to wrestle it into its case now. We get our bathing suits and walk to a spot of the lake away from the populated beach and boat dock.
We step through a parting in the wild sunflowers, down a smooth packed earth path, and past three or four crushed Bud Light cans to reach the water. The boys go first, shrieking like little kids about the slippery rocks, an occasional underwater tree stump that catches them, and the slimy lake bottom.
I scoot to sit on a wet boulder and put my feet in the water. It is cool, not cold, and I know that I will be able to enjoy it without too much courage. Still, I have to ask Emmett to “count me in.”
“Just get in, Mom.”
“Emmett, I need a 3-2-1. Please?”
That’s enough to pull me forward. I keep my head above water to account for my baseball cap, but I am in. When I am deep enough, I tread water, swirling my arms and legs in all directions under the greenish water. My limbs hoot and holler in gratitude for this wild freedom after four or so hours in the driver’s seat.
Out in the middle of the lake, a few boaters pull kids on inner-tubes, but somehow the sound of their motors are muted. One passing boat lofts a Trump 2020 flag, and Aaron implores, “Mom, take a picture.” I do; it is part of the local flora and fauna.
As we return to our RV, the park attendant pulls by and asks us if we’re the folks with the “lil’ camper.” Out here, our 27-footer looks like a small rig. We start to notice that our neighbors are mostly 40-footers, parked next to muscular motor boats and pickup trucks. What looks and feels to us like a monster truck is to them the mini Cooper of camping.
It is too hot to make a fire, so we cook dinner on the RV’s propane stove and microwave — sauteed onions, zucchini, cauliflower, and chicken sausage, over brown rice — a California jambalaya. We eat in the shade of RV at our picnic table, then play cards as the daylight starts to fade — not until after 9 pm here on the western edge of the Central time zone. The air is finally comfortable.
The sound of music wafts over from one of the campsites with a supersized RV, Counting Crows and Tracy Chapman. These are folks who earlier warned Emmett not to watch too much news. I would have expected something more country here. I find myself wishing I had a way of showing them who we are — maybe a Star of David on my neck, or a mezzuzah on our RV, or an Elizabeth Warren t-shirt — some way for them to see that such people are also just people, to break a possible caricature they may have of who “the other” is, the way their friendliness (and good music) has reminded us that people are multi-faceted.
But maybe they do know, to wit: our teeny RV; the California license plates; and they may have glimpsed our dinner.
The next morning, after breakfast and cleanup, Christopher and I take one more walk. (The boys are done with this place; they stay inside the air conditioning.) He leads me down a path he scoped out at sunrise. “I had a nice time communing with my Dad,” he says.
This path hugs the lake and passes through a field of wild sunflowers to a dock. The morning air is warm but not yet suffocating, and our bodies are compelled to stretch before the next long drive. Before we know it, we are doing full blown sun salutes. Let the Kansans with their hulking boats who are starting to show up at the boat ramp watch us do yoga. Let the blooming wind grace our skin and stretch the muscles that have tightened on the long ride.
Finally, we tear ourselves away. Back to our temporary home, too small or too big, depending on who you ask and where you are. Onward to the next place: Missouri.
I wake up in Rocky Mountain National Park on a queen size bed inside an RV that my family has christened “Big Bessie.” It is an apt name; it feels enormous, as far as things you can drive on a freeway go.
I peer behind the vinyl blind that hangs on the bias over the small rectangle of window. My heart cracks into a smile: trees, mountains, sky. The weather has held. We will hike after all.
Outside of my view but within earshot, a drama plays out in the front of our camper. Unlike our campsite at Zion National Park on night 1, this site at Glacier Basin campground has no electricity hookup to power our appliances — so no A/C, no microwave, no electrical outlets. We have a generator that could power these items, but generators are not permitted in the Glacier Basin campsite.
I, for one, am okay with this enforced quiet.
But for Christopher, who is realizing that he cannot turn on our coffeemaker, this is turning into an apocalyptic moment. He thinks I am still sleeping, and I hear him ask the boys, rhetorically I am sure, “Do you think I should turn on the generator?”
Without having had coffee, there is no saying what his judgment will be. Or, more accurately, there is exactly saying what his judgment will be. From back of the RV I call out, “Do NOT be the asshole who turns on his generator in the National Park!”
“That was a close one!” one of the boys says gleefully. “His finger was right on the button!”
“Everyone would understand if I explained it was for my coffeemaker,” Christopher contends.
“Are you kidding? Look around.” This peaceful campsite mostly comprises families in tents. We are the behemoth on the block. “Do you think they have electric coffeemakers in their tents?” My voice is sharp, to cut through his pre-coffee fog. “Just boil water,” I instruct. (We do have a propane stove that works without electricity) “And pour it over the grounds.”
He listens. The method is a bit messy, but adequately caffeinating, and we avoid being “those people.” Now we can move forward. The morning keeps improving — fresh banana pancakes, and a four-mile hike to Sprague Lake, and Boulder Brook and a loop back to the camp.
Emmett crosses the creek stepping over wet rocks, and Aaron and Christopher follow. I hesitate. As a kid I used to rock-hop with abandon. Being the mom has changed that.
“Today is my favorite day,” I repeat (too often) as we hike. But it is. The clear air. My body moving after days of sitting. The epic views. Aaron and Emmett are good sports, passing the time engaged in a made up game involving the drafting of basketball teams.
Once we are back at the campsite, the kids are ready to leave. Aaron is eager to have dinner with a college friend who lives near Boulder (the reason he agreed to this trip in the first place), and both boys are eager to return to the Xbox. I push back against their pleas; we have time to pause a bit longer in this place of immense beauty before resuming the constant motion. “Don’t rush me.”
I tell them my plan: I will make us lunch, and then I will take another hour to sit in my camp chair to read, and write, and snooze — three must-dos. The boys wonder what there is for them to do here for a whole hour. I generally try not to spend too much time on regret, but in this moment I deeply regret not having taken them camping more when they were little, teaching them how to chill, to enjoy doing nothing.
After we eat, I park myself in that chair with my book, my journal, and a pen. They throw a football in the meadow.
And then, reluctantly, I leave We stop in Boulder and walk on Pearl Street, and over to the University of Colorado. When the rain starts again, my boys tell me to keep going, it’s just a little water — maybe they have learned something about chilling.
Then we drive to a restaurant where Aaron will meet a friend from college, in a mall outside of Boulder — which could be Irvine, or San Mateo, or Van Nuys, or anywhere else in America with a BJ’s Brewhouse. (And this is where I confess that the first restaurant I have patronized for dine-in service since March is BJ’s Brewhouse in Broomfield, Colorado. I never saw that coming.)
After dinner, Aaron and his friend part ways with renewed smiles. This reprieve from so much family time is a down payment on the moment they will return to their college town and resume the life they left before Spring break and stay-home orders.
It is time to move on to where we will sleep tonight, a KOA (Kampground of America) in eastern Colorado. As we head east and the land gets flatter and the landscape becomes rural, we drive under an overpass where Trump 2020 signs hold sway. Ahead of us, the sky is washed in ominous gray; maybe more rain will come. We find the KOA and, under cover of night, we take our place between RVs parked row after row, in earshot of the highway. We feel like conspicuous outsiders who anyone could peg for city slickers. This place has all the “amenities” — electricity, a hookup to the city water line, and places to dump what you’ve been carrying and no longer need. As Christopher plugs us into the grid and I scratch my head at why people choose this KOA over the national park nearby, I know at least that there will be unfettered coffee-making come morning. And maybe that answers my question.