Daddy always said that Grandma Vera would go anywhere. "Say 'go' and she won't ask where, she'll just say, 'Let me get my hat,'" Then, for emphasis, "Why, if someone walks up to her coffin and says, 'Let's go Vera,' she'll get up and go."
On a warm May day in 1964, queasy from sampling the tuna casseroles and chocolate cakes toted in by neighbors, I stand beside her open casket. Her ivory face, not quite the face I knew, lay in puffs of pillowy satin-too fancy for her. I whispered, "Let's go Vera.
The stories from my family past are stories of travel. Great events may fade from the mind, but memory fragments snag on a hardship of the road, a child's remark, a new view of the world. My mother, my grandmother, my great and great-great grandmothers were restless, curious, bold. From England to New England. From Keene, New Hampshire to Keene, Ohio. From east to west and back again.
From Grandma and her maternal line, I inherited the urge to keep moving. Having spent our first twenty-two years in Ohio, my husband and I moved to Arizona. Nobody on my side of the family minded. They saw it as another excuse to travel.
Two years after we moved to Arizona, my husband and I returned to Ohio and dropped off our one-year-old and three-year-old sons with relatives while we went to the New York World's Fair. Grandma Vera cooked us pork chops and applesauce before we left Ohio. The two of us compared swollen ankles--hers from heart problems and mine from pregnancy. We thought we'd talk again when I returned from the World Fair, but three days later, while I was wandering through make believe Balinese temples and Irish pubs on an artificial island near Manhattan, she died.
After the burial, my husband flies back to Arizona for business, but I lag behind with the two little boys. Mother, grief stricken, trying to absorb the loss of her mother, clings to her daughters, her son and her two grandchildren. Unable to face any more separation, she decides we will all drive together to Arizona. It seems appropriate that we launch a family trip across the country--a tribute to grandma, whose traveling days have ended.
I was twenty-five in 1964, the year of the New York World's Fair and of Grandma's funeral and our farewell trip. The memories of the first two days of the trip fade into a general crankiness and the sensation of tiptoeing around anything that would open the wounds of grief. The very first night on the road there is a spat. My sister and I make some joking remarks that sets off mother's smoldering feelings.
"I never talked that way to my mother," she says, slamming the door of the motel bathroom. My sister mutters to herself, "This is going to be a great trip."
But all those monotonous miles damp the emotional fires. Somewhere on a long trip there comes a giddy hysteria. For us, decorum breaks down in Ruidoso.
Our method of travel generally shunned standard navigation techniques in favor of steering by our internal stars. Grandma always liked those Sunday drives where at every intersection, daddy said, "Which way?" and we shout simultaneously, "Left!" and "Right!" Who cared where it took us? We were on the road.
Ruidoso, New Mexico, is off the main route from Ohio to Arizona. Characteristically, our nomadic traits pulled us off broad, fast, dependable Interstate 40. Somewhere in Texas a sign pointing south to a state park lured us with the promise of variety--a break from green distance signs and monotonous off-ramps to filling stations. The same exit marking, the same filling station over and over for a thousand miles.
A state park sign creates the magnetic field to pull us off the straight route. Thirty-five narrow, bumpy miles later, we find a nondescript spread of low hills and scrubby trees. Sitting on hot wooden benches, we search the map for alternative roads into New Mexico. Some yell "Right" and some yell "Left," just like the old days. We wantonly decide to head for Ruidoso in the South instead of Tucumcari in the North.
When the car pulls into a nearly empty parking lot at an A-frame restaurant, we feel the relief of cool air. Mother bends slowly and unfolds out of the car, straightening her golfing skirt and smoothing wrinkles. Tall, gangly brother's legs gratefully stretch to their full length like crumpled paper trying to find its original shape. My skinny slip of a teenage sister bounces out easily, surveying the surroundings for possible sources of embarrassment. As if her family weren't embarrassment enough.
Slowly revolving out of the car, thinking about every move, I shift my belly full of baby and lean, top-heavy and tottering out of the car while trying to keep track of my three-year-old tow head, free and flying in circles around the parking space. Dark-haired brother, done unfolding, lifts his look-alike one-year-old nephew from the car seat.
Everyone feels lightheaded with the freedom of standing up after hours trapped in the blue plastic interior of the lumbering white Buick LeSabre. Brother frets that our shorts, donned in steamy Texas that morning, are not appropriate for the restaurant. But we welcome the cool mountain air caressing our bare legs.
Inside the spacious restaurant, which is not so fancy after all, we choose a long table in the center of a nearly empty room, negotiate a high chair and a booster chair, take seats, look at menus. The tired blond waitress scribbles orders for hamburgers, tuna salad sandwiches, milks, cokes, lemonade.
Grandma would have picked some greasy, salty items and said, "It won't hurt me." And it wouldn't dare. Our bodies, which are stiff from hours of sitting, rebel against chairs.
One by one the family members wander off. Mother takes the smelly one-year-old out to the car for a clean diaper. My sister trails the three-year-old to look at post cards and souvenir in glass cases. I go to the rest room and lose a button on my maternity shorts. I spend so long searching through the junk in my purse for a safety pin, that mother becomes alarmed.
Convinced I've fallen and can't get up, or have gone into premature labor, she rushes into the rest room to rescue me. Both feeling foolish, we return to the table.
Everyone has switched seats and the bewildered waitress puts every drink down in the wrong place. We giggle and sort out the glasses.
When the waitress returns to deliver our meals, the three-year-old discovers that his hamburger came without catsup.
"That lady can't cook very good!" His voice rings out in the high-ceilinged room as the waitress flees to the kitchen for a smoke. Grandma, who used to run a restaurant would have laughed harder than anybody else.
Because I share her name, I inherited a ruby glass pitcher that came home to Ohio from the St. Louis World's Fair. Swirls of pale gold lettering say "Mother," "World's Fair," "Vera," and "1893." Grandma Vera's parents brought the graceful little pitcher home as a souvenir for the twelve-year-old. Left behind as a child, she made up for lost time as an adult.
Although she was too young to go to St. Louis, she happily made the run to Chicago in 1934. She joined her daughter-in-law, and her daughter (my mother) on a driving trip to Chicago for the Columbia Exposition. Mother, still unmarried, owned the classy black Pontiac that they drove. Leaving after school on a Friday night, they arrived without reservations--three women, seeing new sights. Mother was twenty-five when they made that trip.
Don't get me wrong. My grandmother didn't explore the Amazon or converse in Swahili with native tribes of Africa. Nevertheless, her travels by car and train were more adventure than most of her small-town neighbors would ever know. When there were no roadside rest stops and no motels, only the seriously restless would pack up the horseless carriage and car camp their way from Ohio to Washington, DC, or Gettysburg or Niagara Falls.
Relatives in far-flung places gave Grandma reason to travel. When she was sixty-five she rode alone on a Greyhound Bus to California, to see her son's family. The year before she died, she took a car trip with my parents to my home in Arizona to see her newest great-grandchild. The landscapes of northern Arizona were new to her, and she struggled to frame these new experiences against familiar Midwestern scenery.
"You can't tell me that somebody didn't paint those colors on," she said at the Painted Desert.
Although she didn't mind sampling the glamorous life, she wouldn't let it turn her head. A fancy restaurant in Miami, Florida earned her disdain. She couldn't stop talking about how they fussed over people, pulling out chairs and hovering over diners.
For the women in my family, getting away from the ordinary provides impetus to move. Travel exemplifies freedom. Travel means finding out who you are by seeing yourself in an unfamiliar place.
Some people, not satisfied by the journey from womb to world, spend their lives seeking new bright lights and unknown shapes at the ends of variously challenging roads. We are that tribe.
Traveler's Tales "A Mother's World."
Vera Marie Badertscher writes in Tuscon, Arizona when she is not traveling. She has written for a variety of publications, including "Arizona Highways" and is a regular contributer to "Tuscon Monthly". Having given up on her three sons and grandson, she still holds out hopes for the gypsy in the soul of her two grandaughters.
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