My dad’s been gone for a year and a half now, and my mom finally decided it was time to make the trip back to North Carolina to visit me, my wife and our son. She’s never flown–and, at 68, she’s made it clear that she’s not going to start now–so I made the drive to northeastern Pennsylvania to pick her up and bring her back to Hillsborough. I wasn’t sure what the trip would be like; we both lean toward pensive, and the eight hours in the car would be the longest time that just the two of us had spent together in years, if not ever. Growing up, the love and support was always there but not often voiced, and sharing feelings was never a high priority.
The first part of the journey, which overall includes five hours on Interstate 81 before veering off into the mountains of Buena Vista, Va., involved an enjoyable revisit to the family tree. My mom talked of the baseball team my grandfather played on when he was in his 20s, although she was not able to confirm my long-held contention that he played against one-armed major leaguer-to-be Pete Gray during those semi-barnstorming days. We discussed her upcoming 50th high school reunion, and courtesy of a photocopied yearbook page, I learned that she had planned to attend beauty school and that she was in the school play her junior year. (“Phyllis is a likable girl,” concluded the caption.) The occasional miles of silence were not at all uncomfortable.
As we entered Hagerstown, Md., my mom suddenly offered, “The guy I was engaged to before I married your dad was from Maryland.” My head spun so fast that if I were a cartoon duck, my beak would have come to rest on the back of my head. Granted, this was not a scandalous announcement, or even a controversial one, but it was sure news to me. It was as close as she had ever come to dropping a bombshell. She went on to tell of how she had met him when he was sharing the house across the street from her parents with another young man and how he later moved to Scranton for work. “I was the one that broke it off. I was too young for that kind of thing,” she said with what I can only guess passes for wistfulness in her stoic world. I’m pretty sure that I didn’t snap out of shock until Harrisonburg, Va. My cone of self-centeredness, 43 years in the making, had suffered a crack–my mom, on public record as being likable, had a life before me.
My mom’s visit has been nice for everybody, and she’s gotten to watch her grandson play soccer and flag football and she’s eaten lunch with him a couple of times at his school cafeteria. I’m driving her back north this weekend, and I’ll be bracing myself for another revelation from the passenger seat. And I know that passing through Hagerstown will never be the same.