I drove my mom to the airport this morning. This in itself is nothing new. Even before my dad died 16 months ago, my mom did a lot of traveling on her own; my father was wedded to his work and was loathe to take any vacations, ever. Even after he was diagnosed with melanoma, most of his time and energy, which diminished month by month, was spent wrapping up loose ends and handing off projects to other medical researchers. So over the course of their 45-year marriage, mom got pretty used to having her own life. When my sister and I were young, she would take us on epic car camping trips through the Pacific Northwest. The summer of 1978 found the three of us venturing into the giant redwoods in our little Honda Accord, the trunk nearly filled with the huge, orange canvas tent which we would call home for weeks at a time.
It shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise, then, when she bought the camper. Or rather, they bought the camper. It was my mom and her friend Penny, also recently widowed, who, in a stunning Thelma-and-Louise-before-the-end-of-the-movie moment, bought the little green and white RV which was quickly nicknamed “Cuddles.” Mom had gone down to Maryland to visit Penny and, as legend has it, had gone with her to the store to buy cat litter. Somehow, they wound up with the camper. It had something to do with the two of them planning a trip to the Southwest and thinking about renting a camper down there, and mom noting that she had never even been in one, and shouldn’t they maybe go to a dealership to at least see the inside of one, but wouldn’t the dealer be more obliging if they posed as two women who were actually thinking of buying a camper. I guess they posed a little too well, because that evening, I received an email with the subject “Surprise!” containing a photo of my mom and Penny in front of the camper, my mom pointing to Penny with a goofy, she-made-me-do-it expression on her face.
Fast forward five months. “Cuddles” has been overwintering at Penny’s place, and mom has packed her bags for her flight down to BWI, where Penny and Cuddles will scoop her up for the beginning of another epic journey. There was more than a little ambivalence in her voice and her manner as she was getting ready to leave. Certainly, there was the expected reticence to leave home for such a long period of time. I imagine there was also some hesitation in facing the reality of an extended road trip with a friend who had been her traveling companion only once before. The real hang-up, though, was one that my mom certainly hadn’t expected would arise when she and Penny bought Cuddles last November: my mom has a boyfriend. And like a teenager experiencing the thrill of new romance, my mom didn’t want to leave him.
If someone had told me three years ago that three years hence, my mom would be leaving her new boyfriend to go on a cross-country journey in a small RV, I would have laughed. My mom? Leaving her what to do what? Even if I could have conceived that all of our realities would be so substantially altered to arrive at such a scenario, I couldn’t have imagined my mom with anyone else. It wasn’t that my parents had a flawless marriage; there was more than one separation when my sister and I were kids, and more than one visit to a divorce lawyer. As mom tells it, the only problem was that they went together to the same lawyer. The guy apparently took in their story, said “Are you sure you want to do this?” then made them go get drinks together at a bar down the street. So they stayed together, sometimes in spite of themselves. They knew each other their entire lives. I actually have a photograph of my mom with some other kids at her second birthday party. In the back row, looking decidedly nonplussed at the mature age of six, stands my dad. It was one of those relationships, where the marriage happened because everyone just figured it would, where the two families were intertwined, sometimes hissing and spitting, through their own history and through my parents, and then through my sister and me.
For my mom to be with anyone else was beyond the realm of my imagination. Until Frank. Frank was tall, lanky, and shy at the age of 16 when he took my mom to their junior prom. He had a thick head of hair, a strong accent from his native Germany, and a big crush on my mom. My mom was already falling in love with my dad, a college man, by that point, and she noted that Frank “didn’t stand a chance.” Frank found out a few months ago that my dad had passed away and sent a very nice, unassuming condolence note. There were no overtures, no intimations that maybe NOW my mom would get together with him. Just a self-effacing, “You probably don’t remember me, but…” She did remember him and wrote back saying so. Then there were emails, then photos exchanged, then phone calls. Then visits, with flowers, champagne, and adoration. My dad was an accomplished man who excelled at many things, but adoring my mom was not one of them. He loved her without a doubt, but 68 years of familiarity had bred, if not contempt, then a lack of appreciation. And that many years of being on the back burner had a profound effect on my mom.
Now that she’s on someone’s front burner, she’s happier than I’ve seen her in years. Of course there’s weirdness. There’s bound to be when starting any relationship, especially after being widowed. But surprisingly, I don’t feel much weirdness on my end. It feels like a door opening for her, hopefully into a room that is filled with love and adoration. I loved my dad, but I didn’t always love the way he treated my mom. I wanted for her what people have in good relationships: the joy of being with someone who raises you up, who helps you feel good about yourself, who brings you laughter. Now it appears that she’s getting those things and mainly what I feel for her is happiness. I also feel hope and amazement that our lives can contain so many chapters: love, loss, kids, camping trips, RV’s, grandchildren, and new boyfriends. I’ll miss her while she’s gone, but this is her road trip and her adventure, and as long as she’s happy and being treated well, I’ll send her on her way with love.