It wasn’t until we arrived in California, after spending five days on our road trip, confined in a little blue Corolla, that my mom started to drive me nuts. We had spent the last week driving from my family home in Georgia to San Jose, California, where I was going to be attending college for the next year as a part of an intercollegiate exchange program.
My mom’s side of the family lived in the bay area, so none of this was particularly foreign territory for her, who grew up there, and me, who visited for at least a week every year since I was a child. But I suppose this was a slight departure for both of us, as I would no longer be able to make the occasional cameo on the weekends raiding the family fridge when my shoe box-sized dorm room at University of Georgia felt too claustrophobic.
When we first set out on our road trip, some people were wary. My Chinese grandmother, who we’d see in San Francisco, thought the idea of two women driving cross-country alone was a bad idea, that we would be vulnerable in the face of predatory truck stop men and possibilities of vehicle breakdowns. We felt somewhat confident about the task at hand, though, mostly because we had gone on regular road trips ever since moving from a small island in Hawaii to the more expansive Georgia. We also had GPS system, which we trusted almost too implicitly.
[More on Road Trips to Visit Colleges here.]
Our first night, in Little Rock, Arkansas, did cause me to question my hubris. The first warning sign was that our motel shared a parking lot with a Hooters, which is not in itself cause for alarm as I love chicken wings as much as the next girl, but we did notice the restaurant was surrounded by police cars flashing their lights on our way back to the room from dinner. Our room was also just past a dirty pool that looked like it had seen its share of dead bodies, though there were always kids splashing around in there and I couldn’t decide if that made it better or worse. In the middle of the night, I could swear I hear knocking and scratching at the door, but with my mom dead asleep beside me, there was no confirmation that I wasn’t losing my mind. I awoke the next day, groggy from lack of sleep, to find her with a plate of fruit from the free breakfast buffet downstairs, well-rested and ready to hit the road.
Our lodging for the rest of the trip improved, but we still had a long way to go. We both found it interesting how much the terrain would change from state to state. Texas was mostly flat land, which made it all the easier to notice The World’s Largest Cross, erected in the middle of nowhere, just a large, white “t” in a sea of brown. We saw fields of windmills and careened up and down winding mountainsides. I loved the natural rock formations of New Mexico, though things got dicey once we hit Arizona and my mom fell asleep while I battled strong winds and heavy rain in high elevation. Luckily, she awoke just in time to see the sun peeking through the clouds and we marveled at the sight together.
Usually on car trips, my method of operation was to fall asleep whenever I wasn’t at the wheel, but with only two of us in the car, we also just talked to keep each other company. At first, it was casual conversation, but the farther we got from home, the more conversation turned to other things. I heard stories I’d never heard before about my mom’s life before me, before my dad. She talked about her friends growing up, about some of the people we’d run into during trips to California whose context I never understood. She told me about Chinese relatives that I’ve met several times and never remembered or understood. And more than anything, we just were shooting the shit.
In fact, while we talked a lot about my mom’s life in California, we barely addressed our end destination and what that meant for me. It wasn’t until we had arrived at the San Jose campus that my mom went into mom-mode again, doing embarrassing things like deciding when we were in public to lean in and examine my complexion, commenting that I should see a dermatologist because I was breaking out.
She could confide in me about her romantic past as we made our way up the California coast, but now she nagged me when I didn’t make small talk with my new roommates as I moved myself into my San Jose State apartment and made passive aggressive comments about how she didn’t think I’d be able to cook for myself. Even after a cute guy in the apartment elevator pointed out that we were going to be neighbors as we walked down the hallway, my mom nudged me, asking why I didn’t introduce myself. It reminded of when she’d call me a snob when I didn’t want to say hi to my classmates if I saw them at Blockbuster on the weekend in elementary school.
When I lived in the dorms at UGA last year, she never called me to make sure I knew how to do my laundry, or to ensure that I was getting good grades, or to ask if I was taking care of myself. Now she was acting as though I didn’t even know how to dress myself.
“Okay… well… I guess I should get going then,” she said after all the boxes had been unloaded in my room.
I walked her down to the lobby, and stopped in front of the main doors, unsure of what to say. When she dropped me off at UGA, I just saddled up to the side of the car and said goodbye through her open passenger window. She was on her cell phone, and she told me she loved me while she still had the phone to her ear. Even she admitted that she felt bad about it later, that it all happened so fast that she didn’t even really think to get out and give me a hug.
Now we just faced one another in silence.
“So I guess I will see you tomorrow,” she said, finally. She was going to be around another week and would be taking my car to my aunt’s house, where she was staying until she flew back home. We had a week’s worth of activities planned, seeing family and attending a graduation picnic for a family friend. This was hardly the final goodbye, but it was the first night we were not sleeping in a ratty hotel room together.
[More on What Parents Should Remember When They Return Home To an Empty Nest here.]
“Don’t worry,” she said, catching my eyes start to wander the lobby, my new home. “Everything will be fine.”
I realize she was saying it to me as much as she was saying it to herself.
None of my roommates were home when I got back to the apartment. They were all older with boyfriends who had helped them move in. They were probably out with them or friends. I just had boxes, and so I started to unpack.
But as I set up my new home, I thought about how big the Texas sky had been when we were on the road. Because the land was so flat, it always felt like we were surrounded by sky, like there was only a thin layer of surface keeping us tied to the ground.
“Sometimes the road looks like it just ends, and we are going to drive right off the end of the earth,” my mom had said from the passenger seat. And we were both quiet. We just sat there, eyes fixed ahead. There was nothing to say. She had just said it all.
Kimberly Lew is a published playwright whose work has been performed by schools across the country. She has also written articles for websites like The Washington Post, The Billfold, HelloGiggles, The Toast, and Extra Crispy. She attended 3 different colleges in 4 years in 4 different cities.