Written by Patti Isaacs
I told my fifteen-year-old son, Emilio, that I’d be out when he got home from school. I handed him a house key, which he put in his backpack. My husband, Gauss, agreed to make saffron rice and salad for dinner when he got home from work. Our older son, Luca, was off at college.
Later that afternoon, while I was running errands, my cell phone rang.
Gauss: We don’t have any onions!
Me: Yes we do.
Gauss: They’re not here.
Me: Yes they are.
Me: In the pantry cupboard, where they always are.
Gauss: They’re not there!
Me: Well, I know they’re there. Ask Emilio to show you. He knows where they are because he grills them when he makes himself hamburgers.
Gauss: He’s not here.
Me: Why not?
Gauss: He called from the neighbor’s house. He couldn’t get in because he didn’t have a key.
Me: He’s an idiot. I gave him a key this morning and saw him put it in his backpack.
Gauss: So where are the onions?
Me: Open the pantry door. Look for the shelf with the cereal. Look at the shelf above that. There should be a bag of onions there. They should be right in front of your face. You can’t miss them.
Gauss: Oh, here they are.
After dinner I opened Emilio’s backpack. The key was where he had put it that morning.
I knew that it was time to cut these guys loose for a couple of weeks. I’d been kicking around the idea of a sales trip for a few months, so I called potential clients and set up appointments. But as my calendar filled and I plotted my route, I became alarmed to discover that after spending twenty years at home being mother hen to my family, my independence seemed to have vanished.
At eighteen I had crisscrossed the country with a backpack and a lot of luck, hardly thinking twice before I hopped on a Greyhound or stuck out my thumb for a ride. At 28, I spent a year teaching English in China. Now, approaching fifty, with dependents and a mortgage, the prospect of a solo road trip was daunting, even with a late-model car and a pile of credit cards. What had I lost in those intervening years?
Like a rock tumbler smoothes an agate, life had knocked the sharp edges off me, and I wasn’t so sure I liked the polished version of myself. I wondered if the edgy personality I used to have was still there.
After setting up twelve meetings, I couldn’t back out, so at 8:30 on a Monday morning, I loaded my Honda Accord with a portfolio, a laptop, and an mp3 player crammed with tunes for the road. I would drive from Minnesota to Boston, visiting established and potential customers along the way.
Putting the key into the ignition, I felt like a sheep going to slaughter. What was I getting myself into? But as I headed through Wisconsin’s rolling wooded hills into the morning sun, my anxieties began to fade. The trees were gold, red, and orange, almost fluorescent. Fields spread out at their feet, blond crew-cut stubble of harvested corn, velvety green grass, or rich black earth.
I found myself to be an ideal travel companion. I liked the way I drove; I didn’t complain about the lodging I selected, and I never asked myself. “Are we there yet?” As the tunes blasted, I’d sink back in the seat and soak in the scenery in an almost meditative state, relaxed and alert. Thoughts flowed through my head; it was like standing on a bridge watching a stream beneath me carrying feathers and twigs.
My first appointment was on the outskirts of Chicago that afternoon. I lugged my samples into the office, greeted my contact, and began my presentation.
Each subsequent meeting became easier, and by the time I’d given three presentations in New Jersey, I began to enjoy it. Even the least successful meetings were cordial and businesslike; the best left me feeling that I’d made an important connection.
By the weekend I’d reached Long Island where I stayed with my sister. I spent Sunday “doing” New York City with Frank, a guy I’d worked with for years via phone and email, but had never met. We found each other under the big departure board at Penn Station at the appointed time, shook hands, and headed up to street level. At the top of the Empire State Building we spent a long time looking out over the city, identifying buildings and pointing out geologic formations.
We walked several blocks to a restaurant for lunch. As we ate, we talked about historical buildings in our respective cities, September 11, where we’d gone to school, and how we met our spouses. Like my husband, Frank is Italian, so we talked about our favorite Italian foods and cities. When it was time to go, Frank pointed me to the correct subway platform, and with a wave and a smile, I took off for Chinatown.
I strolled the streets, soaking up the atmosphere, wandering into tiny stores on side streets that catered to recent immigrants. The products they stocked were identical to those I’d seen on the shelves of stores in China when I’d lived there: stacks of plastic washbasins in vivid candy colors, tinny aluminum steaming pans, bamboo baskets, cloying floral-scented soaps. I closed my eyes, breathed deeply, and was transported back for a moment.
Traveling alone, I extended myself more to others, trying out my meager Chinese on the store proprietors, helping a French exchange student find her subway stop, and chatting up the guy selling flowers on the street. As evening fell, I headed back to Penn Station to catch the train back to my sister’s place. My coach was oddly quiet, packed with people who, like me, had tapped themselves out running around the city for the day. As I slumped in my seat for the ride home, my cell phone rang. It was Emilio, calling from a friend's phone.
Emilio: Mom, do you know where Dad is?
Me: How should I know? I’m in New York City; he’s in Minnesota where you are.
Emilio: I can’t get into the house and he’s not there.
Me: Maybe he drove Luca back to the dorm.
Emilio: What’s Luca’s phone number?
I gave him the number and the conversation ended. I settled back, closing my eyes. At the next stop, an enormous woman plopped herself into the seat next to me, smashing me up against the window. My phone rang again. I struggled to get it out of my purse, which was wedged between my foot and the sidewall of the train. I answered on the fifth ring. People around me looked irritated.
Emilio: He’s not there.
Me: Maybe he’s at Nonna and Nonno’s.
Emilio: I forgot their phone number. What is it?
I gave him the number and hoped he wouldn’t call back.
The train rattled down the track and I started to doze off. My phone rang again. This time a couple of people shot wilting looks at me.
Me (eyes rolling): Hello
Gauss: Hi Patti!
Me: Hi Gauss. Did Emilio reach you?
Gauss: No. Where is he?
Me: I don’t know. He called from Nick’s cell phone and said he couldn’t get into the house. I had him try Luca’s dorm and then your parents’ house. You’d better track him down. I can’t believe it. I’m fifteen hundred miles away and you guys are still calling me to help you find each other.
Any feelings of homesickness I might have had were quickly erased. I was glad I wasn’t going back just yet.
The next day I headed for Boston. My memory of the place dated from a cross-country journey I took as a teenager, when my cousin drove me around in his Renault, practically clipping the door handles off the cars in the next lane. But after a day of driving there, I adapted, no longer skittish of the city’s narrow streets.
While I enjoyed my client meetings, being “on” for so many of them was wearing me out. I’d been on the road for nearly two weeks and was ready to head home to my boys. I wanted to cook in my kitchen and spend time with my pet birds and to be home on Sunday morning when the paper came.
Gauss told me that aside from the phone calls, Emilio had risen to the challenge of my absence, getting himself up without prompting in the morning and taking over laundry duty. With me gone, Gauss and Emilio—and even Luca, off at college—discovered that they were more self-sufficient than they thought.
The last day of my trip, as I drove back through Wisconsin, the trees had lost most of their brilliant leaves. Like me, they looked a little more tired than they had two weeks before. My wallet was lighter and the car had more miles on it, but I was returning with more than what I’d set out with: a fresh appreciation for my home and family, and a renewed belief in my talents and abilities.
I’ve often heard that courage is not a matter of being unafraid; rather, it’s the ability to march ahead despite fear. And that that’s what I’d done. Years looking after my family had turned my focus away from myself, and life’s trials had whittled away some of my self-assurance. I had left needing to know if I still had courage. I realized, as I pulled into our familiar driveway, that it had hitched a ride back with me.
photo by Patti Isaacs