When a childhood road trip turned stormy, humorist Jennifer McGaha imagined the worst–and her brother only made matters worse.
It was mid-July 1977, and we were cruising down I-40 in a 1969 Ford LTD on our way from North Carolina to the Grand Canyon. My father did not believe in listening to music while driving. He wore a light blue cap that said “Olin” in darker blue on the front, and he stared straight ahead, his eyes focused on the road. My mother angled toward him, one foot tucked underneath the other thigh. She filed her fingernails while she chattered.
“Sixty-two cents for gas… Oh, my goodness—look at those Crepe Myrtles! Aren’t they beautiful? …I’m feeling warm. Are y’all feeling warm? I wonder what the temperature outside is. I bet it is 95. Do you think so?”
Every now and then, my father offered a one-line response, but mostly he nodded and muttered. My brother and I rode in silence, our mother’s voice a melodious backdrop to the drone of the highway falling away beneath us. I was 10, and my brother was 14. We wore short shorts and tube socks, and we had matching winged hair. I had outgrown the sticker books that had entertained me all the way to Myrtle Beach and back when I was a little kid, so I had brought along a stack of Nancy Drew mysteries and seven of my favorite stuffed animals— a collection of various sized dogs. The largest was roughly the size of a hearty butternut squash. The smallest more closely resembled a red new potato.
The largest, Snuggles, was the mother of the group. She was white with pink ears and large brown eyes. The father, Hershey, had long, floppy ears and was the color of my mother’s chocolate sheet cake. And then there were the little ones, two whose names are forever obscured by childhood, and my favorite, Brownie, a miniature version of Hershey. This was pre-Furbies, pre-Beanie Babies. I had never seen these dogs advertised on TV. None of them did anything, nor could you collect them and keep them in a curio cabinet for a few years before selling them and buying a new car or second home. And so my love for them was pure, untainted by commercialism or the promise of investment.
By the time we hit Knoxville, my brother and I were already bored. My dogs had undergone several family crises, which I had expertly guided them through, and I was halfway through The Mystery at the Ski Jump. My brother had completed all the word games in three Reader’s Digests.
“I’m bored,” I told my mother.
“See if you can find the alphabet on the road signs,” she said. “Look. There’s an a over there on that A&W sign.”
Twenty miles later, I was still searching for a c, and my brother had found the entire alphabet. I gave up. I arranged my dogs in birth order on the vinyl line between the back seats, then stared at the billboards floating past, at a kid in jeans and a blazer thumbing by the highway, at the prison crew stopped for lunch by a work site. At least once every half hour, I got a cramp in my leg, and I reached my leg out long to stretch it. Every time I did this, I knocked my brother’s leg, and he pressed the bony part of his knee into that soft spot just on the edge of my knee, and I screamed, “Stop!” at a frequency which only dogs should have been able to discern but which our father did, in fact, hear.
“Do you want me to pull over?” he said, breaking eye contact with the road just long enough to glare at us over the seat. “Huh?” he said. “Do you?”
A smirk began deep in my brother’s throat, a distant hum growling, which spread to one side of his mouth, at which point my dad caught it in the rearview.
“What did you say?” my dad said. “What?”
Don’t say it, I thought. Do. Not. Say. It.
“Go ahead,” my brother said, his jaw twitching, his dark eyes meeting my father’s in the mirror.
For a moment, there was only the sound of the highway rippling. Then my mother trilled, “Oh, my goodness! Look out the window, everyone! Look at that groundhog! And is that a hawk over there? I think it is! Look, everyone—a hawk!”
My mother was beautiful, petite with full, black hair and deep brown skin which belied the Cherokee ancestry our family did not discuss. She had a breathless way of talking, her voice high and fluttery, like a bird’s, and she tackled every silence as if it were an emptiness she could fill. When she didn’t know what to say, she made up words.
“Woozle!” she would say if she were cold or shocked. “Woozle be doozle be!”
Around the house, my mother wore shorts and went barefoot. She smelled like Jergen’s hand lotion, and she had lovely, flawless skin, except for one varicose vein in the shape of an oval on her right thigh. When I was a small kid, I would clutch her knees and trace the outline of that mark with my fingers. The only times my mother ever dressed up were for church or bridge club. For these occasions, she dabbed Jovan musk on her wrists and neck, and she wore high heels and brightly patterned floor length skirts with sleeveless tops, jingly beads, and bright red lipstick. Men thought she was beautiful, but she never seemed to notice, and I think she was as surprised as I was when they commented on her appearance.
“Your mom sure is gorgeous,” one of my friend’s fathers would say.
And I would look at her again—her high cheekbones, pitch black eyes, slender shoulders, and delicate waist—and I would try to see her as a child can never really see her mother, as a man might see her.
Now, my mother’s strained voice set off all sorts of alarms in my head. I was an anxious kid, prone to all sorts of compulsions. The year before, in fourth grade, I had had a cough that lasted roughly six months. Our family doctor sent me to a pulmonologist, who told me to try sipping water whenever I felt the urge to cough. Every day, I carried a bottle of water to school with me and alternately sipped and hacked throughout the day. Back then, carrying a water bottle to school was unheard of—right up there with learning differences and IEPs—and my teachers treated me as if I could spontaneously combust at any moment. This disease was more mysterious than others they knew about, like diabetes, and potentially more dangerous since it involved the lungs.
I didn’t even have to participate in P.E. No more getting hit in the face with a dodge ball or running laps around the school. No more sit-ups or flexed arm hang. Perfect. That spring, I saw two or three more specialists before one of them finally decided my cough was psychosomatic, a theory my brother had been embracing all along.
“I told you she was faking!” he told my mother. “I told you! What an idiot.”
My mother explained to him that psychosomatic did not exactly mean faking, but he was undeterred in his quest to harass me back into mental health, a plan which, in all likelihood, is the reason I am not still coughing today. Over the next few months, my hacking cough diminished into a loud sputter, then a periodic throat clearing until finally vanishing completely.
In the car that day, I knew this contest of wills between my brother and father could escalate. If this went any further, we would find ourselves pulled over on the shoulder, my father ordering my brother from the car. However, we managed to cross half of Arkansas without my dad actually pulling over, and somewhere near Little Rock, we exited I-40 and found a motel for the night. The next day, we were on the road again, headed to Oklahoma City. Oklahoma was immensely, incredibly flat, not South Carolina flat, which was really more wavy, but flat like I had never seen.
“It’s really flat here,” I announced.
“Mmm hmmm,” my mother said.
“Do they have tornadoes here?” I asked.
“Only every now and then,” my mother said. “And then people have plenty of warning, and they go to their basements where they’re very, very safe.”
Dark clouds were forming in the distance. I opened my book again and tried to read some more, but I read the same page over and over. I looked back outside.
“It looks like it’s about to storm,” I said.
“No,” my mother said. “I see a blue spot over there. Look.”
My mother pointed to the only opening in the sky that was now purply black. My brother looked up from his Reader’s Digest.
“You’re so stupid,” he said.
Thunderstorms were number one on my list of fears. Back at home, whenever we had a thunderstorm at night, I dragged my pillow and blanket into the hallway and slept on the floor outside my parents’ locked bedroom door. Now, as the rain began to fall in fat discs on our windshield, I cranked my window closed and clasped one clammy hand to the other. The rain picked up speed and pummeled the roof. Lightning streaked the entire landscape, a fierce, blinding light that brought to mind an event that was number two on my list of fears—the Second Coming. In fact, these top two fears were connected in my mind.
In all the pictures from Sunday school, Christ returned in a brilliant, holy flash, just before he sent all the murders and whoremongers and pregnant women directly through the earth to burn in eternal agony. I pulled my knees to my chest and rocked side to side. While Dad turned the wipers to high and Mom strained to read the map, I searched the sky. We crept along, doing 35 in a 55, until eventually, finally, the tall buildings of Oklahoma City emerged out of what seemed like nothingness. As soon as pulled in the motel parking lot, the rain eased, the clouds parted, and a flicker of sunlight emerged. We had made it. It wasn’t the Rapture after all. Yet. I wiped my hands on my shirt and scrambled from the car.
The motel room had two double beds. My brother and I tossed our luggage in a corner and each flopped on top a bedspread. That’s when we discovered the slots in the headboards. If you put a quarter in the slot, the bed would bounce up and down for a full 15 minutes. My brother and I searched through the change my dad had emptied from his pockets onto the dresser, and then we inserted quarter after quarter into the bed slots while our parents got ready for dinner. Finally, my mother came in and stood at the foot of my bed.
“Jennifer,” she said, “let’s take a walk outside.”
“I don’t want to,” I said. Except it came out all warbly, like I donnnn wannn tooo, because I was thrashing about like the Mexican jumping beans I had bought at a gas station back in Arkansas.
“Jennifer,” she said. Her mouth was slightly open, her teeth parted an eighth of a millimeter, an indication that she was exasperated beyond all reason.
“Why doesn’t Robert have to?”
“Come on,” she said.
As I followed her out the door, my brother smirked and stuck his tongue out at me. His bed was making a grinding sound. I hoped it blew up. Outside, the air was thick and moist. The motel door led directly to the parking lot, and I could see in the windows of the other guests as we passed their rooms. Sitting in stiff, straight chairs, they sipped icy drinks from amber glasses and tapped their cigarette ashes onto gold ashtrays.
She cleared her throat and began to speak.
“Jennifer, I have something hard to tell you,” she said. “And I wanted to tell you outside so you could cry if you wanted to.”
Now, in retrospect, I realize that the belief that sorrow is a private matter best attended to in a public parking lot rather than in a motel room surrounded by your loved ones says volumes about our family. But, at the time, I simply knew my maternal grandparents were dead. They were the closest family we had, and they were very old by then—in their late 50s. It was dinnertime, and across the street families filed into a steakhouse. I stared at them and tried to imagine what they were saying to one another, what they could possibly find to say at a time like this.
“It’s just,” my mother finally said, “that you left Snuggles and the others in the last hotel, back in Arkansas.”
My mother wore white shorts, a sleeveless blouse, and flat, white sandals, and her toenails were painted cardinal red. It took me a moment to process what she had just said. My grandparents were not dead. They would not be dead for many, many years. They would live to come to my high school graduation and my college graduation, to cradle all three of my children in their wrinkled arms, to reach an age where they would be afraid my six real dogs would jump on them and cause them to tumble over their walkers. I started to cry.
“It’s okay! It’s okay!” my mother said. “We have already called the motel, and they found all the dogs, and they are going to put them in a box and mail them to the Grand Canyon. We will meet them there.”
And it was only then that it occurred to me to consider how my concern for my own safety during the storm had caused me to completely forget about my dogs. Normally, I would have been checking on them, but I hadn’t even noticed they weren’t there. I thought of how lonely they must have been in the empty hotel room, how abandoned they must have felt, how scared they were going to be to ride all the way to Arizona in a stuffy, dark box. And so then I cried some more.
“It’s okay,” my mother said. “You can cry as much as you want to out here.”
“It’s just…it’s just…”
My mother waited.
“It’s just that I thought something had happened to Mamaw and Papaw!” I sobbed.
My mother paused, her lips a tiny oval, her lovely cheekbones cresting into her forehead.
“Why, of course not. What on earth would make you think that?”
I cried louder. Sure, my dogs were okay, my grandparents were okay, but now I knew that any minute now someone might lead me outside and tell me something terrible. It was all too much. I had survived what very well could have been the Second Coming only to live through this.
We stood there for what seemed like a very long time. Steam rose in clouds from the pavement. My hair and shirt grew damp. And then the sun began to dip beneath the horizon, and an orange glow gathered around my mother’s legs. And while my mother patted my heaving back, I hinged forward, tears dripping onto the pavement, mucus oozing into my mouth, my gaze fixed on the delicate curves of my mother’s red toes.
Jennifer is an Appalachian writer, teacher, and humorist whose nonfiction and creative nonfiction work has appeared in dozens of magazines and literary journals, including Your Impossible Voice,The Brooklyner, theNewerYork, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Gravel, Portland Review, Little Patuxent Review, Lumina, Mason’s Road, Now and Then, and others. Visit her website. This essay was originally published in Switchback at the University of San Francisco.