Whether it's wandering the Midwest or merely enjoying time together, writer treasures the moments
I perch on the large limestone ledge, 225 feet above the Ohio River, meditating on it and the countryside stretched out before me. I like to think of it as my secret place. But my mother knows I'm there even though she's never ventured to the spot. When I descend to my place, she sits in a wrought-iron chair on the back deck of our rented duplex watching — tirelessly — the barges go back and forth. A steep, rugged ravine separates us, but only physically.
My mom calls the trips we've been taking together for the last six or seven years "our jaunts." She used to write about them in her column in the Vermilion Weekly Gazette, a newspaper that's now closed.
"We are of the school that the journey is part of the fun, and stopping frequently is good," she once wrote in a plain writer's voice I always admired. "Others in our family are of the other school; their theory is to get to your destination as fast as you can. Stops are limited to gas and potty, and if you want something to eat, you go through a drive-through lane and get back on the interstate as fast as possible.
"Seniors, especially, need to stop and stretch. Keeps the blood moving."
My mom and I are up for stopping on our trips to check out anything — unusual museums, junk shops, yard sales, flea markets, historic attractions, old diners. Unlike travelers — not to mention mothers and daughters — in movies, we have few if any conflicts. We get along well and don't fuss. The only time she frets is when I see a sign pointing to a scenic spot or other attraction and veer off course to check it out. Like the time one spring when we encountered a flooded passage on a road at a high point in southeastern Illinois. My mom had a minor panic. I calmly turned the car around.
That reflects a difference in our traveling and, more so, our lifestyles.
Last week, my mom — her name is Eleanor — told me she's learned from her adventurous oldest daughter not to worry so much about little things, like whether we are about to drown in rushing water or whether her house is spic-and-span — mine is not.
From our times together, I've learned patience and how to match my pace to her increasingly slower one.
She will turn 88 in October, and she has become increasingly frail as she deals with a bad heart, a bum ankle and other health ailments. Our travels are a way for me to give back to her for all she has done for me and — I must admit — to ward off my growing realization of her mortality.
On our trips, she sometimes reminds me gently that she won't be here forever. It happened two years ago, just after I had to put down Scoop, my beautiful border collie. I was quiet and sad on that trip as we headed aimlessly toward southeastern Indiana in her comfortable Buick, which I always drive while she comments on my good sense of direction.
We ended up at a nice bed-and-breakfast overlooking the Ohio River, but not much of it, just a sliver. We stayed only one night. After dinner that evening at a restaurant across the two-lane highway, we walked back to our rooms.
I immediately fell on the bed and cried over Scoop.
"Mimi, what are you going to do when I die?" Mom asked.
I didn't respond, though the remark did put my grief in perspective. At 59, I've never married nor had children. The idea of my mother's death is unbearable.
On that same trip, we stopped in New Harmony, Ind., the former utopian village along the banks of the Wabash River.
We rented a golf cart and puttered around the neatly laid streets and the wide gravel path running along the river. Doing mainly nothing with my mom has become a way of doing something.
We ended this trip at one of our favorite locales: San Damiano, a former Catholic retreat in the Shawnee National Forest, high above the Ohio and containing my "secret" vantage point.
Besides watching the river go by, we hike the trails. One follows a gravel drive to the river, winding down and around the limestone-embedded cliff. Mom didn't feel up to going down that steep trail the last time we were there, so I went alone, finding a small dock where I sat, dangling my feet in the muddy river water.
At San Damiano, Mom did shuffle down the asphalt road leading to the retreat center and on the trails through the woods, where weathered statues are tucked away among the trees.
"We found a 'Garden of Angels,' full of beautiful statues," she wrote later for her column. "Other highlights of San Damiano are the 35-foot bronze statue of the Good Shepherd on top of a knoll and a semi-circle of tablets on which is inscribed the 23rd, or 'Lord is my Shepherd,' psalm."
My mom has always had a way, especially in her writing, of making small things seem fantastic, which they are.
One of those small yet wonderful things for me is watching my mother settle into bed at night, a blissful smile on her still-beautiful face and a book open on her chest.
I know our jaunts give her a respite from the unremitting household chores she's done for more than 60 years. So at San Damiano, I do the cooking. At other places, we eat out. At Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill, Ky., we ate family-style in the main dining hall, sauntering there arm-in-arm from our room in a renovated 19th century building.
"The grounds are beautiful, with tree-lined lanes for walking," mom wrote after our first trip there. "It's such a peaceful and serene setting. As one of the waitresses said, 'The outside world seems to stay on the other side of the road.' It all seems far from today's bustling civilization; must be the spirits of the Shakers still roaming the premises."
We liked Shaker Village so much that we've visited twice. On the second trip, we stopped on our way back home at a bed-and-breakfast in Louisville, arriving the day before Mother's Day.
"We had breakfast at the B&B, and you had a beautiful Mother's Day card waiting for me on the table," mom reminded me just last week. "I almost cried."
I was touched almost to tears by her remembrance of that simple card.
Our favorite places are the quiet ones like Shaker Village, but my mother and I have traveled to cities as well: Chicago, Indianapolis and Cincinnati. In Cincy, I wanted to check out the Contemporary Arts Center in a building that had won its female architect the Pritzker Prize. My mom went with me, of course, but later wrote, "Contemporary art is not my cup of tea. The art that I saw at the center that was most memorable were these far-out videos featuring a family dressed as ostriches and cavorting outdoors."
My mom has saved all her newspaper columns, thank goodness. She had wanted to go to college and become a writer when she was growing up in Westville, where she and my father still live.
"Aunt Mary offered to pay my way but she wanted me to study phys ed," she said recently. "I didn't want to. I wanted to be a journalist."
"What did Aunt Mary think of that?" I asked.
"I guess she thought newspaper jobs were for men."
So I became the journalist in the family, though I'd wanted to be an artist. Maybe it was in my DNA?
My mom insists that she has never regretted becoming a wife and limiting her professional writing to her Vermilion Weekly Gazette columns.
She says simply, "I always wanted to be a mother."
And she's been a good one — kind, loving, patient, selfless. The roughest times for her came not during our teen years but later, after my older brother and my two sisters and I had left the house.
Mom hated the empty-nest syndrome and struggled emotionally. During those difficult years, as I stumbled into adulthood, I became a caretaker of sorts to Mom.
But she, as did I, grew out of our respective phases into the comfortable one we're in now, whether we're home or on the road together when, as she once wrote, "adventure is only a weekend drive away."