Coffee House is playing Melissa Etheridge’s “You Can Sleep While I Drive,” an apropos soundtrack to this, our first mother-daughter road trip. I am driving across the northwest corner of Connecticut, and yes, my 20-year-old daughter is sleeping beside me. We have at least 14 hours of driving ahead of us —the longest car trip I have ever taken was less than half that. But the sun is bright, I am driving alongside a beautiful river, and the waterway, which is dotted with smooth, glistening-grey rocks, is still, calm, serene. And so am I.
I have never liked long drives. As a child, I would often ask my parents to pull over so I could throw up on the side of the road. A couple of years ago, when my son, Brandon, then a college junior, took this car to school in Pittsburgh, I convinced my husband to drive the eight hours with him. I hopped on a plane and arrived in two. Now Sara’s a junior, and it’s her turn to take the car to college in Chicago. But my husband couldn’t get off from work— so unless I want her to drive halfway across the country by herself, it is my turn to be the driving companion.
Still, somehow, during the past several weeks, I had started to look forward to this road trip as something potentially fun, and had become invested in finding quirky places to stop along the way. “Sara, did you know we are going to pass the longest covered bridge in America?” I would ask my daughter over breakfast. “Hey, Sara,” I mentioned on the way to the Pilates class in which I had secured an extra spot for her, “Did you know that they have a sculpture of a giant LOVE stamp in Cleveland?” My daughter would roll her eyes. She just wanted to get to school, but I relished the idea of having three extra days with her first.
As we enter Massachusetts, I glance over at my (still sleeping) daughter, and at the pastoral landscape around me. Route 90 stretches out before us, framed by towering pines and a bright blue sky. My mood, too, remains bright.
We pass through Pittsfield, home to the sleep-away camp where I spent eight weeks every summer from the ages of 10 to 15. On my right, I see a familiar lake. The sun makes it sparkle in the way I remember, but it seems much less expansive than it did to my younger self. I made good friends at camp, but experienced bouts of homesickness—especially the first summer. I had never been away from my mother. The only other time we had been separated for any significant period was when I was four and she’d been hospitalized with kidney stones – just before giving birth to my youngest sister. My father likes to tell the story of how I was so despondent at day camp during my mother’s absence, that my counselor took him aside at pickup one day and asked if there were any problems at home. A divorce, perhaps?
I told my mother everything when I was a child: the whos, the whats, and the wheres of my rather inconsequential pre-adolescent life. She was a filter for my experiences; her reactions helped me gauge my own reactions. Should I be insulted by this mean thing a friend said? Did whatever inspired my enthusiasm inspire the same zeal in her? Her pride in my accomplishments confirmed that those accomplishments were worthy of pride; her approval of my friends made them that much more appealing in my impressionable eyes. But at camp, we were only allowed two phone calls home per summer. I wasn’t used to navigating life on my own—I felt unsteady.
Sara, who often calls to ask me to weigh in on her day-to-day decision-making, doesn’t seem overly concerned about our impending separation: She has slept through the entire state of Massachusetts.
When we pass into New York, I realize that I am on the same route we used to take to bring my daughter to her sleep-away camp. Her camp lasted only three and a half weeks, but I remember it being a very long three and a half weeks. I will never forget waving goodbye to Sara that first summer, watching her tearing up in the window of the bus, which was filled with strangers. My tears were hidden behind dark sunglasses I’d brought along in anticipation of this moment. On the way home, I called a friend to commiserate, but was crying so hard when she said hello that I couldn’t even say anything.
I shed similar, albeit quieter, tears when leaving each of my two children at their freshman dorms as they began their college careers. I am reminded of how my son used to cry for me when I’d leave him at preschool, and how my daughter would howl when I’d try to leave her at toddler ballet lessons. Now they are the ones doing the leaving. It occurs to me that life is a series of separations.
I’m getting tired, so we pull off at the first of many rest areas, and Sara takes the wheel. In theory, sharing a 14-hour drive with my daughter sounded like a reasonable idea. But as soon as she takes her first curve, I reflexively grab for the door handle like I used to do when she had her learner’s permit.
“Mom, really?” she says, glancing at me with annoyance. “Are you actually grabbing the door handle?”
I can’t help remembering how as a new driver, she sometimes forgot to look back to the right when turning left, or worse, how she would get confused over which lane to turn into. When I first started allowing her to drive the half hour to high school by herself, I worried about her veering too far to the right and tumbling into the steep ditch along the side of the roadway. I think: Now here’s a new thing for me to worry about when she’s at school. The fact that she will be driving. Particularly during the icy Chicago winter.
“I’m a really good driver,” she insists. She begs me to nap, to show that I’m confident in her driving. I close the eye next to her and peak out of my right eye. There are a lot of big trucks on the New York Thruway—it’s hard not to watch. But eventually, I fall asleep in spite of myself.
After a while, I’m used to her driving, and instead of being fixated on the road, am able to enjoy the beauty of upstate New York. The leaves on the trees along the highway are tinged with red and gold—a hint of the colorful foliage that will replace all this greenery in just a few weeks.
We hit another rest stop and I take over the driving. Sara is watching an endless loop of Gilmore Girls episodes on her laptop and I am listening to the banter between the mother-daughter duo featured on our favorite TV show. The close relationship between Rory and Lorelai reminds me of my relationship with Sara. They tell each other everything. They get each other.
In one episode, Rory and her mom go a whole week without talking. The lack of communication makes Lorelai restless, in the same way that I feel restless when I go too long without hearing from my daughter. When she was studying abroad this summer, I checked her Instagram and Facebook pages addictively. I have a constant need to know she is safe, engaged, content.
“Mom, I won’t be calling you as much this year,” Sara announces at the end of an episode. “I have to be more independent.”
“Okay,” I say, trying to sound neutral, knowing that I am supposed to want this. I will try to resist calling her, I decide, but if she goes too many days without reaching out, I may cave in and text.
It’s not long before we arrive in Ohio. I enthusiastically point out the “Welcome to Ohio” sign. It is the first time in the state for the both of us. Sara starts to calculate how many of the 48 states she has visited. As she prattles out state names—most of which she has visited with me—I think about how coordinating family trips has become so much more of a feat now that Brandon no longer has school vacations and lives across the country. I wonder how much more difficult it will become in a couple of years when my daughter, too, has entered the real world.
Sara drives two more hours through Ohio. The landscape is unrelentingly flat—a string of farm fields and dried-out grasses and faded silos.
“I’m actually a much better driver than you,” Sara points out.
“No you’re not,” I say, though inwardly I acknowledge that she might be just as good.
Finally, Cleveland, our interim destination! The neighborhood that surrounds our bed and breakfast, which earned rave reviews on Trip Advisor, appears dark and desolate in the dusk. Sara has been talking for the last two hours about taking a run before dinner, but I urge her to wait until daylight. I worry about her running here alone, just as I worry about her running alone along Lake Michigan when she’s at school. I will never stop worrying, I imagine—even when she has graduated and is living her grown up life. My mother still wants me to text her when I land every time I fly anywhere. On our family Facebook message group, she keeps checking in to see where we are on our drive.
Before leaving Ohio, Sara and I explore the city together, ending our quick visit to the state with lunch at the kind of quaint outdoor café on the kind of quaint cobblestone street that both my daughter and I are attracted to. By the time we cross into Illinois, several hours later, we are growing tired of being in the car.
“This isn’t so bad” has been our refrain throughout the road trip. But we aren’t really saying it anymore. We celebrate every milestone we hit: Less than 200 miles to Chicago! Less than 100 miles to Chicago! Only 50 miles to Chicago!
We are on the outskirts of the city, and I reluctantly agree to turn the wheel over to my daughter. “I should have experience driving into the city,” she argues. What was I thinking? My breath catches as she changes lanes. “Did you just gasp?” she asks incredulously.
Still, little by little, I realize that she is actually a pretty good driver. Observing my daughter from this unfamiliar passenger-seat vantage point, I momentarily see her as the young adult that she is. She officially ceased being a teenager a month earlier and spent the summer on her own on the other side of the Atlantic. For the first time, she made her own plane and train reservations, she independently arranged budget-friendly accommodations as she navigated through Europe with new friends from her program, she found her way around a foreign city and made a life for herself there—just as I had at her age. Yes, maybe we spent a little too much on international cell phone minutes, but I have to acknowledge that my younger child is capably steering herself toward adulthood.
As tired as I am of being in the car, and as happy as I am to know that when I return to Connecticut the next night it will be by plane, I imagine I will take another road trip with my daughter when she returns to school for her senior year. Now that my children have started their adult (or almost-adult) lives, I grab these extended periods of time with them wherever I can get them.
When they visit, I stay up way past my bedtime to savor a few extra hours in their company. I recruit my computer scientist son to give me website-building tutorials and encourage my fitness-addicted daughter to join me at Pilates classes. Even when they sleep half the day away, knowing that they are both there, under my roof, comforts me. And though I feel a touch of sadness before every separation, I know that along with the separations come the inevitable reunions. Something to look forward to.