Read Part 5 here.
There’s a picture of you and me standing on the balcony at a ranger station on top of a mountain on the Olympic peninsula. The balcony is supposed to overlook the Olympic range with a view of Mt. Olympus and the Puget Sound beyond, but the clouds had rolled in and it was snowing. It was the end of May and I remember being alone up there. No rangers. Just the two of us: our crooked smiles the mirror image of the other’s, our cheeks rosy. My hair was redder than yours, the color chosen from a box from a drug store. Yours also came from a box, but did not quite mask the grey at your temples. I look back at the picture now, but I know now that we couldn’t have been alone. Somebody else must have been there to take the picture.
We were there, you and I, because Emma had just graduated with honors from your almost Alma Matter. Emma still had two weeks of training left before Nationals for Division III Crew and she chose to stay with her team in Tacoma. Dad had work, Kiefer had school, and you and I had time to kill.
We chose to take the southern route through Port Angeles rather than the northern route by ferry and along the strait of Juan de Fucha. I would have preferred the ferry. There’s something appealing about being in a car on a boat. The Olympic Peninsula is unlike anywhere else in the country with snow-capped mountains surrounded by rain forest and water on three sides. Most of the peninsula is a National Park and inaccessible by car, but we managed to drive out there every summer for most of my childhood to stay in a cabin overlooking the Pacific. When we moved to Maryland, we stopped going. The Northwest was just too far away, I suppose, so I looked forward to going back even if it was only for a night.
Sometimes we talk in the car. Sometimes we listen to the radio. When Dad is driving, we listen to country music late at night when we need something ridiculous to keep us awake. The longer road trips require books on tape, but mostly, we listened to CDs. In more than twenty years, the playlist hasn’t changed, though we’ve made an addition or two. Pink Floyd and The Allen Parson’s Project are meant to be played at night on mountain roads, the car’s stereo and the twisting asphalt allows the music to surround you. Certain songs get inextricably paired with certain landscapes, like scent with memory, and my own meanderings with music regularly transport me thousands of miles away to a car with you at its wheel.
Conversely, the picture of you and me standing in front of the misty Olympics and the temperate rain forest brings to my mind "Watershed" by The Indigo Girls.
Up on the watershed, standing at the fork in the road,
You can sit there and agonize until your agony’s your heaviest load.
You’ll never fly as the crow flies, get used to a country mile.
When you’re learning to face the path at your pace,
Every choice is worth your while.
That song came on a few miles outside of Olympia, and you burst into tears. It had been a difficult weekend for you. Emma’s graduation was a return to a place you had left, a place that couldn’t handle you, but a place that had fully embraced your eldest child. For you, the University of Puget Sound was a false door. Getting married and having children was not part of the plan. You would have gone into the Peace Corps. You might have majored in archeology. You would have moved to Montreal. But you met my father and you said that after you got married, kids were the next step.
I get the idea that you wanted more. You tell me that you have no regrets, and that your greatest accomplishment is your kids and I believe you. But I cannot help but conclude that things should have been different for you. They have to be different for me.
Watershed brought you to tears because, with your school behind you and your middle daughter beside you in the rented Chevy which automatically turned the stereo up when it accelerated so that its loud engine wouldn’t drown out the music, the lyrics and the melody were able to replace the turbulence in your mind with clarity and comfort. The relief made you cry. When the song came to the line, “Every five years or so I look back on my life and I have a good laugh…” you grabbed my hand.
“I’m sorry,” you told me.
I didn’t need your apology. I still don’t. I understand that most of life’s choices aren’t made, they just happen. I graduate from college in fifteen days and with my degree ends the well-paved interstates of my education, and so begin the potholed, unmarked back roads of indecision. So-called “real-life.” There are few road maps and many detours and perhaps the drive is more important than the destination. Doesn’t mean I’m not scared shitless, but with any luck I’ve inherited your sense of direction.