My dad’s not really a country music fan—jazz and classical are more to his taste—but on a cross-country road trip with his grandsons and me a dozen or more years ago, he bought a CD with Willie Nelson giving a lively rendition of “On the Road Again.” I love Nelson’s twang and love the song lyrics, and how could I not love the memory of my dad’s exaggerated off-key singing for his grandsons to make them laugh? There we four are in the Subaru, my dad at the wheel, me with the map on my knees tracking our progress, and the boys in the back, looking out the window occasionally but mainly playing with a pile of Legos on the seat between them. At the end of yet another playing of the song, they once more raise their faces to ask to hear it again, and we oblige them. Eventually they forget the song that has become background, and when they look up from the toys, it is to ask when the next milkshake stop will be. They aren’t insistent, and in my memory their voices don’t interrupt the song but weave in with it. Despite quibbles in the backseat or complaints from those tired children or my own stiffness from sitting so long, being on the road was good, and even if I recall that those quibbles were fights and the miles endless, I’ll never believe otherwise. Now, this summer, after two years without a visit home to my parents, it wasn’t so much on the road again for me but on the wing again. In the skies again. Going home. Going back.
I’ve made the trip in part because my dad is too old to travel to Spain. Also too old to drive. He would welcome a cross-country trip. And who better to drive him than I, the person he most regularly ferried miles and miles? It’s astonishing how old he’s become, so unlike his former self, and yet still unfailingly himself, as polite, calm and considerate, and as wise. The same sense of humor. What’s also astonishing now that I can appreciate the forces working against him is how young he stayed and for how long. For years, I was first too green and then too harried to appreciate him fully. Now that I’m in a position to relax and welcome him—the days of building tables and cupboards and installing light fixtures and surviving young children being in the past—he would, ideally, come visit me and I would take him for a road trip around Spain.
My brother, living in Madrid, has done this for my father in the past, driving him here and there, showing him wonderful sights. Thousands of photos attest to it. But a castle or centuries-old guesthouse or hanging bridge is not the trip my dad would get with me. Instead of a destination, with me it would be the journey itself—the time cooped up in the car, the spur-of-the-moment decisions to veer from our path to stop and stretch our legs, or even to make a quick visit here or there, not so much for the sight but for the chance to climb back into the car and resume our trip. Like a pit stop for that milkshake the boys loved, at the drive-thru next to the gas station after my dad filled the tank and helped them wash the windshield, our stops would be both necessary and beneficent. They would both prolong the trip and break up the monotony, give us fresh air and make us feel glad for the refuge of the car after a blast of outside heat or the sting of a chill wind. A vehicle, in this imagined trip with my dad, is indeed a vehicle, the means and the purpose—traveling, not arriving.
I remember my dad asking questions aloud while he was working out a problem. “What if we turned this piece on its side and screwed it into place here instead?” he might ask as we worked together on one of the countless construction projects we undertook on his visits to me in Spain. He always had the answer. What if we stopped at the next pullout? I could ask. What about a pit stop? Anything to make the journey last.
We could drive around in circles for all I care, and, you know, that’s exactly what it feels like sometimes, even just sitting together over coffee. Concentric circles. Smaller and smaller. You are closer and closer to your fellow traveler, going slower all the time yet picking up momentum. The pace is ponderous but the speed is fearful. We are flung together in slow motion in the tightening circles, on all those curves spiraling down the mountain, in danger of losing our balance. It’s not ideal, but the opportunity for closeness will never be greater. Concentration, memory, and love are the centripetal forces and time is the centrifugal. We sit across the breakfast table. This is the adventure—staying in our seats among so many forces, not thinking about the imminent parting. We go at it. “How’d you sleep?” and “How’s the coffee?” and, of course, “Nice day!”
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