My mother walked back into the busy waiting room with bitter tears streaming down her face. She hadn’t passed her exam and would have to repeat the process again in a few weeks. Though I was only 5-years-old, I could tell that this failure was heartbreaking for my mother. Her chance for independence had just slipped away from her. At 34-years-old, Mom was hoping that getting her driver’s license would be the first step in leaving an abusive marriage. Driving could have been Mom’s chance to break away.
Without my father knowing, Mom had been secretly studying to get her driver’s license. My grandmother was her willing accomplice and driving instructor. Every afternoon for one summer, my brother, two sisters, and I were crowded into the back seat of my grandmother’s old white Oldsmobile, lovingly named “Oldsie.” My mother sat behind the steering wheel with my grandmother in the passenger seat giving her continuous instructions. Every afternoon, Mom would drive us round and round Chapel Hill Cemetery as she anticipated a life away from my father.
My mother had become desperate. She continually practiced, refusing to give up on her own survival. Driving represented autonomy to her. It was her freedom and her chance to prove she was not stupid as my father always stated. She refused to quit even when her everyday life seemed an insurmountable challenge.
When she received her license after her second attempt to pass the test, driving became Mom’s escape. When my father’s rages became too violent, Mom would grab her car keys, load her children into the car, and drive–just drive anywhere until she was sure it was safe to go back home. Many times, we would drive around for hours, not returning to the house until long after midnight. My siblings and I didn’t care. We loved watching the moonlight reflect off the water of Wyandotte County Lake as Mom drove over the winding side roads on hot summer nights. On some evenings, we would drive around the rich neighborhoods picking out houses we daydreamed about owning someday, or looking at all the beautiful, sparkly lights of decorated homes and businesses over the holiday seasons.
Mom would sit forward in her seat to reach the pedals and grip the wheel tightly in her small hands as she slid effortlessly through traffic. Mom loved highway driving. Heavy traffic didn’t scare her. There were times she was almost fearless when she drove. She refused to let me drive at all the first time we traveled together to New Mexico in 1995, and it was something we argued about for hundreds of miles. She later told me she just wanted to prove that she could do it, that she could drive all the way from Kansas to New Mexico and back again. And she did it! Even receiving a speeding ticket on the way home. It’s true. We were traveling through Oklahoma. I was dozing in the passenger seat when I suddenly heard Mom exclaim, “Oh, my, there’s a cop car behind me!” I was immediately fully awake as Mom pulled over to the side of the road. My sixty-two-year-old mother had been driving twenty miles over the speed limit. She had just lost track of her speed as she sailed down the highway, reveling in the purest sense of joyful self-determination.
I know exactly how she felt. When I was twenty-two-years-old, Mom taught me to drive in the Chapel Hill Cemetery just as she had learned. I drove around the headstones for hours at a time with Mom in the passenger seat trying to give me subtle instructions.
The road was always our salvation. I feel safe and free when I am driving down some random highway in America. I may not even have a destination but that doesn’t bother me. It doesn’t matter to me where I am going. It is all about the journey anyway.
In 2002, Mom and I decided to run away. We were searching for a home, a place where we could feel safe and at peace. We didn’t know where we were going. We didn’t have a plan or intention. All we wanted to do was drive through all 50 states of America. We didn’t use a GPS or an array of maps. We didn’t make hotel reservations and never knew where we would stop for the night. We were guided just by God’s plan and our own sense of wonderment and adventure.
We had finally found our place on this earth. Being on the road presented us with endless lessons of faith, love, relationships, and self-discovery. The best place to live is within the human heart.
And the adventure continues….