Saturday, my daughter and I drive through Montpelier, Vermont’s capitol city. I’m in the passenger seat, as I always seem to be these days, while she negotiates intersects. Who has right-of-way? When can you turn right on red?
Eventually, she parks, and we walk around town.
At a take-out window, I order her a milkshake. Since she can’t walk down the street and drink a milkshake with a mask, we sit on the state house lawn, while she drinks the milkshake. I lie back beneath the immense maple tree and remember nursing her here, sixteen summers ago.
Eventually, she looks at me, and says, There’s so many people.
It’s true; people are walking back and forth to the farmers’ market. College students are playing frisbee. Families are everywhere. But it’s also Vermont and not particularly populous.
At just a few weeks shy of sixteen, my daughter straddles that terrain between girl and woman, beautiful and strong and curious.
Looking at her, I marvel that over a year of her life has been spent in such isolation, our world shuttered up.
On our walk back to our car, we stop beneath the crab apple blossoms and breathe in. Spring.
It could happen any time, tornado,
earthquake, Armageddon. It could happen.
Or sunshine, love, salvation.
It could, you know. That’s why we wake
and look out––no guarantees
in this life.
But some bonuses, like morning,
like right now, like noon,
In the evenings, my daughter lifts the car keys from the hook on the wall, and we drive.
In the passenger seat, I laugh a little, and she looks at me from the edges of her eyes. What?
I haven’t accepted, yet, this switch from driver to passenger seat, and she says seriously, I got this, before smiling with utter pleasure. She no longer asks where we should go; she’s at the wheel.
In the midst of so much other upheaval, from global to personal — my teen has hit the summer of growing up. If I had my license, I’d drive across the country, she says. I have two more months before school starts.
A light rain falls. Neither of us know if school will start, or what her last few years of high school will look like. I’ve driven across country numerous times, but what will her trek look like?
My thirsty garden drinks up the rain. At our house, an enormous mock orange bush reaches our second-floor bedroom windows. For weeks now, I’ve wondered if this bush will bloom this year — here it is, madly blossoming, sprinkling the grass with its fallen white petals.
Such a moon —
pauses to sing.
Photo by Gabriela Stanciu
My 15-year-old, with her brand-new learner’s permit, has formally switched places in my car, from passenger seat to driver’s seat. The world, suddenly, is different for her, with the kind of freedom a rural kid gains with the keys to a car. The horizon is no longer a barrier but a temptation — move on, explore.
One year, I think, of us driving and talking — of everything from what to cook for dinner, to why I married her father, to the Black Plague. One year.
Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be…
O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath…
— Langston Hughes
Fifteen years ago, I walked in the garden in the early morning, on the day I birthed my second daughter.
Those were the years when “peak oil” was the looming fear. Now, the country is burning up, broken in so many ways, with a madman ensconced in the White House.
Last night, while the grownups sat around the campfire talking about COVID and rioting, I watched my daughter and her friends walk through the cemetery, so happy to be together but spread out — “distance, please,” I called — wandering through the lilac-scented evening — these lovely, witty girls — talking and talking, as they jostled, each finding their place.
Here’s a few lines from Anne Sexton’s anti-Vietnam War poem, a love letter to her daughter, “Little Girl, My String Bean, My Lovely Woman.”
What I want to say, Linda,
is that there is nothing in your body that lies.
All that is new is telling the truth.
Here’s a strange thing — we had bring-your-own dinner on our lawn last night, around the fire, with two friends — socially distant, with an awful lot of chatting and catch up.
Now, I’m beginning to accept that our world will never return to how I once understood it, even a few months ago. But how, and when, will we begin to understand each other again? Relate to each other? Be with each other? So much uncertainty.
Maybe this is how the world begins to open up again — eating chili on the grass, smoke drifting over the garden, my daughter’s friend bundled in her coat, a hat jammed on her head, laughing.
When you truly understand one thing—a hawk, a juniper tree, a rock—you will begin to understand everything.
― Eating Stone: Imagination and the Loss of the Wild
By now, we’ve settled into a string of days, weeks, maybe months, of my work folding into my daughter’s life at home. I work; she does whatever passes for virtual high school. I drink coffee. She eats trail mix. She’s borrowed her sister’s camera, taken a few online mini classes, and then heads out.
Among the many, many strange things about this Stay Home order is that the three of us have managed to get along so well, despite my intermittent weeping woods walks. Crabby me — with my endless laptop hours — my teen who fantasizes about driving to the California coast, and her sister, age 21, who relinquished moving out, to stay with us. As a divorced parent, I don’t take getting along as any given. In all the unexpected silver linings in all of this, there’s this interesting turning inward, back to the home, when so much in our culture has pushed us outward, away from home.
Like everything, I know this time won’t last — and there are many things about it I won’t miss — the utter uncertainty of work and money, the isolation from other adults, a public world of masks and frightened eyes. But baking potato rollswith the teen? That I’m happy to do.
Instant coffee, for example, is a well–deserved punishment for being in a hurry to reach the future.
— Alan Watts