I’m driving a Penske moving truck past farmland, somewhere in Eastern Colorado.
Along the side of the road, the sporadic tufts of grass are motionless, indicating that there isn’t even the slightest breeze in the air. Still it feels as if a hurricane must be blowing me to the left. I grip the steering wheel to hold it steady. I quickly glance at the clock. I’ve only been driving for about 45 minutes. My arms ache.
In the back of the truck is a hope chest, a dresser, a bed frame, a kitchen table, four chairs, a sewing table, a Remington 10 typewriter, 8 drinking glasses, a Kodak folding Hawk-Eye camera, a jigsaw puzzle from 1951, several quilts that date to the early 1900s, two handmade dolls, a canning set, a few old plates and bowls, some silverware, my grandmother’s baby shoes, her mother’s wedding gown and countless photos and handwritten notes.
These are the things that are left from my grandparent’s lives.
There are many more things that could have gone in the truck, but did not. Right now, as I drive this truck past farm after farm, there’s a huge dumpster parked in the driveway of my grandparent’s former home. In that dumpster are broken appliances, mattresses, stockings, socks, and other things that no one in their right mind would buy or even take for free.
Yet, to my grandparents, most of what is in that dumpster was not trash. My grandparents were farmers. They’d survived the depression. They were the kinds of people who made broken things useful again. In one closet of their home, I’d found every bit of wrapping paper they’d ever received. It was all neatly folded, along with various gently used bows and ribbons. There were prescription pill containers stuffed with buttons and stray pieces of thread wrapped around broken pencils.
As I consider all that we tossed, it occurs to me that someday, sooner or later, someone will be doing the same for me. Someone, probably my son, will be going through my closets and emptying my drawers. As a general rule, I’m not a saver. Some people feel a sense of security when they hold onto their old things. I feel a sense of freedom when I give them away. When I’m dead or in a nursing home, he won’t find a single prom gown. Nor will he find handwritten journals, or even all that many cards or letters. The broken appliances will have long ago been taken to a recycling center, and the never worn clothes to Goodwill. Sure, there might be a few treasures here and there, perhaps that old stamp collection that I never got around to selling, but not much else.
Until I cleaned out my grandparent’s home, I assumed this was kind of me, this not saving of stuff. But now, after sorting through my grandparents’ old things, I’m not so sure.
As I methodically made my way through my grandparent’s house, I found myself entranced. Pinned to quilts were handwritten notes, informing us that my great great grandmother had made them in the early 1900s from men’s suit samples. In a chipped mug was another note, telling me that my great grandpa used that mug for shaving.
Not everything had a note and a story, of course, but most of it still offered a precious glimpse into my grandparent’s lives.
Grandma had saved every letter anyone had ever written her, and as I sorted through them, one thing was clear: their lives had been richer than I’d ever imagined. I’d always thought of them as quiet lonely people, as shut-ins with few friends and visitors. Yet, as I read the letters, I learned that their social web was deep and vast, and it included friends and family who lived all over the country. In letter after letter, people thanked them for helping them through tough times, for visiting them at the hospital, for bringing them meals, for driving them places, and more.
Here and there on tiny scraps of paper, grandma had written various sayings and quotes by other people.
“If you begin the day with love in your heart, peace in your nerves and truth in your mind, you not only benefit by their presence, but you also bring them to others.”
“Find some good in everyone and everyone will find some good in you.”
“He who builds according to every man’s advice will have a crooked house.”
When I’d first arrived, I thought, at the most, I’d return home with perhaps one of their dressers, a sewing table, and grandma’s quilts. Yet, I found myself saving much more.
It was then, as we loaded it all into the truck that it struck me as strange, this passing down of things through the generations. Why was I compelled to sort an old apron into the “family keepsakes” pile, but not any number of Grandpa’s cowboy hats? Why did I want that an old pin with a photo of an old relative who died long before I was born, but not much more recent photos of people I knew? What caused me to hold onto every piece of lace that Grandma ever sewed, even though I don’t particularly like lace or doilies?
These are the kinds of questions that could plague me for years or, at the very least, for the next three days as I nervously drive this truck from Colorado to Pennsylvania.
This van has me wishing for a lot of things, such as that phone book that we tossed in the dumpster. If I had that phone book right now, I think, I’d be sitting on it.
I’m also wishing for automated mirrors and, most of all, I find myself pining for the ability to see behind me. There is no rear view mirror because there is no rear window. Yes, I have side mirrors, but this truck’s blind spots are glaringly obvious. Driving it feels a lot like one of my recurring nightmares, the one where I am driving a car and I’m blind.
Right now, though, I’m not dreaming. I’m driving through places where it seems no one could possibly live because the Earth looks as if it has been scorched by the sun. I’d thought the west would be a good place for me to learn how to drive the van. Surrounded by thousand acre farms and towns with populations of 25 or 30, I figured there would be fewer cars for me to accidentally hit. Worst case scenario, I’d leave some truck tracks in someone’s field of beans.
But it’s not easy, and that’s because there’s been a gully on the side of the road, pretty much ever since we started. As I drive, all I can think is, “Don’t flip the truck. Please for the love of hoarding my grandparent’s old things, just don’t flip the truck.”
As we make our way through these boarded up towns, Dad tells me stories. There was a train that he once took from one town to Penn State. There was a lake where he and some friends once hung out. In one town there were relatives neither one of us have ever met.
We switch places. Dad drives for a while. Then we switch places again and I drive for another long while.
Eventually, I see a sign: “Welcome to Kansas.”
One state down, seven more to go.
The two-lane road leads us to a highway.
I notice a police car ahead. Its lights are on. There’s a car pulled over in front of it. I check the left side mirror. Then I check again. And again. It feels like an OCD thing, this checking of the side view mirror, but I just don’t trust my eyes. Is there a blind spot? And, if so, what if there’s a car in it? I don’t want to pull to the left before I’m sure.
I put on my blinker and I slowly pull into the left lane so I can give the police car some space. It’s only after I don’t hear a horn that I exhale.
While in the left lane, I decide to pass a slow semi.
The road curves a bit, so I stay in the left lane. I’m afraid to take my eyes off the road.
Finally the road straightens itself out. I check the mirror. It’s clear.
I put on my blinker and begin to pull into the right lane. Dad starts yelling something. It sounds like, “Oh eeeee geee Oh emmmm noooo arrrrrr car! Car!” I glance at the right mirror again. That’s when I see the white hood of a sedan.
I swerve back into the left lane as I say “Where did that come from!?!” and Dad says “I don’t know!”
My heart goes from 60 to 160 beats a minute. I age three years in 30 seconds.
I hear a siren.
It’s said that every family has a rock, and Dad is ours. He’s the family member who does the hard work of setting things right after they’ve gone horribly wrong. When I was a baby with colic and my mother was threatening to drive her car off a bridge, Dad stayed up all night rocking and walking me, and then he went to work the following day. When my brother’s parakeet escaped, Dad walked through the forest behind our house and calmly whistled until he found the bird. When the family car was stolen from a hospital parking lot in the Bronx, Dad found a pay phone, and he made phone call after call until he found a way to get himself and my mother home to Delaware.
That’s the Dad I know. I don’t know the 74-year-old to my right who is now saying everything twice. “Oh god. Oh God. It’s a police car. He wants you to pull over. He wants you to pull over.”
I look in the mirror again. It’s clear. But I thought it was clear before, too. I stay in the left lane even though the siren is wailing.
“He wants you to pull over. He wants you to pull over,” Dad says, again.
“I know, but… is the right lane free?”
“Yes, he wants you to pull over. Oh God, he wants you to pull over.”
“I know. Are you sure?”
Dad says he’s sure, but for the first time in my life, I don’t trust him. This pulling into the right lane feels like a giant leap of faith. It’s like listening to that kid who suggests you jump off that proverbial bridge and into that proverbial river because it’s fun and he’s done it before and he’s never once drowned.
You just don’t trust that kid, you know? All of us who are now adults only got to this point in life because we listened to our dads or our moms who told us not to listen to kids whose idea of a fun day involved doing things that have been known to cut promising young lives tragically short.
And right now my dad is that kid and the lake is the right lane.
At the same time, I’m starting to worry that the cop thinks I’m gunning it. I can already envision it on the nightly news, the story of the great police chase through the farmlands of Kansas, how cop cars followed a moving van for hours until it ran out of gas.
I take a deep breath. I check the mirror again. And again. And again.
Finally I pull to the right.
I ease the car onto the shoulder. I put the car in park.
The officer walks up to the passenger side. Dad rolls down the window.
“I’m so sorry,” I say. “I didn’t see you at all. I looked, and I didn’t see you at all!”
“Is this your first time driving!?!” the officer asks. His voice is a bit pinched, and he is question is a sarcastic one. He doesn’t expect an answer. Still, I blurt out, “No, but it is my first time driving a truck without a rear view mirror.” I gesture to where the rear view mirror usually is, and then I gesture to the seat behind me, as if this offers all the evidence he needs to find me innocent of all wrong doing.
“I’ve been really careful. I really have. I’ve been checking the mirrors and memorizing where all the cars are on the…”
The officer cuts me off. His I-Almost-Freaking-Died voice has now been replaced by a more serious one, the same comforting low monotone that I’m used to hearing come out of the mouths of cops and pilots.
“I pulled you over because of an improper use of your turn signal,” he says with a slight drawl.
“What do you mean?” I ask. “What’s an improper use of the turn signal?”
“I was just getting ready to tell you that,” he says, slowly, playfully, a smile coming to his face.
He lectures me about the proper use of the turn signal, about how I should put it on and leave it on for a good long time — at least 100 feet — before I actually move from one lane into another. This is a law in Kansas, and apparently I’d had mine on for fewer feet. I wonder what 100 feet looks like. Is it a car length? The length of a semi? How do drivers know when they’ve traveled at least 100 feet? How do cops know that they haven’t?
I don’t ask the officer any of this because one thing is very clear. Now isn’t the time.
He wants to know if our hearts are going a mile a minute. We tell them they are. He says his is, too. I’m thinking that this is a good thing. We’re bonding over cortisol.
He wants to know how we’re related and why I’m driving a truck for the first time. What are we hauling? Where are we from and why are we in Kansas? The questions go on.
I tell him that we just cleaned out my grandparent’s house and that we’re taking some of their things — some sentimental things — back with us.
As I explain this, his facial expression changes. The smile is gone. The eyes look concerned. The brow is a bit furrowed.
The words “I’m sorry for your loss” are etched in his pores. That’s when I choose to omit one detail: Though my grandmother died a few years ago, my grandfather is still alive, at age 98, in a nursing home.
He leans toward the truck. Now, it’s as if he and Dad are old friends. Somehow, in mere seconds, they’ve formed some sort of a clique. They’re the good drivers. I’m the person good drivers put up with when they’re stuck in the passenger seat.
Now the officer is chatting with us as if we’ve all just met at a bar. He’s saying that this is the second time someone ran him off the road today. As my grandparents might have said, we’re having a nice visit.
The officer merely glances at my license before handing it back to me.
“I’m not going to give you a ticket this time,” he says, only half sternly.
I’m thinking about his choice of words, and especially of the words “this time.” He’s more likely to be eaten by a shark than he is to ever have another opportunity to give me a ticket. And that’s saying a lot considering that, to my knowledge, there are no oceans in Kansas.
But I don’t say anything because I don’t want him to change his mind.
He walks back to his car.
I’m too rattled to drive right away, so I just sit still and breathe. Calm Dad is back, and he tells me to take all the time I need. In the side view mirror, I can now see the cop car. He pulls onto the road and then makes an abrupt U-ey. Now he’s driving the wrong way down the highway. Then he cuts over to the other side.
As I watch him speed away, only two words come to mind and they are: No wonder.
I slowly pull onto the road. For the next hour, I stay to the right.
Some time later, we pull into a hotel lot. It’s 9 p.m. and we haven’t yet eaten.
I can see a McDonald’s from the parking lot. One thing I know for sure is this: the only thing worse than eating fast food would be getting back in that van and driving in search of better food to eat.
We make our way down the street on foot. The McDonald’s is packed. We both order smoothies, and we sip them in silence.
Then we walk back to the hotel.
Before going to sleep, I root through an envelope. I find all those slips of paper on which grandma had scribbled her quotes and sayings.
“We cannot always know where roads will lead us, or know what we will find at journey’s end. But if along our way we give our best to everyday, we’ll discover some new joy around each bend.”
It’s been a long day and despite it all, I’m thankful. I’m thankful for clean sheets and refreshing showers and fast food, for hoarders who save every little thing, for quilts being passed down through the generations, for beautiful old typewriters, and for shaving mugs, for nostalgia and sweetness, for love and for loss, bitter and for sweet, for fear that gives way to laughter and sadness that turns into hope, desolate farm country, and for billboards about Jesus to break up the ride.
But I’m especially thankful that this journey — like all journeys — moves forward.
One day soon, I will not be driving a van but, just as Grandma’s note says, something else will be around each bend.
This is the longest post I’ve ever written. If you read all the way to the really badly written ending, you’re my hero. I invite you to comment about times you were pulled over by a cop, ran people off the road, cleaned out other people’s houses, hoarded odd things, or anything else you’d like to share. If you are reading by email, don’t forget to click through to comment.