Today is my mother’s birthday. She would have been 76.
My book is dedicated to my father. I had written the dedication before he died, and as his death came in San Diego three months before my trip through the southwest, much of that section is informed by his passing. It is some of the most personal writing I have ever done, and in my opinion constitutes the best part of the book.
In contrast, I don’t speak a lot about my mother in the book. Off the top of my head, I can only recall two direct mentions: one regards my parents’ annual trip to Orlando for an aviation convention that surrounds Thanksgiving, and the other her concerned and disapproving voice in my head as I followed a stranger to meet a moonshiner/bootlegger in Mena, Arkansas. Not exactly the stuff of grandiose tribute.
It probably should not be this way. My mother supported my project far more enthusiastically than my father. Against all reason, too. A responsible parent probably should have opposed the idea–at least outwardly. I spent most of my twenties earning my doctorate, and my first three years in Albany doing what people with doctorates do: teaching for paychecks far larger than the ones they received in graduate school. Instead, I was now spending every cent I had saved to travel the country, and working 350 days a year on a book with very little chance of achieving the type of success that would justify the enterprise’s financial investment. Any parent would be forgiven for issuing me a stern rebuke, and telling me to suck it up and get a real job already.
My mother never did this. Instead, she was just happy that I was happy, and proud to have a son who was doing something grand and ambitious and idiotic in the name of personal fulfillment and artistic pursuit. Even though she was worried on a daily basis for my safety (the domain of mothers everywhere, much less those of sons who inherited their fathers’ penchant for fearless and occasionally reckless exploration), still she supported my work. There’s courage in that, and it is ennobling.
In truth, she would have liked to support the project even further. She never liked that I slept in tents in the middle of nowhere, for one, and would have preferred if I had taken her money and put myself up in hotels more often. One particularly memorable example of this came when I was southern Utah, traipsing about the spectacular array of national parks and wondrous natural scenery there. I hadn’t had a shower in a week by the time I reached the Moab, and because of a flooding of visitors for an event on that particular weekend (I can’t remember just what the occasion was), every affordable campground within 100 miles was booked. I made it a point to try not to pitch my tent in illegal locales (for one, doing so can be dangerous), so when I checked in with my wife I was not sure where I was going to stay. My wife happened to be at my mother’s house. My mother overheard. She insisted I take a room in Moab. She would pay the $250.
I refused her offer. I had long-since decided that every dollar I parted with for this book would be my own, and in any case $250 seemed like a ridiculous amount to spend on clean linens and a shower. Who knew if I’d ever sell enough books to pay for even that!
Alas, pride is the seed of discomfort. I would camp on a slope outside Canyonlands, a tree root periodically shoving its way between my shoulder blades. My father probably thought I was stronger for it.
My mother, on the other hand, likely just thought I was stubborn and stupid. Money meant little to her, after all. To her, it was the thing that bought things of value, not the thing that was of value itself. Supporting my dreams with it was never an issue–particularly when it could buy her a night’s worth of peace of mind.
Maybe I should have let her invest in my book. It’s possible that that is what she most wanted. But she shouldn’t have fretted if that was the case. She had invested in it long before then. Just look: