This spring, on the cusp of her 21st birthday, my younger daughter flew from New Jersey to Minneapolis, rented a U-Haul and stretched a little further west—driving a few hours into North Dakota. Then, over the course of the next four days, she worked her way back east, making her last stop along the coast of New Hampshire and then hopping on a bus the next day to Boston and finally, flying home to Newark.
Since her return, my heart has slowly made its way out of my throat and back down into my chest where it belongs.
While my third child was somewhere in Indiana dipping her toes in Lake Michigan, and visiting the National Buffalo Museum in Jamestown, ND, I spent most of the week she was away refreshing her location on my iPhone, ensuring she was alive by watching the icon I use for her on my phone — a picture of a cartoonish bear I took at Target that reminded me of her — move across the country.
For a while one afternoon, the icon seemed to stall somewhere in the middle of Wisconsin on my phone, indicating where she had been 14 minutes earlier — then 15 — but wouldn’t update to where she was at that moment. I had resolved not to call or text while she was driving her rig — I didn’t want to distract her or let her feel the wind from my hovering beating hard over her curly head from 1,000 miles away — but was overpowered by the mental image I had of her pinned beneath an 18-wheeler.
“HE-L-L-O!” she answered happily when I called, in her best Oprah-like voice, and told me she had pulled over to take a walk through a nature reserve she’d read about the night before. She wanted to stretch her legs a bit before resuming her journey to Kalamazoo for the night. “There’s, like, zero reception here,” she told me, explaining why her location wasn’t updating on my phone.
A few minutes later, she sent me a video from the top of a gorge, which panned down to a waterfall spilling into the stream far below, and then spun around to show me the sun-dappled woods behind her. It was picturesque and serene and a little too deserted for my liking. IMG_3379
While I was happy to hear she wasn’t in a fiery heap on the side of the interstate, I was also concerned that she was about to end up shackled in the back of a serial killer’s van, destined to become the sleeve of his skin suit. “Please text me as soon as you get back in the U-Haul,” I told her, “and lock the doors!”. A little while later, she sent a picture of the truck, parked in a deserted looking lot, which is exactly the kind of scene a location scout would pick for a movie about a young woman’s abduction on her journey across America.
I said a silent prayer to Sacagawea, whose image was plastered across the side of the U-Haul, to help keep my daughter safe as she rolled through the Upper Midwest towards New Hampshire, like Lewis and Clark making their way to the Pacific, except with podcasts and Spotify.
It had all the makings of a great story: my daughter, just home from a semester in Italy, was dead broke and had the opportunity to make a nice chunk of change, while touring her own country for a few days. Even though she’d spent the previous four months exploring Europe — taking a bike tour through Munich and traveling from Florence to Greece on a 30-hour journey akin to Odysseus’, minus the Cyclops — a road trip seemed like a well-timed adventure before beginning her summer internship at a big resort in Pennsylvania. And for a girl from New Jersey, anything west of Pittsburgh seemed pretty exotic
The opportunity to go on this 8-hour-a-day-odyssesy through the upper half of the country and make some money came from right next door. Our neighbor, Liz, is a bookkeeper and one of her clients had asked whether her college-aged son would be interested in the job. When he couldn’t, Liz immediately thought of my daughter and texted me with all the details.
In a nutshell, a New Hampshire-based marketing firm (Liz’s client) was looking to make an impression on some big corporations by hiring someone to hand-deliver to their marketing execs end tables with company logos, crafted by some artisans in North Dakota. The job was to pick up the tables from the workshop and travel back east, making two deliveries (Minneapolis and Ann Arbor), and then transporting the rest of the furniture to New Hampshire, all expenses paid plus a nice check at the end.
What could go wrong?
I was nervous at first, but everything checked out and in the many years that I have known Liz, she has never done anything remotely reckless. She recently spearheaded a campaign in town to encourage more kids to walk and bike to school, and wears a reflective vest when she goes on her early morning runs. I was confident she wasn’t setting my daughter up to be a drug mule.
“She might want to check what’s inside those table legs,” said my friend Dan — who’d worked a dozen years as a prison guard before becoming a personal trainer, and has witnessed horrible things on both ends of the economic spectrum. “It’s just the way I think,” he said, shrugging his shoulders.
Around the same time, a good friend was sending her husband to fetch their daughter (my girl’s BF) from college in St. Louis and drive her back to New Jersey in their car, which she’d had for the year. “You better tell her to be careful,” my friend said when I told her of my own daughter’s wacky caper.
And that’s when panic set in.
Truth be told, I am not prone to smothering tendencies as a parent. In fact, sometimes I can be a little too hands off. I keep forgetting to check my 15yo’s grades from last marking period online and still don’t know whether I need to call to check if a parent is home, every time he goes over to a friend’s house. It just seems so aggressive.
I do enjoy some casual stalking though, insisting that all the kids — even ones who don’t live with me anymore — share their locations with me on their iPhones (okay, not the 25yo boy, who thinks all of us stalking each other is weird).
Aside from the solo aspect of the journey, I was also worried about all of that driving. I get sick when the kids are on long-distance drives, like the 8-hour haul the older two kids had to their college in Virginia. And I hate when any of my kids are flying and insist they text the minute the plane’s wheels hit the tarmac. But I also don’t want my children spending their lives standing still.
If I was going to be completely honest, I think what concerned me the most about the journey — besides all the driving and traveling by herself — was whether other people would think I was an irresponsible parent for allowing her to go.
I didn’t want anyone to think that I was a bad mom.
When she was little, I used to refer to my third child as “The Boss” because, even at a young age, she was someone who liked to take charge — or at the very least — stand up to her older two siblings. They’d lounge around on beanbag chairs in our basement when they were little, watching Barney and Thomas the Tank Engine videos that ran on a loop, while I pried little scraps of American cheese off the floor upstairs after lunch. One afternoon my oldest came up crying and holding his cheek, sobbing something about his baby sister, who was probably around 2 at the time. Apparently, tired of being harassed by her oldest brother, The Boss had gotten up off her pink beanbag chair and bit him in the face. And he never bothered her again.
I knew in my heart that my girl, that Boss, could handle a 2,000-mile drive across the country. That she was up to the challenge. But the reaction I got as I told people—excitedly at first— about the trip, had me questioning whether I should have even told my kid about the job in the first place.
What no one ever tells you when your children are young, when they’re offering advice about whether they should sleep on their back or their side or if you should worry when one bites her brother in the face, is that it never ends. What you never find out until it’s too late, is that you will worry about your child until you take your last breath.
And I think the only way to manage that crushing reality, is to recognize that for the most part, they’ve got it. It might not always go to way you’d like it to go, or the way you try to manipulate outcomes (“Hello, my name is Amy, and I can be a master manipulator.”) but they usually figure it out. I’ve watched a million times as I’ve tried to play the role of the puppeteer that they do what’s best for them when I drop (or, okay, they cut) the strings.
They pick the right colleges and get full-time jobs with 401ks. And if they don’t, it’s valuable information for them to use in the future.
Maybe in the end, it all just comes down to faith.
So, while my inner voice told me it would all be fine, I ratcheted up my hovering, lest anyone think I didn’t care about my daughter. And then I started to lose faith. I stopped listening to my inner voice.
As soon as she drove away in the Uber for her flight to Minneapolis, I became pretty focused on her whereabouts. I immediately started stalking the hell out of her on my phone, which I think charmed her at first and then quickly became very irritating.
Aside from the stalking, I also spent much of the week serving as her travel agent, combing the internet to book rooms and find places for her to eat. And while I tried to find the “best” places for her to go, she really just wanted to get something to eat and lie down.
She ended up at the Mall of America after a long day of driving from North Dakota one day (“I’m so overwhelmed,” she texted when she got inside. “Why didn’t you ever bring us here on vacation?”), and I tracked her location inside the megamall. I could see on my laptop where she was, and tried to guide her to good places for dinner like she was Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible and I was trying to help her find an escape route. I had all of these amazing ideas (I thought) and eventually, she stopped texting and later told me she rode a rollercoaster and grabbed some hibachi at Benihana.
She did her own research each night in her hotel room, which took her to see a giant pink elephant in Wisconsin and ate what she said were “the most amazing” beef tacos (“It’s rated the #1 restaurant in DeForest,” she texted.). One morning, she messaged asking, “Should I go see a forest or the world’s largest six-pack of beer?” which led her for that deserted walk around the woods of Pewits Nest, alongside a stream called Skillet’s Creek in Devil’s Lake State Park in Wisconsin. A place from which I thought she’d surely never escape.
For a while one afternoon as she approached Chicago, I tried to find places for her to park the U-Haul so she could go visit that giant bean, but in the end, we determined no parking garage could accommodate her rig and that she’d come off looking like aterrorist. Instead, she pulled off at Indiana Dunes State Park and stood in the clear shallow water of Lake Michigan before spending the night in Kalamazoo.
Along the way, she stopped for lunch in Cleveland one day with her roommate from freshman year (even though I was dying for her to go to Zingerman’s in Ann Arbor), and another day had breakfast with one of her best pals who lives in Harrisburg, PA. She stopped for the night to stay at her apartment in State College, PA, to see friends and pick up bedding and stuff for her summer internship at Hershey Park.
Finally, she arrived around 8 p.m. in Portsmouth, NH after a long day of driving from State College, where she finally met the man she’d been driving across the country for who took her to get something to eat before she collapsed at a Hilton Garden Inn for the night. The next morning, she took a bus to Boston and flew home, where she promptly ate some leftover quiche in the frig, snuggled our dog and watched the royal wedding, which had happened earlier that day.
A week later she packed up our old GMC and drove back to Pennsylvania to start her internship and we joked that the three-hour trip would feel like nothing after her midwestern odyssey.
After a day of orientation, she worked her first 8-4:30 day in housekeeping and when I asked how it went, she told me her feet were killing her.
She was on her way back to the apartment she shared with five other interns and was going to shower and change to meet friends for an early dinner, and then had to run to Wal-Mart to by an all-black sneaker to wear to work the next day.
“Well, how do you feel?” I asked as she pulled into her apartment complex and was about to get out of the car.
“I feel like a legit grown up,” she told me.
And I couldn’t have agreed more.
Do you sometimes lose your faith? Me too. Sign up to get all my latest posts delivered straight to your inbox and we can commiserate. I promise I’ll try not to tell you what to do.