The little girl walking between us held our hands as we crossed a footbridge over the river. Tree leaves were colored red and gold and hues of yellow and orange and a [...]
“Your children are not your children. They come not from you but through you for they are but the sons and daughters of life’s longing for itself.” – Gibran
Ma worried. The majority of her energy was consumed by this endeavor. I often thought her anxieties were her finest possessions. They were frequently justified. I was a teenager but understood very clearly that every important decision Ma had made had led her closer to a kind of ruin. She seemed to be uncanny at making bad choices and when destiny presented her with options she usually picked the course to do her the most harm. My mother’s great ability, though, has always been her capacity to love.
We were standing at the edge of the June sun during a Michigan morning. There was hardly room for Ma and me on a narrow slab of concrete that served as a modest porch to our tiny tract house. A shadow kept us chill and I saw where the light was already hitting the corn and squash in the garden. We did not grow things for pleasure; we planted seeds and waited for them to become food. We also went to neighbors and tried to sell them the extra corn or tomatoes for money to buy other food or school clothes. But I was trying not to think about these things because I was 17 and leaving home after high school. In fact, a part of me was already gone through the split in the hedgerow that lined our neighbor’s yard and across the weedy baseball diamond where I had chased fly balls. I was already seeing myself hitching down Hill Road to where it intersected with the recently completed stretch of Interstate 75. I had not chosen a destination but was thinking vaguely of California and Colorado. There was nothing more important to me than adventure and I wanted to see the country and sleep under the sky. I suppose I was sufficiently smart to feel an obligation to my youth but not intelligent enough to be afraid.
“Son, I just don’t understand.” Ma looked up at me as I lifted my pack and slipped my arms through the shoulder straps. “Where are you gonna sleep? What happens when you run out of money?”
She was squeezing her fingers and alternately pinching them together with the opposite hand. This was a habit she had acquired years earlier when she feared an unexpressed rage of Daddy’s that she sensed might become violence.
“I’ve got my sleeping bag, Ma,” I told her as I patted the cotton bedroll hanging from the bottom of my backpack. “And when I run out of money, I’ll do odd jobs. There’s always some kind of work.”
“I don’t see why you can’t just stay around Flint,” she said. “There’s lots of good jobs for young men your age. You could make some real money on the line or a road crew or something.”
She was right. It was 1969 and the Chevrolet truck plant, Buick Motor Division of General Motors, Fisher Body, and every other business associated with the automotive industry in Flint, Michigan was hiring. They did not mind taking on college students for a few months because they were desperate for laborers to build the cars America had become fascinated with in the decades after World War Two. I had friends who were making over $400 a week with overtime by hanging doors as car and truck frames rolled past them on the assembly line. But I had always believed the factory had done something to my father that was not worth the wages.
“We’ve been through this, Ma. We can’t keep having this conversation. This is what I am going to do. I don’t need that much money. I’ve got the grants and scholarships I need for college. I’ve got to go now. I want to go see Lake Michigan before dark.”
“Oh son, just look at you.”
She leaned in my direction with her short arms and reached around to hug me in a way that had always made me feel safe as a boy but just then I was starting to feel trapped. Ma pressed her head against a spot near my lower chest. She was only 4’ 10” tall. I felt her hands grab the metal frame of my backpack and take a grip that was tight enough to prevent me from leaving.
“I’m so sorry, Ma,” I said. “But this is what I have to do. What I need to do. Please don’t cry.”
I shifted the pack slightly on my hips and thought she might ease her grasp. The nylon and aluminum frame rig was loaded with all of my clothes and some camping gear. When the $18.95 item had come in the mail I had felt the kind of excitement that kept me from sleeping at night. I had leaned the frame against the foot of my bed and lay awake looking at the tan fabric and contemplating myself wearing the pack in the midst of rugged scenes in national parks and great deserts.
“I love you, son.”
“I know that, Ma. I love you, too. But I’ve got to go now.”
She released me and I kissed the top of her head. No matter how many times she washed my mother always had the faint scent of fried food in her hair. She worked for eighty cents an hour at a short order restaurant just off the Dixie Highway and every night when she came home, her white, seersucker uniform and her hair gave off the aroma of fried fish and grilled burgers. Ma had come to America for both love and money and had ended with a job that provided nickel and dime tips from truckers and factory workers.
I quickly stepped back off the porch and said good-bye again and I was unable to avoid seeing her tears. I had never hurt my mother before and I did not like the feeling. She had so little and now one of her most cherished things, her eldest son, was simply walking away into the distance. She had no idea where I was to sleep that night or any other night nor when she might get a call or a post card. Ma must have thought she had no control over any events in her life and suddenly even her children were becoming losses.
I turned around at the hedgerow. She had both hands over her mouth and was crying. None of my four sisters nor my brother were anywhere in the vicinity. My departure was of little consequence to them. Maybe they simply did not believe I was going anywhere beyond the neighborhood grocery store. But Ma knew. And it was painful for her. There had been many times when the boys I ran with had urged me to join them in law-breaking schemes like break-ins or theft and I had backed out. There was no good reason for it except that I knew there was a risk of getting caught and I did not want to shame or hurt my mother. She worked to hard too give me chances. But I had to leave and travel regardless of her hurt and fears.
I turned back again on Westdale and saw her short profile outlined against the white doorframe. She was determined to watch me until I disappeared because I am sure she did not believe I was truly going. Our house appeared even smaller than the 850 square feet of space where Ma was raising her six children. The faded cedar shake shingles had been painted black a few years previously and she had planted a few flowers and bushes around the property. I had decided she was trying to suggest to neighbors that we were moving in the direction of respectability and that no more police cars or emergency vehicles were going to disturb their nights. Daddy had been sent to an institution down in Pontiac and Ma had gotten a divorce before he was released. He did not live any more in our house.
My only view of Lake Michigan that day was from the back of a pickup as patches of blue water flashed between factory buildings in Gary, Indiana. I slept my first night on the road beneath a highway overpass along an Illinois cornfield and listened to a soft rain. Ma was likely sitting at the small table in her kitchen and chewing on the nails she had long ago bitten to nubs. Her stubby fingers had never appeared feminine and her hands were coarsened by years of restaurant work but her children did not go hungry or stay too cold. I wondered if she had ever felt as hopeful and excited as I did lying there in the rainy darkness.
Ma still lives up in Michigan in a house where people care for her but she wishes she were back in Newfoundland. She complains that the people around her are all old and the woman who walks all day and takes tiny steps annoys her. Ma and I were in the living room and I watched the walking woman with the frail neck and papery skin until she stood next to my chair.
“I just came here to see if I could get someone to help me,” she said. “Can you help me?”
“I would if I knew how,” I answered. “But I don’t.”
Ma was staring at the front door. She spends much of her day now looking in that direction and I think she is convinced her youth and health are on the other side of that house’s wall. In her mind she continues to come and go as she pleases but her body is still and failing.
“Son?” She touched my forearm. “If you can just get me out that door and down to the border, I’ll be okay.”
“What do you mean, Ma?”
“Just get me to Canada. I’ll get back to St. John’s as soon as you get me over the bridge.”
“Ma, how would you ever get there?”
“I’ll just use my walker and I’ll walk and walk and walk until I flop over and then I’ll start again and I’ll keep doing that until I get there.”
“Even if you do get there, Ma, who will take care of you?”
“What do you mean who will take care of me?” She raised her voice. “I’ll take care of me that’s who will take care of me. I always have haven’t I?”
“But Ma, you’re…….”
“Don’t tell me anything, son. I’ll get me a job at one of those restaurants down on the harbor and rent me a room off of Water Street. I just need you to get me to the border. Don’t you worry about how I’ll get home. You never let me worry about you.”
“I know, Ma. I’m sorry.”
Ma’s turn had finally come to say good-bye. And I did not want her to go.