Journeys across America; back through time, and into the future
October 14, 1984. That was the date on the top of the letter, the day when my mom typed out a message she knew she would never give me. I was a young man, in the spring of the last year of the last century of the last millennium, when the letter arrived in my mailbox in the most incredible of surprises. It was just two pages, tucked inside a large manila envelope addressed to me by a person I had not spoken with since my mom had died ten years earlier. I opened it, and the letter fell out, along with a few framed pictures of my mom and I, a handwritten note stuck between them, on which the person who sent the package said that she’d been holding the letter for some time, at my mom’s request, until I turned 21. “It is now yours to open,” she wrote. I did, and the past opened its mouth wide. I slipped back in time, placed my head on the lap of the pages, laid my heart on the sentences, wrapped my arms around the punctuation. I could hear my mom speaking through my voice as I read.
That's how it starts out. I won't tell you right now exactly what that letter says, but in just 334 words, my mom expressed all her hopes about who I'd become, as a man, a father, a citizen of the world. She told me not to be angry or feel guilty that she'd gotten cancer, said it was no one's fault she'd gotten sick, let me know, "I never abandoned you." The last line: "Think of me from time to time." I did, or course. I thought of her a lot, in fact, and held on to her like a child will a mother, even as I grew into manhood. But along the way, I forgot much of her desires for me, strayed from the path she'd hoped I'd travel down. In many regards, I lost my way, afraid of the love my mom wanted so much for me. I had to leave home. It was the only thing I knew to do, to get in touch with my mom, and with myself, and in the process, to let go of me, to let go of her. Over the past several years, I traveled the nation several times, living in my 1984 VW Westfalia camper van, 'Harry,' named after my paternal grandfather, an unruly and unreliable machine prone to breakdowns but imbued with too much charm to get mad at, just like the Irishman he's dubbed after, trying to be simple, to soak-in the wisdoms of those I encountered along the way, to listen for my mom speaking over the silence of a desert night, to find a way to crawl out of my old self. A small insurance policy my grandparents took out on my deceased dad in 1935 ($4,500) provided the funds to keep going. Right Here chronicles time spent with people, in the places where they create place, reveals stories of crushing heartbreak and gut-shredding laughter, unforeseen lessons and disturbing honesty, inspiring resilience and touching openness. Some of these stories can be found on Types of America, a blog I maintain where stories from the road are written-up on a manual typewriter. Traveling forms you back into a child; open, sincere, full of questions. Leaving home helped me find out more about my mother than in the previous twenty years since she'd died, because I became a boy again. I found my mom out in America. I listened to her with a child's ears. I spoke to her with a child's heart. I held her spirit with a child's arms. When I let her go, it was with the hands of a man.