It's last month. We're on a road trip, Annie and I. Nine days through California, Nevada, and Arizona. Motels and hotels, national parks and ghost towns, road food. It's June, it's hot, and the car is small. Annie is a teenage girl and I'm her mother, and on paper this all sounds like a recipe for conflict and disaster, yet she's the easiest traveling companion I've ever had.
What a relief. What a joy.
Annie had a brutal year, with illness and injury, and a rough transition to high school. And there was a death -- my father-in-law -- and her father taking a job overseas that will keep him away from her for much of the next few years. And while a hard year for a child means a hard year for her parents, we've all learned a lot together. She's turned into a full-fledged teenager, and we've turned again -- fourteen years after my youngest stepchild hit twenty -- into the full-fledged parents of a teen.
Michael Riera, author of Uncommon Sense for Parents with Teenagers writes, "Parenting a teenager means thinking more in terms of influence than control -- easy to say, tough to do." I try to take his words to heart when our inevitable conflicts arise: Annie gets frustrated with me when I micromanage, tell her what to do, or speak to her in a voice geared for a younger child. I get frustrated with her for being one minute so self-reliant, the next, needing step-by-step instructions for things I think she should be able to easily accomplish.
It's a careful dance we do, mothers and teenage daughters. But I am trying hard to be an Influence rather than a Boss and this girl, my Annie, is a good, good dancer, and most of our conflicts are small. Annie's issues are mostly with herself anyway (which brings its own pain). Yet I never expected that I could drive in the car with a teenager -- however amenable -- for nine days through 115-degree heat and have it be this much fun.
Driving through the desert, the car a small sanctuary of coolness, I feel like we're in a between-time, a precious space before she leaves home and this part of my life is done. How fleeting our time together is, how quickly things change. I want to relish these moments, capture a sense of who we are now, this tender time with her father sometimes here and sometimes gone.
We're often quiet in the car, Annie and I. There are different qualities of silence that people can have between them. There's the thick tension of I don't know what to say, I should be saying something but I don't know what . . . and there's our silence -- a companionable silence that doesn't always need words. Sometimes we listen to the radio, finding AM stations that feature "classic country." Sometimes we snap the radio off and I drive and she thinks. Sometimes we talk, and sometimes that talking trails off, and neither of us notices. We laugh a lot. We admire the scenery. And if either of us wants to pull over, to take a picture, or stop at a jerky stand, we do.
I love when I say to her, "Hey, you wanna stop and see if we can find any antique stores?" or "Hey, should we take this detour and look at the petroglyphs?" or even, "You want to try the pickled pigs feet?" because her answer is always the same. "Sure!" This is not something we taught her, I don't think, this zest for life, this flexibility. Some of it might come because it's the two of us alone right now.
When my husband Bill was a teenager, he was an outspoken peace activist and hippie and his father was a conservative Air Force officer who'd too often parented with the buckle end of the belt. But when Bill was sixteen, his dad was sent to serve in Vietnam for a year -- his third war on active duty. And Bill, who'd lived with a foster family for several months because of the household tensions, moved back in with his mother. He speaks of that year with a gentle joy. It was a precious time -- just the two of them, with his sisters off to college. It was easy.
Perhaps its always easier for two people to live together smoothly than it is for three or more. Not because of love, but because of logistics. Two can settle into a rhythm. At home, for Annie and me, this often involves staring into space, eating huge lunches and popcorn or frozen food for dinner, letting the dishes pile up and doing them once every third day, and forgetting where we're headed on the freeway. It's so different when Bill is home.
And Bill speaks of this too -- the easy rhythm of cooking together, listening to music, that he and our daughter fall into when I'm not around. She assumes more responsibility than when I'm there. They probably stay up later. All parents should have this with their kids, these times alone, these rhythms.
Once when I was in my early twenties -- only once -- my mother and I went on a camping trip together. A few days under aspen trees high in the mountains near Lake Tahoe. Ease descended on us, we spoke quietly, admired the quaking of the leaves, laughed, and slept easily in our tent.
Maybe away from family dynamics, when people are alone together, the ease comes out. The love can simply flow. And mother and daughter, father and daughter, mother and son, can simply be companions.