July 13, 2006

Nashville cats

My dear friend Rhonda came for dinner yesterday. She and her family drove to Boston from their home outside Nashville to pick up their daughter Erin, who's spent the past six weeks interning at the Massachusetts State House. Erin's aunt is a state rep, and Erin spent most of this summer scoping out the inner workings of life under the big golden dome that crowns Beacon Hill.

The kids and I visited Rhonda and her family in Tennessee a few summers ago. Rhonda's house was a key stop on our 2002 cross-country trek:

The road from Kentucky led to my friend Rhonda’s house, outside Nashville. We’ve known each other since we were 14, when I was in love with her cousin Rick. After he broke my heart, we stayed friends. Rhonda was the only person I’d made plans to visit.

Like many of their neighbors, Rhonda and husband Charlie came to Nashville to follow work. While on a 6 a.m. power walk through her development, once a vast farm, I watched people transplanted from Michigan and the northeast drive off to jobs at Dell Computer or the car plants at Spring Hill and Smyrna. As I circumnavigated the tidy neighborhood, I noticed what looked like “For Sale” signs planted on some of the front lawns. When I got close enough to read them, I learned that “The 10 Commandments Are Supported Here” and “Ye Must Be Born Again.”

Rhonda and Charlie have adapted to their new culture. They’ll always be Yankees, but their kids were born in the South. Erin and Paul go to Christian school, and their summer reading list included the Bible.

Our kids played together in the cul-de-sac, while Rhonda, Charlie and I drank beers on the front porch. Charlie’s a traveler. Real travelers know geography, even of places they haven’t been to yet. I described our route, and Charlie sat back and smiled, visualizing the Stonehenge of old Cadillacs sticking up in Amarillo, the jagged reaches of the Sawtooth, the forested shores of Lake Huron. This is a guy who, years ago, got in a car with a few buddies and drove from Boston to Yellowknife, just to see what a place called Yellowknife looked like. They spent a few hours there and drove home. I understood completely.

Rhonda’s house had been a psychological safety net. It was a familiar destination. A place where we’d been expected. Somewhere with people who cared about us. A chance to stretch out and hang around a house with a yard and lots of rooms and a washing machine and a kitchen with food. A visit with friends. A point from which I could turn around and go home if something wasn’t right about this trip and still feel the venture had been worthwhile.

We left Rhonda’s driveway and left the safety net behind. We were on our own, for the next 10,000 miles. We drove into America, and it embraced us.

From Ribbons of Highway: A Mother-Child Journey Across America (2004).