by Jeff Oaks
Once upon a time, my mother and I pulled off the road, walked into a field of golden grass and weeds, and disappeared. We took a bucket of chicken I think we’d bought in Geneva, either at KFC or at the local knock-off The Red Barn. I don’t remember if we had a blanket, if we had anything to drink, if there were biscuits or napkins or sporks. I don’t remember what we talked about or might have talked about. I don’t remember why we were on the road, although I do remember it was a country road, a road that wound through and around farmhouses, stables, fields. It was a day of bright light and tall weeds, so I’m guessing late summer or early fall.
We were probably playing hookie from our lives. My mother loved to drive. It rested her mind, I think, to be moving. Her favorite things involved travel, adventure, seeing new things. When she was upset or bored or depressed, she drove, inventing sometimes errands she had to run, things I needed for school, groceries that could only be found a half hour away, books in distant libraries she wanted to read. There were a million excuses, but she liked the ones that sounded practical, that she wouldn’t have to explain to anyone, or more likely, since to my knowledge nobody asked, she didn’t want to explain those excuses to herself. She’d grown up in a very practical family; those habits were deeply engrained in her.
Still, she was given to urges to escape her normal life. Since I was too young to leave at home, she usually took me along. Maybe twice a year, she’d write me a note to skip school and we’d go to the racetrack and bet on the horses. Every time we did, my school guidance counselor was also there, and he and she would nod politely. On weekends, if I were growing bored and sulky, she’d suggest I go along with her on errands. “To blow the stink off” is how she liked to phrase it.
We’d drive out, windows down in those days without air conditioned cars, out past the houses and names we knew, out past the big fields of endless corn or wheat or grass whose only inhabitants we could see were big hawks perched on fence posts or telephone poles, out and out until I’d forgotten the point of our driving, why we were going and to where. Often, she’d stop at a barn or garage sale, and while I tried to vanish with embarrassment, she’d get out and look at what other people were willing to part with, have a little conversation with a few strangers, and then get back in, usually empty-handed, and drive on.
We’d meander like that until we got to where she’d said we were going. Or we’d get to a place where I assumed she wanted to go–a store, a library, a lake. Usually, it would be a place where we could do something, where we could return to the world of doing things.
Maybe that why when she pulled over that one day, it surprised me enough to make a memory of golden grasses and bright but not hot light. I loved my mother, and I often loved having her all to myself on those drives, and I mark that picnic with her, that time in which we both disappeared from whatever was going on in our lives, as one of the most important moments in my life. We left the car behind on the side of the road. We found a place among what I imagine now as the buzz and pulse of late summer, early fall insects. We opened our bucket of joy, and we let the world absorb us. For ten minutes, an hour, how long, I don’t know. It doesn’t matter to me now. How long does a poem by Rilke take to read? How long does it take a horse to run around a track? No time at all really.