On That Time I Went Trucking
I can tell you the exact day the dream died. It came in the form of a six-year-old perched like a cheeky little sprite on the edge of the bed prattling on with an emphatic shake of her riotous curls: “You need to know this about me, Mom. I am just a leopard-skin kind of girl.”
This was the day in my parenting odyssey that I first realized with full clarity: my children were these autonomous creatures who might have thoughts, preferences, and dreams that did not in the slightest resemble my own. It came as quite a shock, I must say. A mother’s daydreams die hard. All my puffed sleeved fantasies of little girl dresses with bows and lace with not one spot of leopard skin anywhere…all dashed by the emphatic nod of a curly head. This was the first time it happened. It would not be the last.
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Every parent has dreams. We can’t lie. Some of us want their son to be a bishop, some want him to be a great discoverer, some want a daughter to be a doctor, or a child to be the best pitcher in the country.
Me? I want Khaki Pants Man. Yes, you heard me correctly. Tidy, pressed Khaki Pants Man. That name has become part of our family lexicon. My kids know all about him. He lives in a nice house on a cul-de-sac, with a perfectly manicured yard that never has a leaf lying anywhere. He has five well behaved children all perfectly coifed, impeccably dressed, and who wear shoes and socks ALL the time. Khaki Pants Man is successful and has a perfectly lovely grill on which his pork steaks never burn. We sit on his deck every Sunday and visit. He coaches the parish soccer team, of course, and wears perfectly clean, tidy tennis shoes. His tasteful Christmas decorations go up at just the right time and everything he does is predictable and safe and controlled. I always know where he is, what he is going to do next, and, oh yes, he lives with his family very close to my house. Of course. In our family, this dream man has simply come to be categorized as Mom’s, "guy who always looks ironed." This is the day-dream future I have concocted for my sons. But my sons? They just laugh out loud. And laugh they should, because where in my genes anywhere is a Khaki Pants Man? I don’t even know where my iron IS.
I am the mother of musicians, of writers, of wanderlust travelers and dreamers; of kids who sleep surrounded by a mountain of books on their crumpled sheeted beds, of kids who would rather discuss the wrath of Achilles over coffee and let falling leaves lie… in the weed infested grass out in the yard. Of kids who will travel South America with two flannel shirts and a wrinkled pair of jeans and end up, quite impromptu, working with poor children in the slums of a Peruvian city. Of a daughter completely enamored of Asia since childhood taking off in her leopard skinned jacket to live the dream in Korea. Of a son who writes poetry late at night and scatters it all over his bedroom floor like jewels among the socks for me to unearth in the morning. Of a son who writes music and sometimes wears his hair in the semblance of a messy, unintended man bun. Not one of his shirts is ironed. All of them, to a child, leave their shoes everywhere.
And here is the thing. Khaki Pants Man is safe, and neat, and beautiful. But he isn't my child. God gave us our specific children to take care of, to nurture when young, to help us learn patience, and for us to simply cheer on from the sidelines when they are grown. And yes, many times I am screaming from those sidelines, things like: "Don't forget to go to Mass! Wear a tie; you’ll thank me later! I am worried! Is that safe?? Wait, where are you now? You’re wearing that?” More than once I sigh to myself that I would sleep so much better at night if they would just consent to being Khaki Pants Men.
I DO, however, remind myself from time to time that there are definite perks to letting go of the safe scenario I have contrived for them in my head. Our children are not there to live OUR dreams it is true, but we can end up with the tremendous gift of being invited into THEIR dreams. That is the hidden glory of children. They widen our horizons with their own unique perspective on the world, and they teach us not to hold on to our safe, preconceived notions about people or things we have never met or experienced. There is a world of adventure to be discovered just by letting our children lead us to places we never dared to go. With each child I have become more comfortable with my inner daring-do.
How else to explain the tattoo on my arm? My youngest son, before he went to college, said to me one day, “Mom let’s get matching tattoos. I am buying.” Khaki Pants Man would never have suggested such a thing! I waffled for half a day, but I had experienced enough adventure by then (without imploding) that I consented. Yes, of course I had my pre-conceived notions of tattoo parlors: dark hovels in back streets, skulls, cross bones, and pirate ships floating disconcertingly on bikers’ chests. I learned, to my utter astonishment, that tattoo artists are indeed just that - Artists - and they can converse beautifully about philosophy. They have interesting wives and funny children. They know a vast amount more than I do about art history and they run their own businesses with great skill. Best of all, to my great delight, my tatooist Brian did not even blink a surprised eye at seeing my sixty-two-year-old self sitting in his chair asking quite pertly if he did William Morris designs. It turns out he did! I will never see tattoo artists the same again because my son beckoned me into the unknown.
I have watched my children jump out of planes and filmed it - albeit screaming loudly all the while they were falling. I have experienced a sense deprivation tank where I floated in the dark for an hour and never felt more alive or physically relaxed. My daughter made me hike hard trails and I found that indeed I could do it. I have read books and entertained ideas that I would have been afraid to go near except for my children. In the end, they show you the beauty you might have missed the first time around and in a very real way you get a new lease on life by sharing their dreams. Nowhere did I find this more evident than when I spent eight glorious days in a semi, long-haul trucking.
Trucking was something my left-brained philosopher son took up as a challenge for a year after college. He wanted to know what it felt like to be a physically skilled workman, the type of man he truly admired. Initially, I was flummoxed. This is a son who writes poetry and reads about twenty books a week, who delves into political theory and writes science-fiction stories. But he welcomed the challenge, and nine months later, on Thanksgiving Day , he asked me to come along and do the same. Mind you, I once again had my preconceived notions. Truckers were all American flag do-rags, wolf tee shirts, Camel filter-less cigarettes, full beards, and industrial-sized toolboxes. They drank no-nonsense coffee—black, and very thick. Cream was not an option. They had never heard of an iron. I was dubious but, “You’ll love it, Mom,” the son promised. And he was… correct.
My first surprise was dawn. How often do we experience the first rays of dawn in a darkened sky? Truckers do. Every single day on the road. They see the sun’s first rays over Indiana fields wet with dew, over cities silhouetted with smokestacks. They know, as Achilles knew, the beauty of a “rosy fingered dawn.” One of the most singular experiences I have had to date is praying Lauds in the cab of a semi, with my son in the driver’s seat, my feet up near the dash to warm them as I looked out on a Nebraska field aflame with sunrise. The words of the liturgy, “Dawn finds me ready to welcome you, my God…” panned out before me in living color. Awe does not even begin to define that experience.
Truckers are patient or learn to be over time. Nothing is instant in trucking. You must drive mile upon mile, hour after hour, to get to each destination. You need to wait for people to unload your truck, which is a surprisingly long wait, I found. You wait out sudden blizzards in the bosom of small, out of the way towns. You take long urban hikes just to get dinner, as semi-trucks are not allowed in most city parking lots. There is no instant gratification in trucking. You have to wait, and that is that. What a great lesson this is - that you are not in as much control as you thought.
Truck stops reveal much about the Trucker. For instance, I found to my absolute delight that they are quite civilized when it comes to coffee. Sure, they like it black, but they also like it with cream – real half and half! Beef jerky sits quite contentedly next to the bananas and fruit cups by the cash register. The showers are gleaming white with thick blue towels warmed near the heating vent. There are vases of seasonal flowers sitting quite nicely on the sinks. The Victorian in me could ask for nothing more. There are also poignant signs of the harder sides of trucking in the form of a section completely devoted to children’s toys and nick-nacks. This made me acutely aware of the sacrifices a trucker makes in not seeing his children perhaps for days. Some good-hearted lady set up that little island of toys so he could remember his kids and bring them home birthday presents or Christmas presents from the road. And the truck stop ladies ARE good hearted. They know the regulars, and greet them with smiles and banter. They exchange horror stories of icy roads and near escapes with the appropriate ooohs and ahhhs. They are like the smiling moms waiting for tales at the end of the day’s road.
Truckers for the most part are jolly and polite. I have not had doors opened for me as much as I did on that trucking journey. I was called “dear” and “ma’am” often, and it made me feel warm - it’s genuine, coming from a trucker’s lips. So, what about the rumored wolf tee shirts? Well, yes, they exist - and I admit I am now the proud owner of one. They make sense now. Truckers see so much of nature on their travels. They learn to love the wide, wild open spaces they travel through each day. A wolf would be a great reminder to them of that beautiful freedom that is their unique experience. Who would not want to hold on to that feeling in whatever way they could?
Truckers are patriotic. Every single restaurant sports an American flag somewhere in its décor. Truckers know this country intimately. They learn to love the flat lands of Kansas, the mountains of Wyoming, the prairies of Nebraska. They discover the beauty of West Virginian mountains at sunset and glimpse the Great Lakes and ocean views. The vast grandeur of our country must seep into them more than in most of us. They want to protect it, to hold it close to their hearts. They will defend our way of life with a singular wisdom all their own. Once in a small café, the very British royal wedding of Prince William and Kate was being televised on the wall. One old trucker piped up: “What’s all the hullaballoo? Didn’t we fight a revolution to get rid of them?” Hmm. He had a point. I felt prouder to be an American when among the truckers.
Eventually, the road turned to home and my adventure came to an end. My son dropped me off and traveled on to Oklahoma with a sixteen-ton load of Twizzlers in the back of his semi. I regretfully descended from my singular perch in the cab filled with thoughts to ruminate over in the next few weeks. My life was indeed broadened to the better. I thanked God for truckers and for my children. I tucked Khaki Pants Man way in the back of a drawer in my mind and smiled that now I was a proud truckin’ mama who sported a William Morris tattoo, and no one could deny it. I was as legit as my wolf tee shirt!
So, all this is to say, let your kids take you into their dreams and you will be amazed. You will be astonished at the “places you will go” before you reach the end of the road. And here is where I sign off. “Ten four, good buddy,” I believe is the appropriate phrase.
This essay first appeared at Dappled Things magazine.
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