Several days before Memorial Day Weekend, I had a tough decision to make. Some of my cousins had planned a birthday party for my last surviving great aunt. The party was to take place the Saturday before Memorial Day at my aunt’s home in North Carolina. Many relatives wondered if I would be driving down, particularly my mother, who wanted to take the ride with me.
Up to the Wednesday before, I had no firm answer. My family had no knowledge of the factors I had to consider, but I wasn’t about to burden them with my worries. The least complicated issue was whether to risk not being around for my son Julien’s birthday, which fell on Memorial Day. If I were to take the trip, there was no telling when I’d be home.
Of course I wanted to see him on his birthday, but I knew that would be complicated with things as they are. I didn’t want unnecessary tumult to detract from the occasion, so I figured I might as well hit the road. As it happened, my cousin Kim and my mom also had birthdays falling on that weekend. Rather than sit at home ruminating about being separated from my son, I chose to celebrate his birthday and that of three other relatives with a legion of family. I made the calls and slapped together an itinerary.
You know what they say about the best laid plans. My mom was to take a bus from New York to a depot near my house. I was at the depot when the bus was scheduled to arrive, but she was not. About an hour later, she called me to ask where I was. Considering I was staring at the bus shelter and no one was there, this puzzled me. It turned out that she had taken a bus to another depot a few miles west of my location. I rolled my eyes, ended the call then got moving.
Once I had mom in the van, she confirmed that my uncle’s ex-wife, mother to one of my first cousins, would be putting us up. I punched her address into Google Maps and we set out for North Carolina. It was already after 3:00 PM, but I was determined to go and I would do the drive with minimal breaks.
We arrived at our host’s condo complex at about 2:30 AM. It was a gated community and the gate was unmanned. Ten yards before the gate was a kiosk where a driver could either punch in a code to open the gate automatically or contact a resident. I found its interface less than intuitive, particularly after 11 hours on the road. We couldn’t get in.
Eventually, another car pulled up behind us. I pulled out of its way. The driver of the next car drove up to the kiosk and punched in a code. When the gate opened, I slid in right behind that car.
The complex was fairly large. It took us a while, but we found our host’s building. She greeted us at the threshold of her condo with the warmest smile, as if it were 11:00 AM on a pleasant Sunday morning.
Before we got all the way inside, our host was offering us refreshments and a meal, even after she informed us that she had to work in the morning. Mom and I were exhausted, so we politely declined, but talk about a port in a storm!
Before our host bade us good night, she let us know that we had the run of the place, no questions asked. Once again, I knew walking in the door that all would go well that weekend.
Though I didn’t get a great night’s sleep, I woke up later that morning with unexpected vigor, no doubt the result of our host’s enthusiastic welcome. I slipped out of the condo, hit the gym, bought an outfit for the party and hooked up with my uncle, our host’s ex-husband. We cruised around in his Caddy and bonded like we haven’t in decades.
When my mom finally got herself together, some time around 3:00 PM, I swung by the condo to pick her up. By this time, our host had returned from work. I thought it was a good time to take her up on her outstanding offer of a meal.
We chatted over supper. The conversation was a terrific ice-breaker. I remember from childhood that she had been a straight shooter and she hadn’t changed. As the hour grew late, mom and I needed to leave for the party, but the three of us agreed to meet for a night cap at the condo later that evening.
The party was everything it should have been, enough to temporarily drive the thought of not being with my son to the shallows of my subconscious. Mom and I mingled, talked, laughed, ate, drank and I ended up dancing until I was absolutely drenched in sweat. Unforgettable. If I didn’t have my van, I could have grabbed my mom, jumped on a cloud and floated back to the condo.
And the party continued once mom and I rejoined our host. Over cocktails, the three of us yukked it up for a good 3 hours, touching on fond and not-so-fond memories, raising children and the aftermath of divorce. Our host also reminded us of her Mississippi roots, the size of her family and how she was raised to treat guests. “Mississippi”, I thought. I know at some point in my life, I’ve got to spend time there.
Mom and I were scheduled to leave the next morning, but I wanted to spend a little time with relatives first. A little time turned into a lot, and before I knew it, night had come round again. Mom and I returned to the condo with the expectation that we would be leaving that night, but our host and my uncle encouraged us to nap first. We were assured there was no need to rush.
I knew that napping before a night drive would be a smart move. I hunkered down on my cousin’s bed (he was away) and fought tooth and nail to fall asleep. I ended up dozing fitfully through 10 episodes of Breaking Bad on Netflix. Once again, I was victimized by anxiety about going home!
Sometime after sunup, I heard our host out in the foyer preparing to leave for work. I made sure to intercept her to say my goodbyes and to express how truly thankful I was for her hospitality, understanding and wisdom.
Though I was once again sailing into troubled waters, I could hang the memory of the last 48 hours around my neck like a talisman to guarantee safe passage to the next port, and maybe beyond.