Here’s a quiz for you: Your senior-in-high-school daughter asks if you would mind accompanying her class on the Advanced Placement Literature field trip to the big city, an all-day spin session through art galleries, cupcake factories, book stores, art museums and a play. You will be permitted to eat at scheduled points throughout the day and into the night. Driving a carload of teenagers is required, and sitting down to rest is optional. Your response is:
(a) I’ve decided that I’m tired of letting the dogs in and out all day and am taking a lesson in taxidermy;
(b) I need to be home for the lawnmower guy to show him all the spots he missed last week;
(c) Sorry, that day is full to the hilt. I have to oversee the septic pump extraction. It’s been a few years, so that’ll consume my every minute;
(d) OMG! Does this mean that you still recognize that I am your mother and would agree to be in the same room with me in front of your classmates? Is it too late for me to say yes? Where do I sign? Does the teacher need my birth certificate?
For the sake of this story, I’m hoping you’ve opted for choice (d). If not, it’s up to you whether you would like to continue reading.
To start off, you should know that I am a field trip veteran, and have been ever since Harrison was in pre-school. I’m not sure if this stems from recognition of my sparkling wit and enjoyable company, or the cold hard fact that we own a beast of a car, a Chevy Surburban nicknamed “The Great White Buffalo.” Note that this name was acquired en route during its last lengthy field outing exploring the wilds of Yellowstone National Park. The vehicle is as large as a mastodon, is white and I hate it because it’s hell on wheels to park. The nickname “Great White Elephant” would be more appropriate, except for the problem of spotting elephants around Old Faithful. Buffaloes dot that western landscape; hence they’ve proclaimed naming rights.
I had taken a previous voyage á Suburban, with Harrison; we, along with the other members of three fifth-grade classes, explored Colorado from end to end in 1200 miles. Sleeping arrangements were primitive, particularly for a JAP (aka, “Jewish American Princess”) who excels at making reservations in hotels which are unique. We were to bunk down in middle or high school gymnasiums; the accommodations offer plenty of space, but my brother-in-law, learning of the plan, pointed out that I might have a problem with the special effects.
“What do you mean by that?” I’d asked him, confused.
“It’s basic, Emily,” my brother-in-law replied. “You’re going to be sleeping in a gym. There’s no way to turn off the lights.”
I blanched. I’m one of those moles who requires blackout curtains in order to sleep. As much as I looked forward to traipsing all over Colorado (we were going to visit Bent’s Fort and Mesa Verde, after all!) this posed a difficulty.
“If I were you,” he suggested, “I’d bring a pop-up tent. Then you’re covered.”
I thought this was a brilliant idea, and early the next morning reported for duty with Suburban, ten-year-old child, tent, air mattress and suitcase weighing 60 pounds. And my Indiana Jones hat, purchased at DisneyWorld. I didn’t have to worry about airline weight restrictions, so I packed everything. Just because I would be trekking through ancient anthropological habitats didn’t mean I couldn’t be fashionable. I was given the “Kitchen Sink” award on that trip.
It turned out fine. There were several fathers, also chaperones on the trip, who took turns lugging my suitcase and other assorted “camping” gear. But, I’d decided for the next go-round, with Isabelle, that I would drag my own equipment. This JAP could go camping in gymnasiums and haul her own crap!
So, I stuffed everything for the Yellowstone trip into a large duffle bag. As I slung it into the back of the soon-to-be-labeled Great White Buffalo, something in my neck cracked. I ignored it. I was one tough JAP.
Break of dawn the next morning, I tried to get out of bed but it felt like someone had driven a Phillips screwdriver into my neck. Wavelets of pain emanated from all five points of an invisible wound, sending needles down my spine.
“Can you help me put on my turtleneck?” I asked Dr. K meekly. Suspicious, he asked why.
“Because I can’t turn my head to the right.” I decided it was best to give him a straightforward answer. Why mince words?
“That’ll be an interesting concept, trying to change lanes in traffic,” he pointed out.
“I’ll figure it out!” I insisted. “Isabelle is depending on me to be there! She’s asked me to go! I can’t back out now. Plus,” I explained, “I’m driving overflow. They need me to transport five kids. They can’t just strap them to the roof of the bus!” He groaned, but helped me back out of the driveway. Luckily, it was early enough in the morning that I didn’t need to look out for traffic.
As I pulled up to the school, my partner in crime, Pére Chestnut, flagged me down. I’d nearly missed him standing there on the sidewalk.
“You don’t get to ride shotgun,” I informed him. He began to pout, protesting that he wouldn’t sit in the back seat with the kids, but I interrupted. “You’ve got to drive the beast, I can’t move my head.”
We developed a plan. Pére Chestnut drove the monster, and massaged my neck. Every time he accelerated, or braked, I yelped, and he panicked a bit. We called his brother, a chiropractor down in Texas, to get advice, who said to continue with the massage. I think he called it “manipulation,” or some such rot. And then, hours later, miles into Wyoming, there was another crack in my neck. Pére Chestnut and I both heard it.
“Wow. . .” I mused. “That was interesting.” The sharp pain was gone, to be replaced by muscle spasms, letting my body know where I’d pushed the limit. Another mom on the trip, a family practice doc, found a miracle drug in her kit, Skelaxin. After a day or so, I was back on track.
As I lay in my tent that first evening, flat on my back, unable to turn over, afraid of falling off the air mattress into the abyss of gym floor, Isabelle peeked inside the tent flaps.
“I know you’re in a lot of pain,” she told me. “But, it means the world to me that you’re here. . .”
That was the last time I went on a school field trip. It wasn’t that I had not been invited back since that week in May 2005; the reality is that as the kids hit middle school, excursions tended to be me in a car alone, following them around the state to watch them perform in a variety of sporting events. The focus of shepherding children through zoos and museums devolved into me, sitting on the sidelines, watching them perform athletic feats.
So, you see, the Yellowstone trip had been the last; I hadn’t expected any more. It was progression, and simply that. So when I was invited to go to Denver to tour art galleries, of course I said yes!
And then, it rained.
This isn’t a problem, if the plan is to visit art museums and watch a play. It becomes an enormous problem if your daughter is scheduled for a tennis match the day before said field trip, which is rained out, and then rescheduled for the next day.
That is when that awful “C” word enters the vocabulary: we all must make choices in our lives. An obligation is binding, whether to your tennis team, or to the teacher to whom you’d promised you would be there to drive kids to Denver to visit art galleries. Isabelle went to her rescheduled tennis match, and I drove her classmates on an educational expedition, without my daughter. She won her match and did not disappoint teammates. I ventured out in the world, learned new things, and shared the experience with all ages.
My friend Susan recently emailed me a poem entitled, Monet Refuses the Operation, by Lisel Mueller.
Doctor, you say there are no haloes
around the streetlights in Paris
and what I see is an aberration
caused by old age, an affliction.
I tell you it has taken me all my life
to arrive at the vision of gas lamps as angels,
to soften and blur and finally banish
the edges you regret I don’t see,
to learn that the line I called the horizon
does not exist and sky and water,
so long apart, are the same state of being. . ..
From “Monet Refuses the Operation”, Lisel Mueller, Second Language. Copyright © 1996 by Lisel Mueller.
Out of disappointment, comes novel experience. Adherence to an obligation need not bring negativity; rather, see the world as imperfect, and revel in its flawed beauty. A cataract is mere cloudy opaqueness; it need not obscure your vision of how you believe things should be.
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