Mom gave me a block of cheddar cheese and a sleeve of Fig Newtons when I left home for California in August of 1983. Apparently back then, when crossing the country alone in an unreliable foreign car, it wasn’t money, a map or even an old blanket, but foodstuffs from home rolled up in a paper bag that really said you care.
The Fiat station wagon with the fake wood side panels rattled like a rusty birdcage as I deposited the last of my albums inside and slammed the hatchback. Mom was waiting for me on the sidewalk in her faded yellow zip-up robe, arms crossed at her stomach. She hunched a bit like she ate something bad. To her credit she had dragged herself out of bed at dawn for my farewell to Michigan, an undeniable feat for someone who raised eight kids and liked to stay up late smoking Kents, drinking red wine and writing letters to cousins in Wisconsin.
Despite being just over five feet tall, my mother was a warrior, a fighter you didn’t cross. She once killed a snake with one whack of a hoe while balancing a child on her hip. She could deliver sermons worthy of any Catholic priest from the Kalamazoo diocese and for twice as long. She could hold a grudge for years, if not decades. But now Mom’s eyes, normally narrowed in skepticism, were wide and watery as a baby seal’s. She was weeping for me, her sixth child, the quiet daughter, the untalented one, the one for whom no expectations were ever expected by anyone. Even me.
I could have left already. The sun was rising through the neighbor’s maple tree, the one Mom hated, the one with leaves as big as plates. I was politely standing before the woman who tortured me for the past three months about my meager plans to leave for LA. The woman who railed about my quitting the radio station. The woman who would not let me forget that the Fiat was really her car even though she sold it to me for four hundred dollars the year before.
Our family did not embrace physical affection, especially back in the ‘80s, before people coast to coast started hugging each other like Mafiosi. Growing up, any affection from Mom stopped when my little sister Kitty arrived home from the hospital. I was seven then and didn’t get much more than a pat on the back after that. So when I left home there were no hugs or kisses expected. Mom stood still. I shifted around.
“Someone from WHFB called the house yesterday asking for you,” she said. “He said there is a job opening. You could live at home and work right in town.”
Much was wrong with that horrifying suggestion, but instead of insisting I’d never want to live at home again, I flailed my arms in the direction of the stuffed yellow car. “But I’m all packed.”
She took a step forward and concocted another argument. “But Mims Dear, what will you do at Christmas? All alone?”
“I’m not worried about it Mom,” I said, slowly inching to the car.
Now following me down the driveway, she gave it another try. Desperation gripped her face. “But what if you fail?”
I wanted to laugh it was so absurd. “Would that be so terrible?”
Seeing my mother in tears was unusual but the idea of failure was not. Failure I have known since 7th-grade gym, 8th-grade gym, high school gym entirely, 10th-grade geometry, college boys from Bay City, Econ 101 and the teaching assistant from English Comp 167. Failure was my normal. I expected it. To Mom it was unacceptable. Failure could ruin social standings, job opportunities, dating prospects, marriage proposals, and God forbid, your reputation. Avoiding failure was so important to both my parents they legally changed my name from Martine to Miriam on the advice of Dad’s hot-shot boss who came to dinner one night in 1960. I was six months old. The family had just moved to Michigan for Dad’s new job. He must have been under a lot of pressure. The unfortunate name change was not meant to bolster a child into life, but to spare me a lifetime of Dean Martin martini jokes and spare them the debilitation of having a daughter who might be called Tina.
Instead of enjoying the je ne sais quoi of a French name, I grew up with one so Biblical no one in the family used it. By the time I was in first grade at Brown School, I still had no idea I was anyone but Mimi. One day Mrs. Cleveland said “Write your real name on your paper. Mimi is not your real name.” Confusion buzzed my brain and lit my cheeks on fire. How did old Mrs. Cleveland know my name and I didn’t?
Running home from the bus stop I imagined a name like Cathy or Susie, regular 1965 stuff. I was excited. My sisters had pretty girl names: Mary, Michelle, Elisa, Catherine and Christiane. That afternoon Mom sat me down at the kitchen counter and told me the genesis of the name Miriam, from historic Bible story to fateful dinner party. It was a heavy name for someone just six years old. Why was I being punished?
Mom taught me how to spell Miriam and produced an official green replacement birth certificate from the county courthouse which I immediately hid in my dresser drawer under my anklets. No cute birth certificate with footprints for me. The entire miserable experience fueled my adoption fantasy for years in which I’m the only child of rich, loving parents who buy me pretty clothes, give me my own bedroom with a canopy bed and call me Candy.
One day after school I was shuffling through eighth grade when my record player had just crackled through my favorite John Denver album for the millionth time and I realized I could not live another day without music ruling my life. I strode to the kitchen, boosted by thirteen-year-old girl hormones and the power of pop music. Standing next to the stove I confided to Mom my dream of being the female version of John Denver, complete with guitar and mountain cabin.
Without looking up from the spaghetti she was breaking into boiling water, she imploded. “Do not even think about becoming a musician. Besides, you have no talent.”
I backed away and slid down the hall to the tiny blue bedroom I shared with Elisa, swishing as quietly as I could in my pink corduroy bell bottoms, the ones I bought with babysitting money, the ones that matched the purple heart I drew on my right cheek in honor of Elton John and Glitter Rock. The subject never came up again.
After that, I practiced my flute and suffered through piano lessons, but for no purpose beyond satisfying my parents and keeping the peace. For a few years, there was a rebellious dream of learning sound-mixing and going on the road with a rock band. This idea I lifted from an advertisement in the Whole Earth Catalog. It coincided nicely with my plan to run away to San Francisco, get my own apartment with a porch and hang some glass Chinese wind chimes, the kind they sold at the dime store.
My senior year in high school my parents suddenly took an interest in my life, sharing with me their ideas for my so-called career. Dad suggested I become a stewardess. “They look like they’re having fun!” Mom thought the Navy was perfect for her listless daughter. She was a WAVE in Pensacola during WWII and apparently had the time of her life despite the war. “It will give your life some structure.”
Neither of them suggested going away to college but pushed the community college instead.
Both were surprised when the University of Michigan sent me an admittance letter. “Must be because your sisters and brother already go there,” said Mom as she explained away the academic anomaly. Maybe it was true. I didn’t care. Then Michigan State also sent an admittance letter, but I decided against it because it has a huge campus and would require more walking.
The summer after my freshman year, Dad invited me along on a short business trip to Champaign. He graduated from the University of Illinois and got his start in advertising down there and still knew plenty of large farming businesses around the state.
“Put a dress on,” he said standing in the bedroom door. “You’re coming with me today.”
I didn’t own a dress. I was in college. So I zipped myself into a tight blue corduroy skirt and was pulling up some coordinated knee socks when Dad appeared in the doorway, appalled. “For God’s sake, put on some nylons!” I didn’t own nylons. I was in college.
Four hours later we were peering over Reuben sandwiches the size of footballs at a dinner with Dad’s client, a sweat-braised farmer who brought along his tall, blond son who would someday inherit the family chicken farm. “This is my son Bobby,” the farmer says, laying a baseball mitt of a hand on his boy’s shoulder. “He just graduated from the University of Illinois.” Bobby tilted his head in polite embarrassment and fluttered sun bleached eyelashes. In an instant, I knew what was going on. And it explained the nylons. This trip was not part of a plan to show Mimi a side of the advertising business. It was my parents’ plan to marry off their drifting daughter to a rich farmer.
The ride home was long and quiet as my anger turned to sadness. Cornfields threaded the prairie together into hours and miles of monotony. Then the blue sky turned a shade of orangey-pink, my favorite. As the sun drooped down I distracted myself with its beauty before we turned east to round Lake Michigan and head toward home.
A year later I chose my college major: Broadcasting/Film. Since my parents wouldn’t pay for music school I opted for the thrill of seeing my name scrawled across the big screen for producing the adaptation of my poignant best-selling book, the one that pushed my young readers to sob into their pillows for days. It would have to do. After graduation and a year of working on the radio, I decided to move to LA.
If it had been fifteen years earlier I would be driving an orange VW van to San Francisco for some acid and a Grateful Dead concert. In comparison, how could I not be way ahead? LA’s famous greed was in full swing and jobs were plentiful. If anything was going to fail it would be the car, but I had $800 and a can of Fix-A-Flat. I was prepared. Failure would have to wait.
Two days later I was crawling across Nebraska in 112-degree heat, slugging lemonade and bringing in the sweat pooling under my legs. My co-pilot, the block of cheese, had separated and curdled on the seat next to me. Five hours later we slid off the prairie and into an avalanche of green clouds that barreled down I-70 from the foothills above Denver.
A few miles east of the Continental Divide in the roiling guts of the storm, the little yellow car grew weary. It was something about rolling the wheels, running the wipers and driving uphill at the same time. My student-driver pace of 55 miles an hour slipped to 35, then 25 and then — nothing. If only we had made it to the Eisenhower Tunnel I could have floated all the way to Grand Junction on a river of rain.
While I waited at the side of the road, the temperature dropped at least 30 degrees. I shimmied into a pair of Levi’s, fully expecting a cop or trucker to stop at any moment. But there I sat with blinkers on as the car shuddered with each stampede of semi trucks that whizzed by. No one stopped. Bullets of rain hit the roof for an hour and a half before I realized I had to do something.
Hitchhiking was a heart-pounding success. Within a minute of sticking my thumb out a burly Ford Bronco roared up, handsome mountain man at the wheel. “You need a lift? I’m going as far as Silverthorne.”
As luck would have it, I was going anywhere he was going. I peeked into his car. There was a mug on the dashboard and whiskey on his breath. A confident commuter. He made me miss the farm boys I left behind in Michigan who could maneuver a car the size of a corn combine through a foot of snow at 70 miles an hour with a beer between their legs and a dead deer strapped to the roof. If this guy could drink and drive in this rain he must be a pretty good driver. I hopped in, relaxing deep into the seat which exhaled a perfume of cigarettes and aftershave.
The feeling of actual horsepower is comforting to us Fiat owners. We roared up the mountain, through the tunnel and into the next town, achieving in minutes what my car had been trying to do all afternoon. The mountain man offered to put me up for the night. Tempting, but after driving all day I had no energy left in case I had to fight him off. “Oh no thanks, I’ll just get a room,” I said in a tone I hadn’t heard myself use before, as if I had gotten many rooms many times before from travels with a temperamental vehicle.
He deposited me at the gas station next to the Super 8 motel and drove off with a casual hand out the window. “Don’t leave,” I whispered to myself. If only I was brave enough to let him help me more.
The green wooden bench outside the gas station was wet where the paint had peeled away, but I sat there anyway, feeling it soak through my jeans. The clouds broke apart and the sun began melting the events of the day from my thoughts. Water dripped from gushing gutters into a puddle in the gravel parking lot. The station guy droned in the background as he called around for a tow truck. Traffic from down the street echoed in the wetness. Life was resuming after the storm and with a cool mountain evening approaching, I felt fall waiting in the pines.
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