I am here again, traveling along the same flat road, watching the tall green maples and oaks turn to scrubby, smaller bush and pine. What is it about my primordial need to return to the ocean – the Atlantic Ocean – every summer?
As I breathe in the hot humid New Jersey air, a mixture of dirt, gas, grass, asphalt and salt water, I wonder if it’s just a childhood memory that needs to be rewritten and retold yearly. After all, as a child I crossed the southern hemisphere of New Jersey, traveling from the little town of Pitman to Ocean City at least four or five times a summer. At 1½ hours one-way, that was 15 hours round trip each summer, for 18 years: 270 hours of my childhood spent traveling to and from the Atlantic Ocean.
But it is more than that. It is . . .
“Why is he traveling so closely behind you? How fast are you going?” my mother interrupts my slow, careful thoughts.
“I’m going 70 miles per hour,” I answer defensively. Actually, the speedometer reads 69, but I know that will not satisfy her. On this particular trip, we are traveling alone, my 80-something mother and me, to Ocean City on a gorgeous sparkling 93º Saturday morning. We’re on our way to meet 12 other family members for our annual week-long sojourn.
“That’s too slow,” she responds. “The speed limit is 65. I go at least 75.”
I allow my eyes to leave the road to give my mom a small smile. She is younger than me in so many ways. Always has been, and I’ve always been older than she.
“You convinced me to let you drive my car,” she continues, “so don’t give me that look that says I can’t be a ‘front seat driver.’ ”
I just smile a little wider. We’re enjoying ourselves in her little white convertible. The top is down; the wind is in our hair. I decide to bite my tongue and not tell her I am driving particularly because she insists on driving 80 miles per hour when the speed limit is 65.
I look in the rear view mirror. A big black SUV is barely a foot away from my bumper. I’m in the fast lane and can’t move over to the right lane because of a string of slower cars.
“Back off,” I mumble. I tap my brake lightly, but he doesn’t decelerate.
“Go faster,” my dear mother says. Her short white hair is whipped against her head like a cap. Her tanned legs are crossed comfortably in front of her, showing off light blue short shorts. Her white tank top accentuates toned arms.
“Mom, I can’t go faster, then I’d be right on the bumper of the person in front of me. Besides, I don’t want to go faster.” Why do I feel like the prim and proper old aunt?
She sighs and fidgets for a few more minutes. Finally, I find an opening in the right hand lane, turn on the blinker, and begin to move over.
“Give ‘em the finger,” she demands.
“What? Mom!” I respond in shock.
“Come on, give ‘em the finger,” my pretty, demure mother, great-grandmother of four, insists.
“No, I won’t.” I’m afraid she is going to make me. At my age, I don’t need to give in like I did at 6, or 16, or even 26. I smooth into the right lane and begin to relax until I see my mother push toward me and lean over my lap. She holds her face up high, as high as her five foot two inch frame allows, and she yells to the driver of the SUV passing us, “J E R K,” in a long, loud, reverberating scream. I stare at this woman and then look at the face of the driver as he stares, too, mouth open. He looks hurt, that this small, cute, but older, woman is chastising him so harshly. As he lifts his arms and hands in supplication, I begin to laugh, first gently so I make no sound, and only my stomach rises quickly in and out; then I release myself and laugh until it hurts.
“Why didn’t you give him the finger?” she asks when I finally stop.
“Mom, you are too much,” I answer.
Her expression is surprised, like ‘what did I do?’
I think of the times our differences used to bother me: she was always short, cute, and feminine; I felt too tall, awkward, big. She was the social one; I was the loner. She was assertive; I stood in the background, watching.
“Love you mom,” I say just as a big wheeler passes us noisily. I’m not sure she hears me, but she has a small, secretive smile on her elfin face.