Follow the adventure from the beginning

Monday, March 2, 2009

Rockabye Sally: Part Three

Final days prior departure to Europe

I am jammed into an interstate ditch; trapped safely in the passenger seat of my nearly overturned Mustang. I am frightened and turned around. The car faces oncoming traffic, and my hands are shaking, face white, feet cold. I am very thankful to be alive. To my left, an icy forest. To my right, northbound lanes on I-69 skate their way toward Big Cabin, Oklahoma. Ask me how I got here and I’ll tell you it’s a whirlwind – a twister of icy skies, Bin Laden family secrets, Chinese New Year blessings, and ancient Cherokee curses. And then I’ll tell you that it’s just one more piece to this giant 25-year-old puzzle that I am trying to solve.



“Looks like we’ll ride barely ahead of the winter storm belt’s northern edge,” my mother assures me. We stare at the TV screen together inside my grandfather’s Texas ranch, sipping on our morning coffee, slowly chewing a moist piece of pumpkin bread. I tell her that I agree, and that I’m anxious to get as far as we can today – maybe even reach Springfield, Missouri. A tough 14-hour drive sprawls before us.

Before we go anywhere, however, I have an appointment with Al Garcia. He’s the body shop manager at Varsity Ford on Highway 6, and he’s promised to jerry-rig the driver side door of my car – the one that’d been broken into just a few days before in Austin. If done properly, the job should take four to five business days, but I’ve got a plane to catch in Pittsburgh, so there’s no time for a proper repair.

Al tells us that it will be a few minutes while he and his crew perform this makeshift surgery. As we wait in the lobby entrance, I hear the body shop employees singing along with an all too familiar voice. It’s Chente, my 69-year-old Mexican Sinatra. Two workers simultaneously let out a melodious cry into the morning warmth. It’s a sad cry, like a Johnny Cash caw only more guttural. Mexicans remedy this call with a cold gulp of tequila chased by one long swallow of an icy beer. I know this music very well. It penetrates me, and once more I reach toward something familiar, toward the past four years, until Al Garcia pulls me back.

“Ms. Waller?” he leans his head and shoulders around the corner from inside the workroom. “Your car is ready.”

I look her over. Of course she’s still slightly bruised, but the repair is good enough to get us home. I ask him about the paper work I’ll need to fill out. I know how car dealerships work. One hour of time in the body shop equates to approximately $102.54 in billable services.

“Don’t worry about it m’am. It’s our pleasure to help.” I hear another boy join the chorus in the back of the shop, and I quickly recall that this is not the first time (nor will it be the last) that Mexico finds its own way to surprise me and watch over my journey. Though I am unaware of it at this moment, Al Garcia is the first of many angels that will fly by my side today.

First gear. Second gear. Third. And we’re off.

By the time we get to McAllister, Texas, up toward the Oklahoma line, the winter weather front begins to kick in. Grey skies, along with cold, rainy flurries. We listen to books on tape to pass the time; a fascinating memoir by Carmen Bin Laden about her struggle to divorce one of Osama’s 29 brothers, Islam, and escape Saudi Arabia’s strangling grasp. 

I listen to Carmen’s story about her gradual, almost unperceivable slip into cultural and religious imprisonment. She bravely recounts her experiences, what it was like to live inside the most elite Bin Laden compounds in Saudi Arabia – a place where men count women as another expensive possession to be traded and sold, but never loved. I learn about Saudi women’s thirst for affection and their tendency to turn toward their husband’s other wives to attain this physical comfort. Unnatural lesbians acting under unnatural circumstances.

I listen to this story just as I am stretching into the consequences of my own decisions. Quit job: check. Leave Mexico: check. Abandon stability: check. Say goodbye to friends and boyfriend: check. I travel north with Carmen Bin Laden: two women exploring the enormous depths of their own freedom.

It’s dark now. After eight hours driving I start to imagine strange lines on the road. I see buildings where there are none, and realize it’s time for me to rest my eyes against the incessant winter rain. I ask my mother for help. We pull over and as we change seats, I notice that the car’s antennae is bent backward, frozen solid with a thick layer of ice. I remember what the man at the last gas station said.

“Where ya headed?” he noses into my travel plans. I shake with cold while pumping the gas, my fingers red and momentarily arthritic.

“Up north toward the I-69/I-44 exchange to Springfield.” I say.

“Oh, you’re not gonna make it that far…”

“Oh really? What’ve you heard?” I’m interested now.

“That it’s an excellent day to go fishing.”

“What?” I’m confused.

“Yeah, that it’s fine weather for ice fishing,” he clarifies. I quietly observe that the last body of water I’d seen was back where the Rio Grande is supposed to flow, far to our south, at the Texas – Mexico border.

Mother takes over driving. She revs the engine to feel out the clutch and I imagine the sound of her first car; a metallic, pine green ’78 Camaro – an “eat my dust, mine are bigger than your’s” kind of car. I would have loved to see her pull through campus, shades on, hair down, hot rod woman conquering year 25.


The ancient Indian curse I’m going to tell you about now is a thirty-second deal, and this is how a good tall tale begins. In the half minute it takes my mother and I to change seats, the rain thickens. It goes from chicken noodle soup to a cold cream of tomato. The ancient spirits urge this to happen at least once a year, somewhere in Oklahoma, near Cherokee reservation land. For as much snow as I’ve seen, tasted, and sledded on in my life, I have never lived through its power in the American mid-west, and the Cherokee curse was not about to let that continue.


About ten minutes down the road, Mom hits a fish tail and starts to breathe fast and heavy. She pulls out of it quickly, expert toboggan driver meets concrete racecourse, but we both agree: it’s time to find a place to pull off and stay the night. The Missouri line will have to wait until tomorrow.

Sooner than we can find shelter, however, Mom hits a second ice patch. This one pushes us forward, faster than before. We skid onto a bridge, and in an instant – before we can scream, or say “shit,” or get scared – we are Kristi Yamaguchi in the middle of a triple axel, about to break both our ankles on the way down. We ricochet in toward the middle concrete divider, sliding out of control. We want to hit the barrier though – it’d keep us from tumbling over the edge of the bridge, into icy waters. Great weather for fishing. Mother is desperately turning the wheel, no brakes – they only make matters worse on ice – and now we’re spinning 360 degrees, facing oncoming traffic, headed for the ditch past the bridge, skating backwards at 40 mph. Still no screams. Only heavy whew’s and hmm’s as we make a silent landing in an icy drainage canal.

Though the ditch cradles our fall, Sally baby lulled to an icy still, I am far from the soft comfort of an evening bedtime. I look over and see Mom’s white face traced by a shadow that lines her frozen expression. Today is one of the first times I am pushed outside her womb, January 26, 2009. This moment forces me to understand that the protective tissue that gave me life before birth actually spans much more than nine quick months of pregnancy. In fact, it stretches for more than 25 years, and is full of encouragement and doctors’ visits, prying questions, report cards, and favorite birthday cakes. Perhaps we can only fully measure the depth of our mothers’ wombs once we personally witness their humanity, a very real fear, a battle against cancer, or maybe even once we have a baby of our own. In any case, the entirety of the situation is summed up into our simple and quiet set of mantras, “oh my,” we keep repeating, “hmm…,” “yes, we’re okay,” one more time, “myyy.”

Larry Hayes’ headlights shining right into our eyes come as a bit of a surprise, and a lot of relief. He slides his F-250 to the side of the road, very nearly joining us in the ditch, and steps outside his truck rather slowly – so slowly that we’re not sure if he’s taking the time to grab a weapon or a flashlight. I ask my mother if I should roll down my window. She is still apologizing for the accident; says she really tried to get us out of the spin. I put my hand on her thigh and tell her she saved my life. She is much more of a cowgirl than I am, and I know she was the one to face this riding challenge for a reason. I would have steered away from the spin, not into it, putting us at approximately the bottom of a river.  

“Everyone alright in here?” Larry shines his light through the cracked window against our ghost skin.

“Yeah, just a little shook up,” my mother says. Larry tells us he’s a deputy sheriff from the county over, he’s out delivering propane to shut-ins, and asks us if we think we can get Sally back on the highway. Mother gives it a try. Her hands are shaking. So are mine. The tires spin out against the ice. We trade seats, wading through grainy slush so I can try. No luck. Sally’s not going anywhere tonight.

“Well, I’can get you up to the Super 8, three miles down the road, but what I don’t want to do is leave you ladies out here much longer. The semi’s are gonna run me off the road, and it’s a mighty long walk fer the both of you in this kind of cold.” I look at Mom with question mark eyes. She silently affirms by grabbing her purse.

“Better take what you need,” Larry warns. “This storm isn’t gonna quit anytime soon. Grab what you can and we’ll throw it in the truck.” In all my haste, I only take my purse. Mother grabs a canvas tote. And we’re off. Goodnight, Sally. See you when the ice lets up.

We’re lucky to get one of the last available rooms at the Super 8. We tell them we hitchhiked in and they ask us if we own the abandoned black Mustang – police have already radioed it in. After crawling across an icy parking lot to reach our room, Mother and I take an inventory of what we’ve managed to bring from the car. I pull out my wallet – $3.47. Mom pulls out a cell phone charger but can’t find her handset. I have no toothbrush. Mom struggles to find her blood pressure medication. And then I notice her canvas bag.

“Whatcha got there?” I ask, hoping for an extra t-shirt, maybe some socks. She opens the cloth handles and pulls out something so unexpected, so completely absurd, that I’m almost sure you won’t believe what I’m about to tell you. Even if I offered to pay you a million dollars, I bet you’d never guess that my mother lifts out a giant, head-size, Chinese grapefruit. It’s true. We’re stranded in an ice storm. No clothes, no toothbrush, no money (my mother left her credit card at a restaurant in Houston, and all my money is rolled up in an international wire transfer somewhere between Monterrey and Pittsburgh). But at least we have a soccer ball sized source of vitamin C (to learn more about this grapefruit, please see footnote D).

I wish we had time to sit around a campfire. We could share a warm whisky, and I’d tell you many stories about the subsequent 55 hours of solid ice and immobility in Oklahoma. I’d tell you about the tow truck’s struggle to find the car next morning. About how we thought somebody had stolen it and then found out it had just been buried in snow and ice. I’d tell you about a Dallas head fur woman who prays a “hedge of protection” over all of northeastern Oklahoma at the Super 8’s bagel breakfast. We could laugh about the best (under any other circumstance, worst) Reuben sandwich I was finally able to order at the neighboring truck stop, after surviving 36 hours on snickers bars and potato chips. Or I could tell you in all seriousness about Middle American hospitality, do unto others as you would have others do unto you. But these stories will have to come another day. I’ve got a plane to catch, and that one-way ticket is a nonrefundable trip – my reservation for a growing pains journey.



Footnote D: We are in the Hong Kong Super Market, back in Houston’s Chinatown, with my mother’s brother, David, and his Chinese wife, Mai (pronounced My-Oh-Mai!). They have graciously invited us to spend the day with them to celebrate Chinese New Year, together with Aunt Mai’s family.

We mosey around the produce section. Discount seedless grapes, oversize roots, spoiled heads of lettuce, pickled everything. Sweet smells, sour smells, rotten smells. Next aisle contains bags of shredded dry eel, salted fish skin, chile powder, garlic, and garbage bags full of salt.

The store is wild and full. People running last minute New Year’s errands. Kids dressed in bright red, the color for prosperity and good luck. It’s tradition to give specific gifts to loved ones as a way to bless them with prosperity for the coming year. Aunt Mai and Uncle David give me a beautiful red envelope, decorated with a glittery Buddha on the front. Inside I find $8. A perfect number destined only for unmarried women in the family. My mother receives a gift basket wrapped in shiny red cellophane. Glittery ribbons, nuts, another Buddha envelope, and at the center of the basket – a giant, Chinese grapefruit bought specially from the Hong Kong Market, a sacred symbol of positivity and good fortune. Blessings and prosperity for the start of a new year.  

1 comment:

  1. I prepared with enough time and a warm soup to read your post. You almost made me bring out a tear with the pushing-out-of-your-mother's-womb paragraph. What a nice way to put it. I loved it.

    Hope you are enjoying every part of your European experience. :) Take care!