This summer Maeve and I shared a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity as we piled into the car with my mother — three generations of girls — and hit the open road. Our ultimate destination? A visit with my sister in Arizona. We’d decided to make the journey as memorable as the destination and vowed to drive only two-lane roads or smaller, and take the route we wanted, no matter how indirect.
We left New Jersey on a ferry bound for Delaware, then began to drive the coast: Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia; in Florida we’d hang a right and head through Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas and New Mexico before reaching my sister in Arizona.
On the return trip we’d see the heartland, hopping onto Route 66 as well: New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana and Kentucky; we’d veer south to take in the rolling hills of West Virginia before crossing into Pennsylvania and, with a click of our ruby red shoes and an EZPass swipe or two, we’d be home in New Jersey.
Making this trip with my four-year-old daughter and mother was something special — full of girl power, of course, and many laughs, fun discoveries and extraordinary moments — even some adoption-related.
It wasn’t lost on me that I was sharing an adventure with my daughter — one in which I would watch her grow and experience slices of small-town America — and her first mother B, wasn’t alongside her to take it all in as her everyday mom.
B missed watching Maeve’s eyes widen at the sight of wild ponies on Virginia’s Chincoteague Island. (From here on, all animals spotted from inside the car during the 6,000 miles we covered were immediately deemed “wild” – “Mama! Look, wild cows! Wild sheep!”)
She also missed being evacuated from a North Carolina aquarium when the fire alarms sounded and fire trucks rushed to the scene. After worrying about the fish, Maeve decided they were safe in the water because, after all, water puts out fire.
As we sat in a cart pulled by mules along the charming streets of Charleston, South Carolina, Maeve counted palm trees, delighted in spotting other carriage rides in the distance, and got personal with a mule excitedly licking Maeve’s shirt — seems it had remnants of maple syrup from breakfast! B couldn’t hold Maeve in her arms and giggle about that.
In Georgia, Maeve hit a milestone in the pool – jumping from the side into the water and my nearby arms — without holding a hand. It was me there to gush and shower her with pride.
Maeve ate her first clam and her first fried green tomato on this journey, which also found us on a swamp boat in Louisiana searching for alligators. The next morning’s breakfast featured a zydeco band, a raucous dance floor and such culinary adventures as beignets and boudin. Maeve studied every move being made on the dance floor. I knew how much she wanted to be out there — a day doesn’t pass for her without dancing — but she couldn’t bring herself to do it. I could so easily read her tortured thoughts — a result, of course, of being her everyday mom.
At Texas’ Cadillac Ranch, Maeve stood in awe at the row of cars, colorful with graffiti, planted hood down in the middle of farmland. While tourist folks in the know brought spray paint to leave their mark, this three-generation road trip team, savvy after weeks on the road, had to leave its tag after some improvising. Maeve has learned how to write her name — but I certainly hope that trying to do so in peach nail polish, on an old Cadillac, alongside her mom and grandma, remains one of her childhood memories.
Oklahoma proved surprisingly quirky — from its sort-of famous blue whale, a now-defunct swimming hole still beloved by the locals who fish from it and play inside its two-level belly — to the largest cement totem pole in the world.
There are many stories of adventure to share, and more than a thousand wonderful pictures — but there’s one snapshot I will forever keep with me, and it didn’t happen with a camera around my neck.
In between silly splashes and watching tiny lizards scurry by my sister’s pool, Maeve said matter-of-factly (with some words running together and lost): “Mama? When [B] had me from her belly … couldn’t take care of me … but Gretchen and Thomas … mama and daddy …”
I stared in disbelief. Then, with a swell of excitement, she sing-songed: “and that’s how I found you!”
Four years of sharing her adoption story, keeping B a topic of conversation in our home and photos in her bedroom of them together, and this was the first time Maeve raised the topic herself. It was bittersweet. Happy and relieved we’d been doing our job, ensuring her story is part of her. Sad as she now begins to process her loss.
The adoption wheels of her mind have begun to turn and while I’ll not always be able to read her mind like that morning at the zydeco café or provide every answer to every question, I’m grateful to have the information we do, the contact with B we’ve shared, and hope that holds some of the peace she will seek in the future.
For now, though, we’ll continue to take each adventure — and surprising moments of clarity from a four-year-old — as they come, embracing the quirky places, the surprising finds and the small but oh-so-cherished moments that make up our family’s journey.