Warm sunshine peeked through a slot in the closed blinds of the bedroom, aiming right for my face as if to tell me it’s time to wake. Covers quickly went over my head, yet the sun had done its job and I could sleep no more. So I meandered to the coffee pot, then made my way to the pollen-covered porch to enjoy the perfect spring morning.

My mind has been traveling through some paths I’ve not visited for years as part of the grieving process over the passing of my mom last week. A memory of a special time when we grabbed my mom for a road trip from Florida to Indiana, the purpose of which I can’t remember.


How Far Are We?

Driving through Tennessee, a spurt of spontaneity turned into the most meaningful hours of summer ’98 for me and Laurie, then pre-kids. “Aren’t we close to Knoxville?” I said as she studied the map (remember maps?) from the passenger seat. “Check to see how far out of the way it would take us to visit Jamestown.” She looked at me with that, “Oh, no, here we go again” look, but then told me it would not be too far out of the way at all. That’s why I love her! Though we had a destination, a time constraint, and my mom traveling with us and asleep in the back seat, Laurie said, “It wouldn’t be much out of the way at all.”

Mom’s ailing aunt and uncle lived near Knoxville, and Mom hadn’t seen them for several years … and might never see them again. Wouldn’t this be a nice surprise for her? By the time Mom woke up, we were in Jamestown, Tennessee. Mom was tickled.


The Smell of Biscuits

The next morning, the promised of a home-cooked country breakfast woke us early. Biscuits beckoned … and do they ever know how to cook biscuits in Tennessee! We burred like bees down the hilly country roads at Armathwaite, passing chicken coops built by distant cousins and homes built by other ancestors generations earlier. We passed the Mount Helen Church, built by my great-grandpa Sam Garrett, and the cemetery nearby where he rests today. Then it was down along the Honey Creek Loop to Uncle Clifford’s farm, a farm that has been in the family for at least five generations. In fact, I just learned that my grandfather had given this farm to his cousin — Uncle Clifford.


Going Back in Time

Driving toward the farm was like going back in time, and I was getting younger with every mile. This was the place where I spent my summers tending chickens, and playing in the tall corn or the waterfall nearby. When we pulled up in front of the house, the smell of breakfast made the daydream inescapable — I was 10 years old again.

I had heard that Uncle Clifford and Aunt Ruth were doing well, and when we arrived they didn’t look any different … except that they needed some assistance getting around. We did what all families do — eat and talk. I asked Uncle Clifford about family legends I had heard as a kid, and although they weren’t quite the same as I had remembered them, it was fun hearing from the eldest family patriarch. Now it’s my turn to be “The Keeper of the Legends” for a future generation. I only hope my biscuits are as good.


Holding Back Tears

Time passed, and commitments called. We had to say goodbye … always hard when you know it may be the last time. Tears were shed, hugs were exchanged, glances were loving. We drove back over that winding, family-filled road, knowing we may never drive this way again. Everyone in the car was silent as we replayed the precious moments of our visit with Clifford and Ruth and committed those moments forever to memory. Mile after mile, as we got farther from the farm, I felt my years return. By the time we reached the Interstate, I was just another middle-aged guy, with a tear in the corner of each eye.

We almost didn’t make the detour to see Uncle Clifford and Aunt Ruth. It was a major inconvenience, put us a full day behind schedule, and wasn’t in the plan. But the little voice that whispered us toward Armathwaite made the next few hours the most memorable and meaningful of our trip.

Taking a driving vacation this summer? Follow your heart. Change the plan. Listen to the voices.


Eric Rhoads

PS: I adapted this piece from one I wrote on July 31, 1998. I discovered it in an envelope my mom kept. She kept everything I ever wrote or everything written about me, including an editorial I once wrote called “Listen to Your Mother.”

That was, in fact the last time we ever saw Ruth and Clifford, and the last time we visited the family farm and church. And now my mom is gone too, which makes me especially grateful that we took this detour, and took her on a road trip that year.

We all live very busy lives, where impulsive side trips can be annoying, but looking back, that 24 hours became one of the richest memories of my life. It turns out it was one of the most important things I have ever done. At the time, it was a sudden impulse. I remember thinking … “Not this trip, maybe someday in the future.” Now, a couple of decades later, I can say I’ve never driven that way again. But it’s something I need to do … go see the old farm, and little cousins I played with as a child who are now senior citizens. Take the time. Take the side trips. Grab a family member and take them back to their childhood.

PS2: I’d love to make some new friends and have you join me in the Adirondacks starting June 8 for a week of painting and hanging out together. I’ve made some of my closest friendships as a result of this event.