Apart from visiting many members of my extended family in late 2007, to introduce them to my husband and new son (then not-quite-one), I hadn’t really made much effort to connect with them in person (unless I happened to be in Washington DC/Virginia, which wasn’t too far from family I have in Virginia). It wasn’t that I didn’t want to see them, but more that I had other priorities, and I lived in Malaysia, so it was more expensive to make trips to the middle of America. But I moved to California in 2014, and after 3 years in the same country, I could no longer excuse myself from not seeing them. Not when we travelled as far as Indonesia to visit my husband’s family.
But it wasn’t just me feeling guilty about not seeing them that drew me to this adventure. After all, it’s not like my family were begging me to visit (sure, they were glad to have us, but I didn’t have any guilt trips from them along the lines of “Why aren’t you coming to see us?” I was just guilt tripping myself because it had been far too long.)
Following my Mum’s legacy counts for a lot. When I was a kid, she brought my siblings and me to the US three times, in 1991, 1995, and 1998. There were always road trips, though how far we drove depended a lot on where our family was living at the time. 1991’s road trip was the most epic, including almost the entire Western third of the US (Washington, Oregon, California, Idaho, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, Montana, Wyoming, and Colorado). Subsequent trips always included Colorado and Wyoming (because it was cheaper to fly in to Denver and drive to Laramie), and added South Dakota and/or Nebraska (my aunt and cousins who lived in California in 1991 moved to Nebraska after that). These were foundation building experiences, and taught me the importance of seeing my extended family in person.
Eventually, I plan to finish an entry about the process of discovering I’m autistic after my youngest son was diagnosed, but for now I’m just mentioning us being autistic because of its relevance to my decision to take my kids on the road for three weeks. One of the difficulties my son has as a result of being autistic is that it can be hard for him to disrupt his routine and do things he isn’t interested in doing. Or even getting him out of the house sometimes. He’s also not very good at meeting new people most of the time. So my logic told me that taking him on a road trip to visit my family to try and help him out of that pattern would be good. I talked to my new psychologist (the one who confirmed for me my own autism) about what I could do to help him go on this journey with me, and he recommended handheld video games to keep both my kids entertained on the long drives. Considering many of the days involved 8+ hours of driving, this was important.
Looking at my summer schedule, when the kids were off school, I opted to take a break from my main improv troupe, YUM (I wouldn’t have been able to manage the show/rehearsal schedule), and headed off the day after I had a So You Want a Job show, and made sure I would be back in time for my scheduled jury duty (which I didn’t even have to go to, as they didn’t require jurors that day). I had initially planned to drive through multiple states I had never been to but didn’t know anyone in, but after only a few days into the drive, partly as a result of one family member I hoped to see being unavailable, as well as having to pay for accommodation in that town, I decided to change my route home so I could hit El Paso, Texas, and visit my mum’s youngest sister, who had requested we see her once she discovered we were going on this journey. It also meant we’d get free accommodation in two other cities where I knew people who were only too happy to see us. With all the people we visited in three weeks, I only had to pay for accommodation for 7 nights, and with driving a hybrid car that can easily do 600+mi on a tank of gas, it ended up being a pretty affordable journey.
Affordable, that is, money-wise, given my husband’s income. I had unfortunately not prepared myself for the emotionally taxing part of the journey, because I didn’t know I would need to. My mum passed away in May 2005, which means I’d barely seen any of this family since then, if at all (my mum’s sister’s children, I actually hadn’t seen in 19 years, on the last trip my mum took me on). I spend most of my days just getting on with my regular life, looking after my kids and working on whatever creative or household projects I wish to work on. It’s been over 12 years since my mum passed away, so I don’t really think about her too much in my day-to-day life any more.
This road trip made me realise how much I still miss her, and how much I wish she were still alive. How I wished she could have come with us on our journey, and how I wish I could’ve had her doting on my kids like I know she would have loved to do. Several relatives commented on how much I look like my mum. Including my dad’s family in Utah, who I think hadn’t seen her since 1991 (my parents split up between that trip and the next trip, so our subsequent family vacations, we didn’t see as much of my dad’s side of the family). Visiting all these relatives was like a constant reminder of what I no longer have in my life. A reminder of what she instilled in me, with the importance of family. A reminder that my mum was the communication rock in our family, who kept us all connected. The hardest part was visiting my mum’s sister and acknowledging how much we both still missed her. I wanted to spend a lot more time with her, to connect with someone who could tell me all the things about my mum that I never got to learn, but time was limited and the location we were wasn’t really beneficial for that kind of conversation. Plus I didn’t know how to ask. Through her son, I still learned things about my mum that I never knew. About how generous she was, and it made me realise just how much my mum must have sacrificed to give me and my siblings the life she did. A life I feel like I’ve mostly taken for granted.
A few days after we came home, my youngest son woke up in the middle of the night startled to the sound of our housemate’s door opening when he got home late. I went in to his room to calm him down. I explained to him what the noise was and that he shouldn’t worry, it wasn’t someone breaking in (he didn’t know if that’s why he was worried), and then we talked a bit about feelings. I’d been hiding away in my room when I got home that day mostly because I didn’t want anyone to see me crying. And then I’d been thinking about things like “Why is being sad seen as a ‘negative’ emotion?” and “Why do we feel like we have to hide our ‘negative’ emotions?”
So I said to my son, “I’ve been feeling sad.”
“Why?” he asked (this in itself is HUGE because he doesn’t often show interest in talking about what other people want to talk about, but his therapy has been teaching him to ask questions in conversations).
“Because I miss my mum,” I said.
And then he asked, “What’s your favourite thing that your mum did when you were a kid?” And I told him about our family vacations, and he asked me which was my favourite and why, and I told him, “In 1998, because my mum let me help decide what we did, and that led to us going to Disney World in Florida.”
I feel like his therapy is already having some impact on his ability to converse socially, and this conversation was really special to me. My mum didn’t often share her emotions with me and my siblings, and I don’t know if it’s because she thought she was protecting us, or she was scared to feel her pain, or what, but with all the toxic masculinity in the world today, I think finding the ability to share my emotions with my kids will help teach them the empathy they need to not go down the path of toxic masculinity themselves.
I told my son that when my mum was sick, she told me the one thing she wished she could’ve lived for was to see her grandkids. And that she would have loved so much to meet him. It was his birthday this week, and my mum’s sister sent him a birthday card. She doesn’t have grandkids herself, unlike their other sister (who I didn’t see on this trip), so I think that makes a difference in terms of having more time to be able to reach out and connect.
I’m still an emotional roller coaster, and I’m not sure how much of it is a result of this road trip. For a while, there was this sense that I wasn’t living up to my mum’s legacy. She was a pioneer for women in engineering, and the breadwinner of our family. I grew up believing that women should be in the workplace, that we should use our brains and our skills, but I haven’t had a job like that, that paid money, in over a decade. I felt like I was letting her down. Then I started lamenting my autism and blaming that for the reason I haven’t liked the jobs I’ve had and don’t think I could last long in the fields I’m good at just because of that, even if I had the time and inclination to find work. I worried about society’s opinions of my “worth” as a person because my primary job is one I don’t get paid for. Motherhood.
Despite all the subsequent emotional turmoil I’ve seen as a result of this road trip, it was still worth it. I needed this emotional journey, and I needed to reconnect with my family – both my extended family, and my kids. I enjoyed being the one in the driver’s seat for a road trip like this (the only comparable experience I have with driving is when I drove across Australia and back again), and following in my mum’s footsteps. I braved my anxiety of being the only one on the road who could take care of the situation should anything scary happen to the car (and the tire pressure was low TWICE on the first leg of the trip between Oakland and Reno, NV, as well as needing a service halfway through, which meant I was lucky that I’d coincidentally scheduled a service in Oklahoma City). I saw mostly my dad’s family in Utah, Wyoming, and Colorado; saw my mum’s sister’s daughter in Nebraska, breaking that 19 years of not seeing her (I love seeing her updates on Facebook, and she and her husband introduced my oldest son to his new favourite TV show, Top Gear); still drove through three states I’d never been to (Kansas, Oklahoma, and New Mexico); caught up with another fellow former YUM member in Austin, Texas; got surprised to catch up with my other cousin when I saw my mum’s sister in El Paso, and then finally got to enjoy staying with some friends of my parents’ in San Diego, where we were invited on a cruise of San Diego Bay, and I treated my kids to a trip to the zoo. I even got to have lunch with a friend in Long Beach on our drive home.
And I challenged my perception of certain places. With the country strongly divided with different perspectives on various subjects (climate change, marriage equality, etc), it’s easy to get caught up in the narrow-mindedness that the “other” side is a certain way. Or that everyone in certain states are “like that.” Oklahoma City was the main place that challenged my perception, and a place I would be interested in visiting properly in the future. Though I was only there for one night/morning, that was all I needed. The cashier at the restaurant we had dinner at was super friendly, and non-judgemental about California, even expressing interest in visiting the state. My car service agent the next morning was also super friendly and helpful, and incredibly reassuring with my anxieties. It was a reminder for noticing the human connection. I don’t know what their political affiliation was, but that shouldn’t matter. We should be treating everyone with basic human respect unless there’s a painful reason not to. Although I did also find amusement that I saw a truck with Oklahoma plates and a bumper sticker comparing Trump and Hitler on my drive to Texas. So the state certainly is not full of Trump supporters.
My kids survived, and seemed to even get along with each other more than they usually do when we’re at home, despite being in even closer quarters than they’re used to (be it the car or wherever we were staying). And I got to see all of my most supportive extended family members, who openly reacted in support of me being true to myself when I came out as polyamorous last year. I may not know how my mum would have taken the news, but I’m glad I have family I can see in person who still support me and want me in their life.