The Mother Road

by Teresa L. Thome • photography by Dave Burgess

Five years after my mother died, I finally decided to go through the loads of boxes from my parent’s house that ended up in our basement. After she passed, my dad moved into a retirement community and my out-of-state siblings and I packed everything up. Anything marked “keep” went to my place. Lucky me, I found they’d kept really important things, like an incredibly useful Tripoley game board and an array of hard plastic and macramé home decor crafts handmade by step-grandma Lucille.

So, I was over the moon when I unearthed a scrapbook my mother had made of a trip she took with three girlfriends in 1953 from Grand Rapids to Los Angeles, California via Route 66 in a convertible. I didn’t even know this book existed!

“I vowed that someday I would make the same trip, and I would write about it and share it because adventures are not secrets.”

Her greatest asset beyond being an overwhelmingly successful control freak (and fairly seasoned prescription drug addict) and chronically suffering woman was being a compulsive secret keeper. I only found out about this California trip in my twenties when one of my mother’s girlfriends spilled the beans. Now, I had postcards and letters she’d written home to her parents (they’d given back to her) and brochures from places she’d visited along the way; all the details she never shared. At that moment I vowed someday I would make the same trip, and I would write about it and share it because adventures are not secrets.

Five years later, I left by myself to retrace my mother’s Route 66 adventure and to spend about six months in L.A. I reached Meramec Caverns on day two, just like my mom did. I spent the night in Elk City, one mile from the motel where she stayed. It wasn’t there anymore, but a Pizza Hut was. She went to the Rondy-Voo Café, which is a Baptist church now. They didn’t keep the name, but she kept a napkin. Must have been one memorable tuna sandwich!

I crossed over the Rainbow Bridge in Kansas, just as she had. Despite the fact that I’m panic-attack level afraid of heights, I even went to the Grand Canyon. I was scared out of my mind, but she was there, so fear be damned, I went too.

Everywhere I went, every turn in the road, made me wonder if my mother had seen what I was seeing. Each night I’d make my way to a motel and write all of the day’s events in a fancy notebook I bought specifically for this trip. I wrote from my mother’s perspective what I suspected she was thinking some 60 years earlier in the same town on the same night of the same journey. I was writing the story she wouldn’t.

A few months after I got to L.A., I went on an already planned vacation with my husband. I brought my fancy notebook so I could write my mother’s story. When we arrived at our first destination, I realized I’d left my journal on the plane. I was sick to my stomach. I called the airlines. I even invoked my dead mother, “Mom, you have to help me!”

Forty-eight hours, later someone called to let me know they’d found my notebook. I’d have to pick it up at the end of my trip, but I’d have it. On the plane home, I opened my fancy notebook, and I couldn’t breathe. Someone had torn the pages out. Not all of them, just the ones I had written in. They left all the empty pages. This time I lashed out, “Thanks a lot, mother. You got what you wanted.”

Here’s the thing: One of the reasons it took me five years to go through the boxes is because it took me that long to decide I no longer wanted to hate my dead mother. Don’t let the sash fool you (see picture with sash). She was a bitter, angry woman, especially near the end. I didn’t really grieve for her when she died. I skipped all those Elizabeth Kubler-Ross phases of death and went right to “meh.” I was convinced writing about her journey would heal me and make me feel something, but just like that, the words were gone; her story was gone. Quite honestly, knowing what a control freak my secret-keeping mother was, I was certain that somehow she orchestrated it from her grave.

I was heartbroken until one day it came to me — this journal was a Tibetan Sand Mandala. I had done all this creative work, and it was destroyed in an instant. The healing was in the journey, not the journal. Two years later, I’m still on that journey, dividing time between L.A. and Grand Rapids. Thank God she went to California, not Indiana.

Now, I was really struggling with the ending to this short story. So without much thought I made a slide of this restaurant where my mom ate in LA. It’s still around. I just ate there. Then I looked to her letters for inspiration. The first letter I grabbed, she wrote:

Dear Folks, Thursday night I ate at El Paseo Inn. Seriously (see photo of El Paseo Inn)! This is the first, last and only Mexican food your daughter will ever eat. It’s absolutely tasteless.

I laughed — that’s my mother! But it gave me the heebie geebies; I’ve been writing and sharing publicly about her for years — harsh words that come with extreme guilt, but I’m compelled to share. Reading those words, out of all the letters and postcards I could have grabbed, I just knew she was giving me permission to tell her secrets and tell our story.

“Everywhere I went, every turn in the road made me wonder if my mother had seen what I was seeing.”

 


Teresa L. Thome is co-founder and Managing Partner of Fubble Entertainment. Prior, she was part of a production team that garnered 13 regional Emmys and a National Daytime Emmy nomination. She has performed—and won—in storytelling competitions all over the country. She currently lives in Grand Rapids with her husband Fred Stella.


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