by A. Laura Francis
Any shrink worth their salt would probably have a field day if their patient told them that they would be travelling halfway across the country to fetch their twenty-year-old son from university with their mother-in-law driving shotgun. But when COVID numbers began to creep up in March of last year and air travel began to resemble being trapped in a petri dish, that is exactly what I did. I don’t think that a four-day road trip is, necessarily, the place to go if you want to explore your relationship with your partner’s mother. But if you drive through four of your country’s provinces with the same person—twice in four days—you start to learn to read each other almost as well as you read the road. Or maybe I’m making too much of the strength of the Trans-Canada Highway.
When I called my son at his university in Nova Scotia to tell him we would be there in two days, he seemed relieved. He’d only just that morning received an unexpected knock on the door of his room from the resident director of his dorm inquiring whether he would be vacating in the next three days as per the University president’s request. The info was news to him. When he stepped out of the room a few minutes later, he bumped into his neighbor toting a printer and two bags of laundry. “See you next year,” he said. Maybe.
Lauren, my mother-in-law, is an elegant woman who, with her tiny frame, perfect nails, and flawless penmanship, isn’t the sort of person who would appear up for a last-minute road trip. So, when I called to tell her that I would be hitting the road, I was floored when she told me that she would be in the passenger seat. She’d already packed her bag the weekend before and made back-up meals for her husband. That last part was less surprising.
When we set out that first morning from our houses outside of Toronto, we chatted about the state of the world. Our fears were amplified at the top of every hour by the news we kept on the radio. The Sturm und Drang was relentless as drove past the highway truck stops and fields of southern Ontario, and by the time we reached the outskirts of Montreal, I had managed to wind myself into a white-knuckle state. What saved me was my mother-in-law, who, whenever I glanced over at her, looked like she was approaching an almost Zen-like state. Lauren was a member of that generation of baby boomers who’d grown up preparing for catastrophes: her older family members had participated in world wars; she and her peers had hidden under their desks during air-raid drills. These things will prepare you for anything, I thought, as the boreal forest whipped past our windows. The disaster had finally arrived, and Boy! was she ready mentally. I envied her.
After a twelve-hour first leg, we stopped at a hotel in Rivière-du-Loup, Quebec, that was filled with snowmobilers. After checking in and finding a spot to park outside, I locked up my car and was bringing my stuff towards the hotel door when I passed a group of them dressed in full snowmobiler regalia and smoking the devil’s lettuce. The smell, after a long day on the road, was strangely . . . invigorating. I smiled to myself as I walked past them, and one of them said to me (en français), “Don’t worry. We are practicing social distancing.” I laughed and told them that I was, too, and that the pressure was off for them to include me in their “sharing circle.” Later, when I went to get some ice for my white wine—don’t judge, it was warm—one of the dudes came out of his room and greeted me enthusiastically. “Hey!” he said. “My buddies and I were just talking about you.” And then he reached in his pocket and pulled out a joint. “This is for you!” I thanked him profusely and respectfully declined. “Don’t worry,” he said, looking a bit hurt. “I sanitized my hands before I rolled it.” He wasn’t going to take no for an answer until I explained that I was travelling with my seventy-five-year-old mother-in-law. He shook his head like he finally understood. “Okay,” he answered. I’ll go roll you another, so you don’t have to share.”
The encounter seemed to break the tension for me. By the time I woke up the next morning, I was approaching Lauren’s state. That day we crossed through three provinces—Quebec, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia—spoke two languages, thought once about trying my first shamrock shake (hard pass!), heard four official press conferences, opened eight different doors with my elbow, used fourteen Lysol wipes on at least ten different surfaces, washed my hands at least a dozen times and cried once while listening to the federal health minister when she implored us all to take care of each other. By the time we reached my son, we were both so relieved to get out of the car that I almost hadn’t come to a full stop before my mother-in-law had jumped out and was enveloping her grandson in a hug that would have shattered the bones of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. “Gaga,” he asked. “Have you been working out?”
The next day, we turned the car around and headed back towards home, but because we’d passed through there already, everything looked strangely familiar: the ice breaking up on the St. Lawrence, the dozens of deer that appeared out nowhere and seemed to dapple the sides of the road, the toilet paper factory on the New Brunswick border that was pumping out smoke to meet the ever-increasing demand. It was like living in a bespoke version of The Curious Life of Benjamin Button, with every observation of the previous days happening in reverse and in better light. The opposite was true for the flow of good news in the world where things just seemed to get darker, the further we moved towards home. Lauren got increasingly quiet and withdrew into herself more. She would occasionally pop her hand onto her grandson’s shoulder as if to reassure herself that he was actually there. As an unexpected treat, I bought us lunch at McDonald’s, a place my kids used to beg me to take them. I had always refused. “Not real food” was my mantra. So, when I handed my son his Big Mac and braced myself for his unadulterated joy, I was shocked when his face dropped. He shook his head in disbelief. “Now I know the world is ending,” he said. “You would never normally let me eat this shit.”
When my father taught me how to drive a car, he did it with his eyes closed. I don’t mean that in a metaphorical sense; his eyes were shut throughout most of the exercise. Not because he was scared. Or nervous. Or insane. He simply preferred to do most things he liked this way: listening to jazz music, talking on the phone with a friend, eating a newly ripened peach over the sink. “Don’t you want to keep your eyes open just this one time?” I asked when he took me out for my first, real, parent-sanctioned drive. “For safety’s sake?” He shook his head slowly, his mouth turned up in a contented smile and answered the same way he always did when we asked him why his eyes were closed. “I am savoring the experience.”
I hate to drive now. Mostly because I do it for mundane reasons: buying groceries, school pick-ups, taking someone to a lesson. But driving those few days was meaningful because it was necessary. I was doing it with a true sense of purpose and got to see half of the country in the process. From the day I left home to the time I got back, the country I knew changed before my eyes. But, like my Dad, there were many times when I felt it was best to close my eyes, focus on what matters most, and just savor the experience. That’s what I intend to do going forward. Eyes wide shut. Clean hands. Full heart.
Photo credit by Tobias Bjørkli (Tromso Norway) tobias.bjorkli
A. Laura Francis has been writing freelance for more than a decade. Her work has appeared in The Globe and Mail, The New York Times, and Chatelaine magazine. She lives in Port Perry, Ontario, with her husband, her kids, and her cat.