I wrote to the author of this hidden little piece, below, in today’s New York Times: “Thank you for sharing this – I think back to all the Sunday rides we took as a family – it was my mother who was the adventurer – spontaneously calling out – turn here! – to my dad, who just did whatever she told him to. And I giggled at the adventure – for no more cost than an ice cream if we found a place, or some french fries, maybe. Sometimes, summer tomatoes from a fruit and vegetable stand. No worries about the price of gas.
I was much too structured with my children – wish I had transferred the carefree spontaneity of my mom (but I suppose there’s still time)…
My treat on my birthday – which today is – is to spend most of the day with my all-too-grownup girls – I hope for giggles and memories – less worry and fret – less planning and structure – as our world’s concerns have descend upon them like a heavy cloak. I can no longer protect – distract – cocoon them – with arts and crafts, or food, or entertainment. I suppose there were worldly concerns in my childhood, back on those dusty Sunday road trips – but I don’t remember what they were.
This world’s dark and ominous cloud needs aggressive bands of sunlight – people who can drag us out with inconsequential moments of wonder.
Maybe that’s my role now. I’ve done far too much planning and prodding and pulling them along. So I’ll go back to the moments … some of which have already been forgotten. “Do you remember that? When we went to Maine, just the three of us? When we went to the beach in our clothes because we didn’t bring suits?” – “No, not really…” Sigh…
Maybe they are not “old enough” yet – to remember. Anyone near my age will know what I mean…
I encourage them to write, to journal, to blog, to keep boxes of memories…because one day something will come back to them…and they’ll giggle and pause – and maybe, when it is their time they will take their little ones spontaneously to Maine – or to the Cape – without a reservation, with no bags packed. Or, they could go on a Sunday drive – and shout out, “turn here”!
Thanks to author Christina Baker Kline…
“At the steering wheel my father consults his large paper map, turning it this way and that, squinting at the small blue lines that squiggle through tiny Maine coastal towns. He’s heard that the author E.B. White’s house is somewhere around here, and he’s determined to find it.
My mother, next to him in the passenger seat of our rusty gold station wagon with my baby sister on her lap, raises her eyebrows at my other two sisters and me, free-ranging in the second row. It’s the early 70s, and seatbelts haven’t caught on yet. We gaze back at her, knowing that once Dad gets an idea into his head, it’s almost impossible to stop him. We range in age from 1 to 10 (I’m the oldest), and all of us are literally and figuratively along for the ride. Besides, we’re excited at the prospect of meeting this author we already feel we know. We’ve been lulled to sleep every night by the soft cadence of my dad’s Southern accent as he reads us stories about a wise spider and a hapless pig, a resourceful mouse and a mute swan.
Dad pulls off the road into the dusty parking lot of a country store with a lone gas pump, and gets out of the car. We hear him chatting with the attendant through the open window. “Sure is nice around here.”
The guy shrugs.
My sisters and I glance at each other. Rural Mainers tend to be stranger-wary and small-talk averse. But as usual, Dad doesn’t seem to notice. “You lived here long?”
“Ayuh.” Amazingly, before long, and with only a little coaxing, the attendant is telling Dad about his grandkids and his lobster boat and pointing off into the distance, giving him the intel he’s come for. “Mr. White lives right over that hill there. Privet hedge in front. Can’t miss it.”
Back on the road, my sister Cynthia ventures, “Isn’t it rude to show up on someone’s doorstep without asking?”
Dad grins and winks at us in the rear view mirror. “He’ll be flattered.”
We pull up to the farmhouse to find a courtly white-haired man trimming the hedge with a set of clippers. “It’s him!” Dad whispers. He rolls down his window and leans out. “Hello, good sir!” The man seems a little nonplussed. “I have a car full of young readers here who’d give anything to meet their favorite author. A word from you, and they’ll remember this moment for the rest of their lives.” What choice does the poor man have? Within a few minutes, the famously reclusive E.B. White is demonstrating to a cluster of little girls in bathing suits that when you crush pine needles between your fingers and hold it to your nose, the smell is as strong as patchouli. And Dad is right — we never will forget it.
My childhood was rife with moments like this. Dad was always going out on a limb, befriending people who didn’t necessarily seem to want new friends, trespassing on private property, pushing the boundaries of acceptable behavior in quest of adventure. His philosophy was that you don’t need money or plans, only a willingness to be present in the moment and to go where inspiration takes you. If you don’t, you’ll miss the entire point of being alive.
Raised dirt poor in rural Georgia by a mill worker mother and a father who often went to the bar rather than home after work, Dad learned early on that his quickest route up the social ladder was through charm and smarts. He got himself to college — the first in his family — on a football scholarship, then used seminary to springboard to a doctorate in a foreign land.
As a young academic in the ‘60s, he grew to reject traditional values and had scant respect for the social codes of privilege. At parties, he could often be found talking to the bartender or a 95-year-old Irish grandmother in the kitchen rather than the hosts. A Southerner through and through, even after moving to Maine, he was constitutionally incapable of walking down a street in New York without stopping to chat with doormen, bodega owners and homeless people. He never met a taxi driver whose story he didn’t want to know. Dad’s unorthodox and sometimes embarrassing friendliness got him, and us, into trouble now and then. Some people didn’t take kindly to probing questions. Others found his puppy-dog openness suspect or unsophisticated. But his innate, bottomless curiosity about the world also taught his four daughters to be open to new experiences and comfortable with improvisation. Even now, in his late 70s, he lives each day with a kind of purposeful recklessness, asking provocative questions and seeking new experiences in the belief that he can break through to something better, more meaningful, more satisfying.
Though my parents had little money, they took us on adventures all over the world. Driving through Scotland in a rainstorm, we pulled over to the side of the road and rode the wild ponies grazing by the fence. We coaxed a stray lamb over to our rented R.V. to feed it. One year my father switched houses, cars, teaching jobs, committees and pets with a professor in Melbourne, Australia, sight unseen. Another year our family of six flew to Crete without a plan; at the airport Dad bought a map and started asking random strangers, with the help of a woefully inadequate Greek phrase book: “What should we do?” “Where should we stay?”
This spontaneity meant that we missed flights, lost luggage, drove on perilous roads late at night, stayed in some cold-water hovels, and sometimes went hungry. But it also yielded beautiful surprises: an undiscovered beach, a fisherman’s hut with a breathtaking view, a hillside breakfast of goats’ milk yogurt and fresh honey that I still remember 35 years later. It led to his daughters’ sense of the world not as a huge frightening place but as a wonderland ripe for discovery.
The Maine farmhouse in Andrew Wyeth’s iconic painting “Christina’s World” was not yet a museum or even open to the public when my father got it into his head — soon after our ambush of E.B. White — to take a family field trip there. Following his usual routine, he pulled into the small village of Cushing and asked a local how to find the Olson house. When we arrived (no doubt trespassing), we picnicked in the field where the woman in the pink dress in the painting had lain. Looking up at that weathered gray house on the hill, and hearing the story of the woman with my name who spent her lifetime there, I was entranced. Years later, I drew on that experience to tell my own story of the painting in my new book.
There’s no doubt that my dad’s endless curiosity has shaped who I am. I often find myself — to my own kids’ embarrassment — chatting with strangers in lines, accepting spontaneous invitations, and seeking out-of-the-way adventures.
I think the most important thing I learned from my dad is that when you go out on a limb there’s a risk it will break, but you’ll get a whole new perspective on the world. And if you’re really lucky, it can feel like flying. ‘