Two years after my husband left me to live with a man, I wanted to go out of state to graduate school. I applied for the creative writing program at George Mason University in beautiful Virginia. I didn’t yet know about east coast humidity, or how I would get lost in Youngstown Ohio on my cross country journey. Or how this was the beginning of angels of the road in my life. I also applied for a teaching assistantship at George Mason, which I got. A new beginning. Anxious but excited, I told my reluctant children, “Life begins at forty-two.” They weren’t impressed.
My two oldest daughters would room together in their hometown Orem, Utah. The oldest had a job, and 17-year-old Jen wanted to finish school at Orem High. The two youngest, ages 14 and 12, would stay with friends for a week then fly to Virginia with their father who had a business workshop scheduled in Maryland. Always protective of me, Jen wanted to help me drive across country. She would fly back to Utah with her dad when his workshop ended.
When I told our good friend and home teacher Jerry Jackman about our plans, he said they would follow along with us, a family vacation with his wife and five children. Also a business trip for him. Owner of his own music company, he had clients in various places, one in Kalamazoo, Michigan where he would go the evening I would head to my sister’s place in Naperville, Illinois. The next night Jen and I would meet him at a reserved motel in Youngstown, Ohio.
I wanted to get to George Mason for summer school, Memorial Day weekend my target arrival. Perfect Jerry said as he traced a route on his map. I was excited but nervous. Never before had I ever done any long distance driving alone. Thirty-five years later as I write this, I’m amazed I did it with no GPS or cell phone, a trip that now seems like a dream. Yet I know it wasn’t, every detail of it vivid in memory, especially those angels of the road that Jen and I met along the way. This daughter who less than four years later would be in a catastrophic accident. Brain injury. Twisted brain stem. I have often reflected how wise it is that we can’t see beyond the moment. Otherwise, we might be too fearful to step into the unknown thus robbing us of crucial experiences.
Angels of the Road
She was still the “Old Jen,” as we would later call her, that spring of 1982. Her father, on another east coast business trip, co-signed a two-level townhouse for me to rent in Chantilly, Virginia, for which I was grateful. On moving day he helped me put a few last boxes in my Volkswagen wagon that I packed with linens, dishes, clothes, typewriter and small television, several boxes of books, and a wheat grinder and some wheat (like most Mormons have in food storage), praying that my new retreads would hold up under the weight.
Three days on the road east, no problems. Good weather. Jerry’s reserved motels waiting for us. Pizza with the Jackman family. On the road, Jen and I communicated back and forth with our friends through the CBs Jerry had rigged for our trip. Smooth going until we neared the exit where I would head to my sister’s and the Jackmans to Kalamazoo. I felt a strange bumping under my car, and told Jerry through the CB that I was pulling off the road.
We stood together, stared at my rear retread split open, tire pieces hanging. “Where’s your jack?” he asked me. I was sure I looked as stricken as I felt when I said I thought it was buried under all my stuff. Stay calm, he said. Not easy to do with trucks, vans, cars – more traffic than I’d ever seen in my life – whizzing past as we unloaded enough to get to the jack, a puny one that bent under the weight. Now what were we going to do?
Only seconds until a big truck pulled onto the shoulder and Jerry began telling the big- muscled man our predicament. His hydraulic jack would do the trick. Less than ten minutes and the spare’s on the car, I’m thanking this first angel of the road profusely, and saying goodbye to the Jackmans as I head, alone with Jen, to my sister’s.
Naperville was by Chicago where I could easily get lost. My brother-in-law, who never got lost anywhere, had given me directions over the phone. When I wrote them down they seemed clear enough. But the real world – the harrowing Chicago, confusing signs, and so many lanes of traffic – unhinged me. I took several wrong turns, stopped at gas stations for directions, kept driving and driving. The area was familiar. I had in the past gone from Utah to Illinois to visit my family, but with someone else driving.
Even though she’d had a cold since we left Utah and wasn’t any better with directions than I was, I kept telling my sweet daughter I was so glad she was with me. Together we’d said prayers along the way. In more ways than one, I knew we weren’t alone.
Finally, in the dark, after one more pay phone call to my brother-in-law, we were at my sister’s. Jen loved her little cousins and they loved her. We all had a relaxing evening, and the next morning my brother-in-law took us to a tire store and bought four new tires for my Volkswagen. As I slid behind the steering wheel to head to Ohio, he handed me an envelope. “For later,” he said. “Don’t lose it. And be careful.”
When we were out of the congested Chicago area I told Jen to open it. She pulled out a handful of twenty-dollar bills. Ten bills. Two hundred dollars besides what he had already given us. I was certain he would know how grateful I was as we headed for Ohio with the sun still high in the sky.
Not high enough. Because we had gotten a late start, it was dark when we got to the Youngstown exit and discovered the motels weren’t just off the interstate as the other motels had been. Still, with the map Jerry had given us, I felt confident I could find the reserved motel. I couldn’t. I was lost in a residential area lit only by lights from the freeway.
Tired from the long drive and wondering what to do, I saw the dim figure of a man strolling along the sidewalk with a dog. I pulled to a stop near the sidewalk, rolled the window all the way down, and called out, “Hello there. My daughter and I are lost. Can you help us?”
“I don’t know, Mom,” said my skeptical daughter, but when the man didn’t come to the car or even say anything, I got out of the car. “I’ve got to get directions, Jen.”
I’ve always been a bit afraid of dogs, but this somewhat small dog was leashed and didn’t bark at me as I explained to the man we were trying to find our friends at the motel and showed him my little map. He shined his flashlight on it. “You’re almost there” was all he said, then pointed down the road: turn left there, turn right, turn left.
Right-left. Left-right. The directions instantly a jumble in my tired brain. If only I could write them in my notebook, but I knew the man wasn’t really interested in being helpful. The dog was tugging at its leash, and he was already walking away.
I didn’t know where I was going. Lost again, this time on a dark residential street with a small neighborhood market much like the one from my childhood, except this one was crisscrossed with wooden beams and chains. Not abandoned. Just boarded up and chained for the night. Not a calming sight.
A bit frightened, I pulled to a stop at the roadside, turned off the ignition and headlights. What kind of neighborhood was this? Old brick houses, only one across the street with a dim light on the porch. The only other lights in the night: a half moon and stars in the sky, and down the street to my left flashing lights on a marquee over what looked like a bar. If all else failed I would ask for directions.
A thought that suddenly stopped on an object looming from the other direction. A car with no headlights. A car that looked older even than my father’s 1930 Chevrolet. A silhouette of someone in the driver’s seat. Long hair. Could be male or female. The car slowly, slowly weaving toward us, maybe heading for the bar. But it turned a corner and disappeared.
I glanced at Jen sitting wide-eyed and silent beside me. I was trying not to be frightened because I didn’t want to frighten her and because fear wouldn’t help. “Gosh, Mom,” she said, and I reached for her hand to steady mine. Only one thing to do. “Let’s pray.” She bowed her head, and I said my quick simple prayer, “Heavenly Father, we’re lost. Please help us.”
Almost immediately a car began backing out of the driveway of the dimly-lit house across the street. Releasing Jen’s hand I started to open my door. “Mom, I don’t think you should get out.” I froze as the car kept slowly backing down the driveway, arcing until it was alongside our car.
A young man, dark-haired and handsome, leaned toward his open passenger window and called out, “Do you need help?” I let out a breath, vigorously nodded my head. “Oh yes, yes we do. We’re traveling across country, my daughter and I, and we’re trying to find our friends. We’re supposed to meet them at a motel somewhere near here and we’ve been going around in circles. I have this map.”
His hand met mine mid-air. He glanced at the map then gave it back to me. “I know where that is, but you’ll have to wait. I’ve got to get my wife. She’s just around the corner. Stay in your car. Keep cool. This is a rough neighborhood. I’ll be back.”
His words jangled in my head as the car disappeared. Keep cool. Rough neighborhood. It didn’t calm me either to hear Jen say, “Maybe he’s going to get some guys. Maybe we should find the motel ourselves.” We hadn’t found it yet, I told her. “Be patient.” Please, please, please my silent prayer.
It seemed a very long time until we heard the sound of an engine – music in the night – and saw the familiar car, the young handsome man behind the wheel and a dark-haired woman beside him. She was beautiful and so was he. “The motel’s just a few blocks from here,” he said, and began giving me directions. Very tired, I interrupted, “I’m so confused.” “Would you like us to lead you there?” he said. “Yes. Yes. Thank you so much.”
A few turns of the road and there was the motel, awake with lights in the night, and the Jackmans’ van in the parking lot. Never since has a motel looked as heavenly as that one did.
When we told them our story, Jerry said they didn’t get to the motel much before we did. They got lost too, wandering around that same area for almost half an hour.
Since that night lost in Youngstown I’ve traveled many metaphorical roads that have twisted and turned through dark and painful places. But never have I forgotten those angels of the road – family, friends, and strangers – on that long-ago cross country journey the spring of 1982. The beginning of my new life.