Sunday, May 13, 2007

A Long Flight From The Nest

The Queen Mother knew the day was coming, and she had adequate warning -- 23 years' worth. If that wasn't enough, I'd given her my own disclaimer: "Mom, if I get an offer on this job in Texas, I'm taking it."

In August 1994, just two months after I graduated from college, the magic call came to the family home in St. Louis.

"Are you still interested in working for us?"

Mother's happiness at my first TV producing job was tinged with mourning. McAllen, Texas, on the southern tip of the Lone Star State, sat nearly a thousand miles away and on another cultural planet. Her first-born was heading to Never Never Land.

From my journal of August 8, 1994:
What's really strange was that I expected to be a lot more exhilarated than I am now. But the first few hours after, I was scared.
Two weeks later, we made the journey together in my aging 1986 Chevy Celebrity, built like a tank even if it showed its wear from seats to grille. I didn't want to drive a U-Haul, so clothes, toiletries and computer stuff filled the trunk and the back seats, enough to last until United Van Lines would deliver the rest. On the advice of Grandfather Francis, we bought "The Club."

We sailed down I-44 in the morning, breaking for lunch at a Hardee's in Springfield, listening to Rush Limbaugh on the radio and then Maury Povich on the television (via Channel 6 in Tulsa, 87.7 on your dial). Clouds above us thickened. As Oklahoma City approached, so did a summer cloudburst.

I navigated the Chevy through pounding rain and ferocious lightning all around us, looking for the I-35 junction as the radio jock chirped, "there's just too many accidents to tell you about." He promised to get some rain songs on the air in the next hour. For Mom, it didn't matter what road we were on as long as the car didn't hydroplane. A nervous hour passed with us heading southbound, just as planned, outrunning the storm only to see it catch back up with us in Ft. Worth. We shared a sit-down dinner at Denny's and musty accommodations.

I wrote in my journal...
The hotel room at the HoJo was a little too cruddy for Mom's taste, with peeling wallpaper, a gritty bathroom and stains on the pillowcases.
I'd picked the motel. She told me crummy is the way HoJo is. So I let her have the say on the next room.

Interstate 35 took us as far as San Antonio, with Mom doing half the driving. We paused for lunch at the world-famous "Bubba Truck Stop" in a lonesome part of Texas easily forgotten. A switch to I-37 got us nearly to Corpus Christi, and then we had to leave the Eisenhower system behind for U.S. 77 through the barren land locals call Kenedy County, home to more cows than people. We made it into Harlingen around sunset, resting ourselves at a brand new inn after taking a quick street tour of McAllen.

I thought I'd land an apartment on the first day of looking, unaware students from UT Pan-American were snapping them up. Mom and I drove dozens of miles from McAllen to Harlingen and back checking out at least 10 complexes ranging from domestic tranquility to rat paradise. I settled on a place in McAllen that wouldn't be ready for a month. My plan was to set up temporary quarters down the street from my workplace at a motel that rented rooms by the week. Maybe they rented by the hour too, when Mom and I got a look at it.

We laid in that room resting our cranky selves when Mom checked in with Dad back home. Within seconds, Mom's voice shattered into a breathy whisper. Grandma Francis -- the one excited about my move to South Texas because it was near my grandparents' timeshare on Padre Island -- had passed away suddenly and yet peacefully.

Mom and I held each other a lot that night, the sadness topping weary travels and my growing hatred of driving all over the Rio Grande Valley chasing a place to live. We somehow found the strength to go for shakes at Wendy's down the road. She caught a plane back to St. Louis the next morning -- the Queen Mother flying back to Kingdom of Francis to console her subjects. I found consolation in Brook Benton's melancholy voice on the radio as I drove away from Valley International Airport:
Hoverin' by my suitcase, tryin' to find a warm place to spend the night
Heavy rain fallin', seems I hear your voice callin' "It's all right."
A rainy night in Georgia, a rainy night in Georgia
It seems like it's rainin' all over the world
I feel like it's rainin' all over the world.
I would not make it to Grandma's funeral as I started my new job and bounced from motel room to motel room like a drifter before subletting a snowbird's trailer at a guest ranch on McAllen's west side. The clouds lifted when I finally got into my apartment.

Until then, my only link to the world I left behind was a gnat-encrusted phone booth at the ranch because the trailer had no working line. It also had no working cable TV and barely working water. But the Queen Mother was always there for me on the other end of the connection, that steadfast leader and guardian angel who made the trip to Texas. She was not about to see her baby bird fly off alone. We would not see each other again face-to-face until Christmas, when she, Dad and Grandpa Francis would bring presents to me at my sparse domicile.

I made the move from McAllen to Tucson solo in 1999, but part of me wanted her with me again, sitting in the passenger's seat where the dirty laundry sat. Her company would have helped me at least pass the time on a desolate stretch of I-10 west of San Antonio where the radio scan button spins infinitely, and I kept track of the number of disabled cars on the shoulders. But I did have a cell phone, and I used it a lot -- at Royal insistence.

Happy Mother's Day, Mom.

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