Friday, May 7, 2010

Joy Ride

Mom turned seventy in 2005. She wasn't a thing-person. Didn't want stuff for her birthday. Particularly a special birthday like seventy.

All she asked from her kids was time, to be with each of us.

"You pick when, where, what we do," she said. "All I want is to be with each of you one-on-one, however you want to do it. Doesn't matter to me. As long as we do something before I turn seventy-one."

Mom gave us a year to think of something, some way to specially mark her seventieth birthday, to specially mark her.

Seemed to me Mom deserved something more special than a couple hours at a Starbucks chitty-chattin’ over a latte or going to Perkins for a plate of pancakes or even high dining at some fancy chop house for surf-n-turf.

Seemed to me seventy ought to be marked with a road trip. A special road trip. Yes, a joy ride. One Mom would never forget. One I'd always remember too. Maybe even a road trip that matched life itself insofar as this joy ride would "carry with it a modicum of risk", to quote a line from the Dustin Hoffman movie LITTLE BIG MAN, one of my favorite films.

Mom gave my siblings and me a year to come up with something. Anything. She didn't care what it was or when. She just asked me to make it happen before she turned seventy-one.

No problem. Piece of cake. "How hard could this be?" I asked myself.

It took me eleven months to figure something out.

Something more meaningful than Starbucks or Perkins. Something surprising. Something that wasn't thingy. Something she'd never done or would never do. Or could say to Dad "I got to do this with Tim and you've never done that."

"How hard could this be" turned into near impossible. And I damned near ran out of time.
---

Saturday in February, early February, almost one month before time was up and I'd turn into a pumpkin, I picked up Mom for our road trip.

The day was February cold, with early morning crackling air, clean cloudless winter blue skies, the sun bright as though it was sitting right on top of planet Earth. Perfect road trip conditions.

First stop was sixty miles west of Minneapolis. In the middle of nowhere, in late winter. I was taking Mom to see something she'd never seen before. A wonder of the world. In our backyard. No one else in our family had seen it. We were going to be the first Morins to say we've been to this place, to a holy land of sorts.

"So, where are we going?" Mom asked.

"First stop, Darwin,"

"Oh. What's in Darwin? Where is Darwin?"

"Darwin's an hour away. Something you've never seen. At your age, you need to see this."

"Okay then," she said.

And we made way to our first stop, Darwin. Mom and her oldest kid. Visiting and riding the open road on an early Saturday morning, sun-soaked, empty, two-lane U.S. Highway westbound for Minnesota's rural winter wonderland.
---

"YOU'VE! GOT! TO! BE! KIDDING!" Mom couldn't take her eyes off of the thing as we got out of the car. The thing was sitting inside a large weather-protected see-through, clear square case; an oversize, upside-down highball glass.

"Damn, look at that thing. It's huge," I said.

A little sign-post out front simply described the obvious,

"The World's Largest Ball of Twine"

A wonder of the world.

First time anyone in our family had seen it. Now Mom and I were here. Finally here. First stop on our road trip, our joy ride, in celebration of Mom's seventieth birthday, two explorers orbiting a large sphere of tightly wound skinny rope.

Best of all, it was just Mom and me. We had the place, this shrine, to ourselves. Just us. In early February in Darwin, Minnesota there were no long lines to see The World's Largest Ball of Twine. Imagine that. Not another soul anywhere around. As if the town of Darwin was packed up and launched on a moon shot for the winter.

"Damn that thing is big," I said.

"Yah," Mom said. "Whoever would've thought....Why would anyone ever think to... What do you suppose moved a person to do this?"

Around and around and around we walked. Just Mom and me. Shaking our stocking caps stuffed full of our heads as we gazed at that thing.

It is, for the record, the dumbest thing you ever saw. A big damn ball of twine. It is the kind of thing that should've made its way into that goofy movie, FARGO.

"Phffffffffft....." Mom said, looking at me. "You, you, you, where do you come up with these things?"

"I was thinking of taking you here or going to Starbucks or Perkins. Hope this was okay."

"I can go get coffee and pancakes anywhere."

And with those words, we were underway again. In the car, heading east toward home, the joy ride resumed. A big damn ball of twine like the western sun fading in our rear view mirror.

Heads kicked back. Mouths wide open. We were riding a current.

Like it was heaven on earth, or something.

Of course it was.

We'd just seen the world's largest ball of twine.
---

"Now where?"

"The airport," I said.

"Airport? What's at the airport?"

"Airplanes."

"Smart aleck."

We're going to Memphis, I told her.

"Memphis? What's in Memphis?" she asked.

"Ducks."

"Ducks? What ducks? Judas priest. We're going to Memphis? To see ducks?"

"Beats going to Starbucks."

When you're on a road trip with your seventy-year-old Mom that's now turned into a joy ride because you'd just seen the world's largest ball of twine, where else can you go? How do you follow that experience?

You fly to a place where you can watch a parade of ducks march in formation every morning and every night at a hotel in Memphis. Naturally, this is what you do with your seventy-year-old mother after you've seen a big damn ball of twine. Yes, you fly nine hundred miles away and nine hundred miles home so you can tell loved ones upon your return that you saw some ducks put on a parade.

And this is precisely what happens at The Peabody Hotel in Memphis. A bunch of ducks. Maybe a dozen or so. All lined up single file, parading daily.

They parade into the elevator, up to the Peabody rooftop when the day begins. And they parade down from the rooftop in the same elevator, then out of the Peabody Hotel when the day is done.

Every day hundreds of people gather to watch this parade. Just a parade of little, waddling ducks. No marching duck bands. No clown ducks. No ducks on tall stilt-legs. No Shriner ducks on weaving motorcycles. Or Queen ducks on flowered floats.

Nope. None of that. It's just ducks. In a line. Single file. Waddle, waddle. Quack, quack.

Then, in less than five minutes, or maybe it's more like one minute and five seconds, or it's some teensy timeframe you really don't want to quantify because you'll feel like a dope for spending all those hours and all that money traveling to this quack-brain place with your seventy-year-old Mom, why, before you know it, the thing is over. And the ducks disappear into the night.

Waddle, waddle. Quack, Quack.

People come from all over to watch this and only this, a dozen quacking ducks. People like Mom and me. People who have nothing better to do than take time for themselves, to be with loved ones or friends, and go on a joy ride. Those ducks and these people don't do this once a year or once a month. They do this every day. Twice a day. The ducks and the people show up. Ducks and people, like Mom and me, on a joy ride.

What a road trip this was turning out to be. Riding a couple of roads-less-traveled with my seventy-year-old Mom.

Who knew how we'd get on covering America's mid-section when the day began?

But here we were, the two of us, enjoying this offbeat trek; Mom, at seventy, keeping pace, loving every minute of a day no one else in The Peabody Hotel, nor in all of Memphis, nor in all the world could claim that day. Mom was the only seventy-year-old human alive right then who'd spent this day, on a joy ride, taking in a big damn ball of twine and a bunch of ducks in a parade.

Way better than a half-caf venti latte at Starbucks or buttermilk pancakes at Perkins.
---

It didn't take long for the ducks to finish their parading and go packing for the night. Then it was early evening. Mom and I walked across the street and along a narrow downtown alley to grab supper.

Cold Budweiser beers, iced all day in big metal buckets, and a couple racks of baby-back ribs from the Rendezvous Rib joint in Memphis. People all over the world love these ribs. That's why its website boasts "hogsfly-dot-com" in its address. This place ships its ribs anytime, anywhere. Absolutely, positively. Not much risk in making that claim, I suppose, when FedEx is based nearby to help the hog butcher meet his customers’ next-day, barbeque demands.

Mom and I loved the ribs. We loved the ice cold Buds. A great way to finish off Mom’s seventieth birthday road trip, a joy ride of huge balled up twine, marching ducks, ribs and ice-cold Buds at a place where hogs fly.

We returned the following morning and as I dropped Mom at home, just before she got out of my car, she pulled something from her purse, a tightly wound brown paper sack.

"Open it," she said with a slight smile and some mischief in her blue Irish eyes. "It's for you. I want you to have this. So you will remember our time together."

How thoughtful! A small gift, a surprise souvenir from Mom.

A pair of boxer shorts. From The Peabody. A color photo of a duck, one of the Peabody Marching Ducks, stamped on the rear-end. Under a headline that reads, Butt Quack.

I don't talk much about my underwear. But these under-shorts deserve a word. I wear these boxers still, many years later. I wear them fondly. There are no other fondly worn undergarments stuffed in my dresser drawers.

Indeed, this undergarment is special; oh my, how magnificent these Butt Quack shorts.

Boxers with a happy, parading duck stamped on the rear-end. From Mom, with love. Just for me, her fifty-two year old son. Now, a special memory.

I imagined, when this road trip was approaching, that I was gifting Mom at a special moment in her life. And while that was true, by journey's end, it had also turned out that Mom was the one who really gifted me.

I received a cozy forever memory from Mom, the two of us, together in the current, on a silly delightful joy ride in life that has remained a snug undergarment, a warm lining offering comfort and tranquility, that I will wear the rest of my days.

I know this.

I have underwear to prove it.

--tim

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