I come from a family of road trippers.
Growing up, I recall my father spending weeks each year planning our annual summer vacation. With military precision, in his boarding-school handwriting, he jotted down estimated times of departure and arrival for the 1000 km journey between Johannesburg and the Indian Ocean, using his beloved Parker pen. There was much editing. Adding. Subtracting. Scratching out. Jaw grinding. Cigar smoking.
On the first day of school holidays, our family of four piled into the car with books, pillows and anticipation. By the time we made it out the driveway, we had already blown Pa’s estimated departure time: my sister is not a morning person and I invariably remembered something I’d forgotten once the front door was already locked. But that didn’t matter. We could catch up along the way. It was the seventies in South Africa. Speed limits were merely suggestions.
I don’t remember my mother ever driving on those road trips, which is peculiar, since that seemed to be her main occupation: taxi driver. She was continually driving me and my sister somewhere in her little orange Austin Apache. School. Ballet. Friends. Choir. Shops. But for some reason, road trips were my father’s domain.
When he needed a break – to stretch his legs or have a bite to eat – we stopped on the side of the highway. Our first stop included coffee for the adults. From a stainless-steel flask. Black. No sugar. My sister and I were not allowed coffee. We didn’t care. As long as we had rusks. Homemade. Buttermilk. Ouma’s recipe. Ma and Pa dunked their rusks in their coffee. My sister and I gnawed at ours, like hungry hamsters, leaving a pile of crumbs behind for the highway ants. And then we were back in the car.
Our next stop, in one of the designated ‘picnic’ strips beside the N1, was for lunch. Peeling our sweaty selves from the sticky leather backseat, my sister and I and tippy toed across the gravel to the bench beside the concrete picnic table. For ten minutes we swatted flies as we ate Ma’s egg mayonnaise sandwiches under dehydrated trees that offered no shade from the sweltering Karoo sun.
A version of this journey happened every year until my father died. Ma was just 50. She remarried a few years later. Her new husband, Patrick, an old friend of my father’s, was also a road tripper extraordinaire. He and my mother went on to enjoy hundreds of road trips during their 20 years of marriage.
Pat died 8 years ago. I think the thing my mother most missed – even more than her actual husbands – was the road trips.
I tried to visit her in South Africa more regularly after Pat died. Each time we planned a road trip. It was not as well-choreographed as either Pa’s or Pat’s. And with her growing health problems, the trips became shorter and shorter. But each time, she baked buttermilk rusks and made egg mayonnaise sandwiches for the road.
Except for our last one.
Ma was recovering from heart surgery. We were in the midst of a pandemic. Our road trip was a last-minute decision. There was no time to bake rusks. And I was somewhat relieved not to have the smell of egg mayonnaise in the car.
The trip was a short one by previous standards. Ma started to feel ill about a week in. But we made it to the beach in Herolds Bay. The two of us sat on a little green bench overlooking the Indian Ocean, eating twirly whirly ice creams in the wintry sunshine. Our COVID masks, looped under our chins, were sticky with chocolate and vanilla drips by the time we got back in the car and headed the 400 kilometres back to her home in Port Elizabeth.
I finally made it back to Vancouver.
Seven months later, Ma died.
I flew to South Africa again. After spending two weeks with my sister, doing all the things that need to be done after a death, I hopped on another plane and met my husband at O.R Tambo International, where we rented a car, and hit the road.
Rebecca Solnit wrote: “Roads are a record of those who have gone before.” And as we drove the 1000 km through the Karoo, on our way to the Indian Ocean, the trees on the side of the highway casting no shade, I could almost smell egg mayonnaise sandwiches.
Ahead of us were rolling thunderclouds. I estimated the storm’s time of arrival, imagining Ma and Pa watching us from a picnic table somewhere in the sky, dunking rusks in black coffee, shaking their heads and chuckling as we got the timing all wrong.
As my husband and I drove down the winding road to Herolds Bay, the clouds lifted, and there was the ice cream truck. I sat on the same little green bench that mom and I sat on eight months earlier and licked my twirly whirly ice cream. Vanilla with a flake. Dipped in caramel and laden with nuts this time. To celebrate life and acknowledge the sometimes-spectacular shortness of it.
Then we drove back up the hill, the little pine box from First Avenue Funeral Home nestled between our backpacks in the trunk.
Ma’s last road trip.
Published in the March 2022 Beacon Newspaper.