Towels and swimsuits crowd the table upstairs, waiting. I stand in front of my laptop watching lines spread across the southern United States. There is no mistaking it. We will drive into the path of Hurricane Irma on our trip.
“So we’re just supposed to die trying to make the beach trip this year?” I say to my husband who is pacing the living room.
Kevin shrugs, his pursed lips blend into a constellation of freckles. “I think we’ll be fine. I’ve been keeping an eye on it.”
I nod and then shrink into the couch to hide the weather updates that are scrolling across my phone screen. Kevin is determined for us to make the annual trip to Virginia Beach to see Lucy, his mother. I am determined not to get us killed. Another part of me is tired of this tradition and wants to start making our own.
We usually pack our luggage each autumn, fly to Virginia, then caravan to the beach with Lucy and Kevin’s sister and her family. Kevin and I punctuate the drive with stories about our lives before we met. I often recall my 8-year-old-self leaning from the backseat during my family’s road trips, watching my parents’ silhouettes whisper as Neapolitan streaks smear the sky. The daydreams end with me wanting to travel the open road with my own children the way my parents shared these experiences with me. I want my children to giggle as they wonder about their parents’ secrets. When I share this with Kevin, he smiles and says, “I want that too.”
During the trips to Virginia Beach, our unrest typically begins in small ways. We leave the caravan to follow winding paths. We slow down to discuss groves and cemeteries. We veer off course to Colonial Williamsburg, delighting in the hours-long retreat. We sample Americana and it alights our souls.
This year, we want to drive to the beach instead of flying. The road trip serves as ballast to our independence. However, with the looming hurricane, Kevin and I look to Irma to provide an excuse for us to go our own way. The news is a swell of misery detailing the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey and predicting the devastation of Irma.
We imagine ourselves braving swirling winds and rising floodwaters for the sake of a family vacation. Neither of us can stand that pressure weighing on our conscience. Neither of us wants to endanger Halaina, our daughter. We wait for coworkers and friends to shout us down. We hope our mothers will wring their hands, their voices shaking as they call, begging us to cancel our trip. No one gives us what we want—permission to say no.
This hurricane, powerful and unforgiving, uproots our desires and throws them right at our feet. We want to be respectful of Lucy and all that she has done for us. Yet, we have outgrown the beach tradition in the way that we outgrow our favorite outfit. It never quite fits the same, but we keep it in the back of the closet while we wear something with a better fit.
We pray (and I fast) for clarity. The days drift by and the devastation grows before we find our resolution. We cannot cast away the beach tradition altogether, but we also have to set boundaries. We agree to journey to Virginia Beach, stopping in Alabama to visit my grandaunts. While there we will assess the weather ahead to determine if we should continue or travel to a different destination—just the three of us. We also decide that we should visit the beach every other year, reserving the off years for our own travels.
We load my SUV with luggage and emergency supplies then journey a day behind Irma’s path. When the road ahead is clear, we drive through the Natchez Trace, a parkway lacquered in shades of green, to Virginia. We are the last to arrive at After Ours, our beach house for the week.
On the third day of our stay, the Atlantic climbs closer to the house—another hurricane churns toward us. Lucy, Halaina, and I take our last walk on the beach before the storm hits. We are three generations signaling the start of a new era. I lift Halaina up, her toes leaping over cord grass that carpets the shore. Our steps deepen; our heads bend lower as we march. The wind snatches our words.
Lucy clears her throat. “Do you think you guys will come back next year, or not? We have to reserve a house in the next day or two and we want a good one like this.”
I pause and search for what must be said. Lucy did not give birth to me, but she is still my mother. She sends cards to thank me for raising her granddaughter and for the way I love her son. She sends gifts that anticipate our needs and to say she is thinking of us. She deserves kindness and not rebellion.
Yet, as my own daughter bucks in my arms and stretches away from me so that she can walk on her own, I know that independence is inevitable. My life is changing in ways that I am just beginning to understand. It is leading me on a course that does not mirror my mother-in-law’s. Lucy’s life is changing too. She is holding onto familiarity with her traditions, but these fine grains of sand are slipping through her fingers. We need to let go of her hand and find a path that fits us all the best.
I inhale and blink back the tides cresting my eyes. “No, we probably won’t. We want to do something on our own next year.”
Lucy smiles and nods her head. “I get it,” she says. “Don’t worry about it.” She gazes down at Halaina and smiles. “Come on! Let Grandma hold you so Mommy can get a break.”
Her response surprises me. I expected Lucy to be upset or to challenge me. I know now that this is the way of mothers—to lead their children as they forge the way ahead, to know when to let their children go so that they may lead instead.
As we crest the dunes, I gaze at our footprints trailing to and from the beach, mine crossing over Lucy’s, Halaina’s prints in the middle of mine. Realization crashes over me as I study our tracks. The present parallels the past; the future merges with the present. Lucy has been this way before with her mother—leaving behind old traditions to create her own and merging them when needed. I will take what I need to create new traditions with Halaina. My daughter will do the same until our paths diverge and we go our own way. Until then, we will all enjoy the intersection.
I am thankful for the traditions that have been given to us. I will take the parts that I love and in turn replicate them to delight future generations. By watching the steps of my mother-in-law, I’ve also learned how to be gracious when my own children approach me one day and announce that they want to go their own way. I will tell them that we cannot leave behind the traditions that laid the way for us. We cannot abandon what formed us. But we can take pieces of the past and make them like new.
DW McKinney lives in Texas with her husband and daughter. A former biologist and ethnographer, she proofreads legislation for the state. Mothers Always Write has featured her work. Her non-fiction is forthcoming in TAYO Literary Magazine. She promotes Otherness on her website, www.forlangston.com.