JIM DODSON: The Highways of the Heart
Driving home to the Sandhills on N.C. 87 last Friday evening, just north of Pittsboro, I happened upon a sight that made me feel about 15 years younger.
As I rounded a curve by a gorgeous old farm, with an elbow stuck out the open window, enjoying the rush of the wind and the smell of summer's end, I saw a young man and two small kids sitting on a wooden bench by a pond that reflected an extraordinary evening sky.
The light was magical; the sky was a luminous rose with pleats of gold and blue. I could see a sliver of moon.
The man was barefoot, dressed in jeans and a T-shirt. He looked about 30 -- a working man, I decided, probably just home from his afternoon shift. The kids were probably no more than 3 and 4, knee-high to summer corn, as my late Grandmother Taylor might have said. They were listening raptly to something the man was saying, already dressed for bed in pajamas. The man was pointing to something in the sky over the trees -- a bird, perhaps, or maybe an early evening star.
I knew this man. He was their father. They were his children, a girl and a boy. He was telling them a story before bed, embroidering a tale on the beautiful evening air.
I knew this fine old highway, too. It meanders diagonally across the state from old Federal Highway 29 just north of Reidsville and the shadow of the Virginia line to the port city of Wilmington, passing through small towns and crossroad hamlets no bigger than the hips on a corn snake. When I was about the age of the boy on the bench, I'm pretty sure, my family took this same highway when we moved from Wilmington to Greensboro. As a teenager, I used to dove-hunt at a friend's grandfather's farm near Saxapahaw.
Along this highway, like many in the state, you pass farm stands and Free Will Baptist churches, burying grounds and auto graveyards. You pass handmade signs that read: "Snow Hill Old Farmers Day -- Everyone Come!" and "Preacher Holmes Road Reunion This Way" and "Buy This Car -- $300. Cheap!"
You pass through the outskirts of a lovely college town, too. Elon College is where I'd been that day, in fact, helping my former wife move our son into his freshman dorm at Elon University -- saying goodbye to our youngest bird as he jumps the nest to fly away on his own,
I'll admit looking forward to this important family milestone -- and quietly dreading it. I know Jack's mom did, too. She flew down from Maine lugging several large duffel bags filled with his gear and clothing, smiling and trying to be brave. I brought a small load of his things and his golf clubs up from Southern Pines.
The modern college dude seems to require half of what most modern college gals need to make a college dorm room feel like home. This time last year, which oddly seems like 15 minutes ago, I drove across three New England states with a car packed to the gunwales with household goods and appliances. I toted things up three flights of stairs at the pretty University of Vermont, only to happen upon three bossy aunts from New Bedford, two dads armed with drill guns, and a trio of helicopter moms all anxiously attempting to home-decorate a dorm room slightly larger than your average janitor's closet.
The tension was fairly high. So I stuck around for only about an hour, kissed my new college girl goodbye, then drove home to our empty house in Maine, telling myself the bittersweet happiness felt was perfectly normal, that all partings are sacred, an essential part of living life in this world.
It was a beautiful evening in New England then, too, and I chose to take a winding road across the glorious Lake Country of New Hampshire into the rumpled hills of western Maine with the radio up and windows cranked down, passing handmade signs that read, "Late Sweet Corn -- $1 an Ear!" and "Snowmobile for Sale -- $500 or Best Offer" and "Volunteer Fire Dept. Bean Hole Supper Saturday Night -- 6 p.m. Northwood Grange Hall."
Rite of Passage
This year's rite of passage was a little more low-key and subdued -- the second child's fate, I suppose. They always seem to get the smaller birthday cake.
We began this family reunion and parting, in fact, by celebrating Jack's 18th birthday the night before at a nice Italian joint in Chapel Hill, rehashing funny family stories and talking about their summer travels. Daughter Maggie had flown down to soak up a bit of Sandhills culture and see her kid brother off to college before she headed back to Vermont.
"Dad," she broke off and said quietly at one point, as we were discussing her plans to spend next year living in Italy, "do you remember those crazy stories you used to tell us about the bears in the woods who would come into our house?"
Turns out, she and her mom had recently been looking at old family videotapes of their toddler years, transposing them to digital discs for more permanent keeping.
"How can I forget them?" I replied. "I made them up in pure bedtime desperation. Good old Pete and Charlie were designed to put you to sleep before I fell asleep."
"I loved them. For years I was sure they were real."
"That was the point, babe."
Pete and Charlie were a pair of zany black bears who lived in the woods around our house. Sometimes they went on hare-brained road adventures -- hitched rides on lobster boats to Canada, went on joy rides in tourist float planes over the lakes, drank too much blackfly juice and danced in the glow of the Northern Lights.
Pete was the roguish schemer, Charlie the affable and sweet sidekick who always did something silly. Mostly, though, Pete and Charlie kept a watchful eye on all of us, sometimes venturing into our house after we all went to bed to make outrageous suppers for themselves and watch bear cartoons on TV.
"I wish we hadn't sold the Maine house," my grown-up college girl suddenly said, sounding eerily like that 5-year-old of just 15 minutes ago. "That was my favorite house in the world."
"Sometimes I do, too," I admitted.
"And I miss good old Pete and Charlie," she added with a sly grin.
I didn't quite know what to say to this. So I simply said, "I think they're still out there, honey. They'll probably tag along with you to Italy."
Ready for Us to Go
Her brother thoughtfully stayed with his mom at her hotel that night in Haw River, not far from where his great-great-grandfather once operated the area's large gristmill. We are invisibly connected by such land and family history. But we are linked by many highways of the heart.
We agreed to rendezvous the next morning at the crack of 8 at his new dorm at Elon. I left home 30 minutes early the next morning in a dense fog but got delayed by school buses and a highway work crew. By the time I rolled up to his dorm suite, Jack and his mom had already pretty much moved in and taken care of the minimal decorating duties. She was busy making up his bed. He was busy setting up his new laptop computer.
We visited with a dean I knew at the school, took a tour of the Communication School, made the obligatory trip to Target for last-minute items, had lunch in a swanky dining hall, got his class schedule, bought his books, got his Phoenix card, and set him up with a new bank account.
He seemed to love every minute of it. His mom and sister left to go have supper with old Harvard chums of hers in Chapel Hill, planning briefly to return the next morning for the official convocation. My wife and I stayed a little while longer to take Jack to a final supper.
Over the meal, my wife, Wendy, who'd joined the drop-off day late, leaned forward and whispered to me, "You can relax. Look at Jack. He loves being here. But he can't wait for all of us to go."
'Birds We Let Loose'
She was right, of course. A few yards away, Jack was getting another sweet tea and looking excitedly around the crowded dining hall like a young man standing on the gangway of a brave new world. I could see how eager he was to explore that new world.
So we finished up and kissed him goodbye and said, "Call us if you need anything, College Boy." When I glanced back, Jack was already talking to another kid.
"Children are the birds we let loose into the darkness," wrote my favorite novelist, James Salter. "They will somehow fly higher and see more than we see."
This is exactly what I was thinking about when, a little while later, somewhere just north of Pittsboro, headed home to bed, I rounded the curve on N.C. 87 and saw the young father and his two kids sitting on that wooden bench by a pond reflecting a magical evening sky. My wife was following in her car.
I glanced to where the man was pointing and, wouldn't you know, saw birds flying over the trees. Then I looked at the darkening woods below to see if there might be a couple of zany black bears keeping watch.
As we passed, I tooted the horn and pointed happily out the window, though I'm not sure my wife had any clue what I was so excited about. I'm fairly certain I spotted good old Pete and Charlie, though.
Best-selling author Jim Dodson, The Pilot's writer-in-residence, can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.
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