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Ode to Driveway

I liked to think of the quarter-mile-long gravel driveway as an introduction to a great story- an opening scene to a movie with a nostalgic song playing as a car, followed by a cloud of dust, makes its way down the road towards the white farmhouse and the quintessential American red barn. I fell in love at first sight.

That driveway became a bridge to and from many things in the years that I lived on the farm that greeted its travelers- a rural passage that joined us not only to the outside world but also linked so many stories together. At the end of the drive, an electric post had a small sign with peeling paint that read, "short woman road." I always wondered if the sign was referring to the woman's height or her fuse, whomever she may be. I loved the idea that the driveway was an opening scene of other lives lived on the farm before we

did, and somehow my family's story was the new link connecting past and future.

During the first years of marriage, the driveway was where we took occasional romantic walks with the dogs- a good way to get exercise and talk. We would walk the roughly quarter-mile down, turn back, look at the farm site and discuss plans for planting fruit trees and where to put the new house we were going to build.

Our very regal farm dog, Kingsley (a pug), would greet every car that came down the drive enthusiastically, often running just inches in front of the moving wheels. He was effective at slowing people down and less so at providing an intimidating presence. I smiled to myself as I saw him snorting down the gravel, thinking he was the perfect greeter to the funny farm- a weird and wild place that we created with wooly pigs, shaggy cows, and some occasional sheep, but more so, I hoped, a place that felt welcoming to all.

We walked with some guests and visitors to the farm down the drive after the big meals we loved preparing. The first leg down- digestion of good food, beer, and sometimes excess libation, the second leg- talk of big and small ideas in addition to a lot of bullshit.

When it snowed, heavy drifts would gather on the drive blocking our only way out. I remember watching as my husband spent hours in the skid loader clearing a path- feeling a sense of gratitude, pride, and empathy for his commitment to doing the hard work. I was proud of the farm he'd spent so much time building but also felt the heaviness of the isolation. Living the farm life was a dream, but it also took enormous effort and 24/7 commitment. Sometimes the drifts were too big to clear.

I walked the driveway after my third miscarriage-- the first leg out a mourning process of the vision of family I wanted so badly, grief in every heavy step. When I came to an end, I exhaled deeply, turned around- the second leg was the acceptance of a life re-imagined.

Then a couple of years later, during my first days of being a new mother- the walk out to the end of the drive helped me process the wave of realization that I was responsible for another person’s life.. the second leg, I rode that wave of paralyzing fear that the responsibility was for the rest of my life…

It became the place where my daughter, gaining confidence after learning to walk, ran ahead ever so far with the dog, only to turn around and come running back- her chubby toddler legs glinting in the sun. During the first leg, she would run just far enough that she was beyond the grasps of my comfort. I would call out for her- not wanting her to be too far away, less out of fear for her, more not wanting to let go. With relief and gratitude, a tired child nestled in my arms, I would walk the return leg back, thinking how lucky I was.

The gravel was my freedom from the stress of work and being a parent. After a long day being home working, playing, cooking, washing, and breastfeeding, I would meet my husband at the door eager to escape being needed even for a moment- letting the first leg lift the burden of being all the things and the second finding myself briefly again buried under the weight.

Sometimes, on a clear night, I would walk the drive alone to get a better view of the stars and a better sense of myself as my family slept inside. I remember one cold winter night, I walked the entire drive in the light of the moon with nothing but the sound of the gravel crunching under my feet, the wind, and coyotes singing in the distance.

The road seemed to compassionately absorb my footsteps, heavy laden with the news of my second daughter’s severe genetic condition- an already broke and dismantled heart and the uncertain post-birth prognosis. On the first leg, I rolled the doctor's words over in my mind pondering my obligation and responsibility as a mother to keep my child safe and free of pain, debating if I should continue the pregnancy. With deep sobs and a final sigh, I turned back with the backdrop of a severe storm in the distance, walked the quarter-mile back, gravel crunching under my no-so-confident strides to take on whatever storms came our way.

My second daughter was delighted to be outside in the sun. Her sister and I took turns pushing her stroller down the drive for her first outing outside since months of being in hospital ICUs. This time, instead of hearing sounds of wind, a feeding pump's rhythmic hum accompanied us, keeping pace with our steps. The first leg down, I was consumed with making sure the sun wasn't in her face, and the pump line didn't get caught in the stroller wheels. The second leg back, I felt a distant confidence begin to return-a trust that I hadn't felt in so many months... I can do this.

I walked that road before all four of her open-heart surgeries, praying to some God (any God) to get her through. I usually found a red-tailed hawk perching on the electric post midway through the drive during these walks. When I arrived at the post, it would fly to the next one- as though walking (or dancing) with me. When I came to the last one, it always stayed. I remember thinking I must look deranged as I talked aloud to it, asking it to keep my daughter alive.

I distinctly remember the humming sound of insects when I realized with clarity that my marriage was over and that I would have to leave the home I had tried to build. It was a slow walk down the drive this time; when I got to the end, I sat down, wishing to stay just a little bit longer. My moment was disrupted by a frog on the edge of the road by the grass, letting out light screams as a snake consumed it. I remember thinking… what a shitty way to end.

When I drove down the gravel drive after officially moving to a different house, there wasn’t any nostalgic music playing. I drove past the cement footings and half stone walls of a house unfinished, a small orchard now fully mature, and a small patch of magnolia trees planted to honor the spirits of our unborn before hitting the long gravel stretch to the main road. Holding my breath as I turned, I forced myself not to look in the rearview mirror; it was probably too dusty to see anyway.

Sometime before my first daughter arrived, I began a painting I referred to secretly as the Ode to Driveway. I wanted a way to say thank you for being a silent witness and walking partner in life. As an amateur painter, I struggled to make it life-like. My brushstrokes were too big, and I could never get the grass or the gravel right. I started it and then never found the time to finish. In my new house and new life, the unfinished painting came with me. The view that had gotten me through so much sat untouched on the easel like it was asking me why I left, reminding me of my other life- also left undone.

With Christmas lingering during the second winter in my new house, I decided to finish the painting and give it to my ex-husband. I exhaled as I sat down with brushes in hand. Eventually, my novice and clumsy hands found the gravel again. I could hear the crickets in the grass and feel the heat rising from the ground- a scene to a story, maybe with a not-so-happy ending but still filled with the themes of a great tale. As my brush stroked the colors of the sunset, I thought to thank you and goodbye.


Listening to: Long Lonely Road, Valarie June, The Order of Time, 2017

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