Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Family tradition

One of the time-honored traditions in my family is the trip cancellation discussion.

It started when I was 15, and had been accepted at a summer program at a New England prep school. It would be hot, my mother warned me. I'd swelter. I wouldn't be popular. The academic work would be too difficult, and I'd be forced to come to grips with my intellectual mediocrity. The beds would be uncomfortable. I wouldn't like the food. I pointed out that two of my cousins had loved the program. "Them!" she said darkly. She offered me $500 if I would drop out of the program and stay home for the summer.

Three days before I was scheduled to depart for the program, and was getting fairly freaked out about the dire warnings at home, a college-age friend from the neighborhood took me aside. "Go," he said. "You'll love it. I'll deal with your mother."

Indeed, I had the time of my life at the summer school, and the following spring I announced my desire to go hear Bill Monroe play at a bluegrass festival in North Carolina on Easter weekend. The plan was for me to drive down to North Carolina with my parents and my friend Mary Anne; there we'd meet up with a friend from summer school and his mom, both bluegrass musicians.

About a week before the trip, my mother went into cancellation mode. It was sure to rain. The festival would be hot. It would be rainy. The place would be full of Southerners! By the time we were packing Thursday night, she had worked herself up to a scenario that included a motel with bedbugs and a lynching conducted by the Ku Klux Klan.

Fortunately, my father wanted to hear Bill Monroe, and we made the trip. The festival was phenomenal.

The trip cancellation discussion usually starts about a week before I'm headed somewhere, although my mother can try to put the kibosh a trip on much shorter notice. Perhaps the fastest she's ever gone into gear was in a train station in Paris, when she become convinced I was getting onto the wrong train to go to the Paris airport. (I was to catch a plane back to Italy, where I was living at the time; my parents were headed back to the States the following day.) My last view of my mother was her being restrained by my father as the train whisked me away to the airport.

The trip cancellation hysteria, annoying as I find it to be, has occasionally played out in my favor. There was the trip I didn't want to make to visit a rather overbearing acquaintance in California. It was a few months post 9.11, and my mother had heard there was a security alert at one of the ports in L.A. The fact that I was supposed to be flying into Burbank, an inland airport, meant nothing to her. She begged me to cancel. And, sanctimoniously referencing her concerns to my would-be hostess, I weaseled out of the trip.

The only time my mother does not invoke the trip cancellation routine is, of course, when the trip I'm making is to visit her. Ironically, this resulted in the most terrifying and dangerous journey of my life. Five years ago, when my dad was still alive, I flew to visit them in Florida. They were not up to driving at night, and I insisted, for the first time ever, that I would rent a car at the airport and drive the half hour to their condo. When my flight arrived in Ft. Myers, I dutifully called on my cell phone, as promised, and let them know I was picking up the rental car and was on my way. As I was walking out of the car rental pavilion the heavens opened. I couldn't see the end of the hood of the car through the driving rain. Had I been on a business trip, I'd have just sat in the car until the storm subsided. But I'd just promised my mother I'd be at their place in 45 minutes. So I drove.

Traffic was inching down the flooded highway at about five miles per hour. I was following a county public works truck, which stopped twice to let towering tornados roar across the road in front of us. Periodically there would be a deafening clap of thunder, followed by a flash of lightning that revealed palm trees blown horizontal along the median strip. When I arrived at my parents' condo, water was gushing down the sidewalk at ankle height. My mother was standing at the front door yelling "There are tornados on the TV news!"

Yeah. No kidding.

We're having the trip cancellation discussion again because I'm scheduled to fly to Albany, via Chicago, Thursday morning. I'm trying to explain to my mom that snowstorms Tuesday night at those two airports don't necessarily mean that either of them will be closed when I fly Thursday, when the forecast is for sun.

Stay tuned, as they say. Weather at 11.

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