When my oldest child, my only daughter, told me she was moving to San Francisco after college, it didn't really register. She could have said Dallas, Omaha, Chicago. It was just another place far away from our Colorado home.
So I volunteered to take her there. On a September Saturday, we removed the middle seats from the mini-van and loaded it with all her worldly possessions. When else, I thought, would she ever be able to fit all she owns into a Dodge Caravan?
She commandeered the first leg of the drive -- through Denver, then over and through the Rocky Mountains on I-70. From the passenger's seat, I read aloud selections from the Kenneth Starr Report, published in the daily newspaper, perfecting my Monica and Bill voices after hours of practice. She gripped the wheel, maneuvering like a pro, and begged to know what happened when I hit a lull, demanding details. Cigars? The collected poems of Walt Whitman? While he was on the telephone?
Together we gaped at the changing landscape -- the massive, striped rock escarpments behind Grand Junction, the intensely green strip of the Colorado River valley. Red rock canyons glowed in the Utah sunset. Darkness fell, and we peeled our eyes for crossing deer and elk on the winding highway for more than 100 empty miles.
Another day, another state. Across the Great Basin of Nevada. Giant lake beds with no water but mysterious shimmering light. Wondrous vanilla scent of giant Ponderosa pines in the ancient forest at Lake Tahoe. Hideous misplacement of huge casinos with roiling neon billboards along that mountain road. We drank in the bar at Sahara's to quench her curiosity, and grew depressed watching an emphysemic old lady break open rolls of quarters to feed the five-card draw automatic poker machine.
Finally, the city by the bay. She wheeled us expertly to the apartment where her roommate waited -- a third floor walk-up on a quiet side street flanked by Golden Gate Park.
From that point on, we were no longer road buddies but mother and daughter again, carefully maneuvering the widening gap of independence. I watched as she preserved all her energy for the task of growing out of my reach.
After a preliminary trip to Goodwill and the futon store for a kitchen table, a bookcase and a mattress, I turned over the car keys and left the rest of the initial homemaking to the two of them. They went out in my car to gather housewares. I disappeared into the city. They were confident. I was not.
I learned to ride the Muni, the train that traversed the whole glittering city. I climbed out of the gray tunnel to the windy street above at Market Street, Embarcadero, Van Ness. I avoided the eyes of beggars and rich people.
I returned to my daughter's neighborhood and set out marketing. A used copy of Laurel's Kitchen; bath salts and scented candles; Audre Lord's collected poems; a ceramic spoon rest that matched their fridge; chocolates.
From a corner produce market, curry, turmeric, bay leaves, chili sauce, fresh basil, cheese and flat bread. The woman in line in front of me, waiting to check out, shrieked when she saw a rat race behind the bins of oats, flour and dried beans. Another woman calmly turned to her and said: "Don't worry. They usually try to avoid people."
I arranged my care package on the kitchen table and left again. When I returned, an hour later, I found a note. "We had just been discussing the universal mysteries of mothers," it said, "and came home to find this answer. Thank you."
Later that evening, they chopped, talked and cooked. Spicy pineapple salsa; a stir-fry of eggplant, peppers, mushrooms and fresh basil. Cake laced with strawberries and blackberries.
The next morning, I set off on my journey home, the van a big empty cave behind the driver's seat. I listened to two bad novels on tape, stopped to take pictures, laughed at the billboard at Winnemucca which boasted: "One traffic jam every decade."
I thought of my daughter when, in Utah, a roadside sign warned: Eagles on Hwy. I tried not to think of how it felt, my shrinking universe. Colorado appeared, bright and fast. I swung off I-70 at Glenwood Springs, drove through Aspen and climbed Independence Pass.
Hawks soared above the golden valley in the fading sun. I remembered how she loved South Park at sunset. I blessed the 22 years -- fully half my life -- spent raising her, and sped home to face what's next.