s

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“I already knew, sort of, how it worked: in ten years, perhaps, analysis might be in order, clarity might emerge, but for right then it was only murky chaos, like having been knocked into the surf by an unexpected wave. My mom had taught us young what to do: lie still beneath the churning surface because if you try to come up for air, you will be pummeled again...."

fifty miles
non-fiction from ana maria spagna


I sat in the front seat of the brand new '81 Toyota Wagon, the first car my mother ever bought alone - with cash, she liked to say, no interest payments for her, she had enough complications in her life right then, god knows - she just decided one day and did it, ditched the old green Volvo and whatever mechanical problems it harbored, and bought this smaller car. Usually I sat in the front. Someone had to. It was late, and we were heading fifty miles home from the beach.

“You have to talk to keep me awake,” Mom said.

She had been telling people for weeks that fifty miles would be farther than she had ever driven alone, and now my younger brother and sister slept soundly in the back seat. The situation was serious, I thought, dire even.

“About what?” I said.

“Anything.”

So I started at the beginning. I doled out the history, holding nothing back, a torrent of words. The passion had been building for months, I suppose. Through the end of sixth grade and half way through the seventh, I hardly spoke. Whenever I stood in a group of girls at the roller rink, whenever adults at church cooed sympathy at me, I remained silent. Or if there were no way around it, I shrugged and mumbled, or chose from the stock file of monosyllabic replies: yep, no, fine, sure. But tonight I had to talk. So I did, and it was so easy. There was so much to say.

I started with the Quarrymen, the Cavern Club, Pete Best, then the first marriages-Patty, Cynthia, Maureen-then the movies, the concerts, the interviews. As six lanes swept us into the foothills and comparative darkness, I told my mom about the furor over John saying, “We're bigger than Jesus,” and I thought I saw her frown, and though it was not me who was responsible for her disapproval - it never was, I made sure of that - I dropped the subject and continued on to the Maharishi and George with his sitar, and more, so many more details that I've forgotten over time. Maybe I told her about their manager Brian Epstein's untimely death. Would I have dared? I don't think so. I would have avoided that at all costs and focused instead on how, after the boys stopped touring, after Rubber Soul and Revolver, well, there was no turning back. I wanted my mom to understand that the young Beatles, the fab four on Ed Sullivan with their mop tops and matching suits, were just the tip of the iceberg, forgettable really, not of essence. She had a bemused smile.

“I didn't know any of that,” she said. “Go on.”

The truth was the Beatles had split up a decade earlier, back when I was in diapers. But it didn't bother me a bit. It comforted me to be distanced from the mania, the record burnings, the war protests, and to be able to follow the story-Liverpool lads, mop tops, psychedelic hipsters-with twenty-twenty hindsight and a handy stack of liner notes. Time maybe didn't heal all things, but it ordered them tidily. And for me, right then, that was important. My loyalty and affection in past tense were steadfast because present tense was screwy as hell.

The difference between 1979 and 1980 were, for me, these: Carter and Reagan, public school and Catholic school, my father alive, and, well…. I was an expert at denial. I clung to the past. I kept a Carter/Mondale poster on my bedroom wall for several years after the election, until at last I headed off to college. I crumpled my new plaid uniform skirt in my bookbag every morning and sprinted in shorts across the open field to the Catholic school, so none of the public school kids would see me, then pulled the skirt on hastily before the bell. As for my dad, he'd died of a heart attack at 48. Tragic it was, sure, sure, an aberration, all out of keeping with how life is supposed to proceed. But what was I supposed to do about it? I already knew, sort of, how it worked: in ten years, perhaps, analysis might be in order, clarity might emerge, but for right then it was only murky chaos, like having been knocked into the surf by an unexpected wave. My mom had taught us young what to do: lie still beneath the churning surface because if you try to come up for air, you will be pummeled again.

We had survival to attend to, my mom and me, a fortress we were building, and at times - though rare, I admit - she was falling down on the job. Not until evening. Not until after we kids were sent off to bed. Then her friends would come over, and they sat and drank pink wine from cheap screw-top jugs, and my mother cried. And cried. And I listened. I eavesdropped habitually. I huddled alone down the hall, in my room, and I feared that bottle and its maudlin effect like a Paul McCartney melody. I was exasperated because I knew the truth: you cry to those songs because you wanted to cry in the first place. In hindsight, I am grateful that my mother had such friends, that she had the precious hours for grief between our bedtime and hers. Because during the day, I'd have none of it.

I took over the task of setting the table because I feared, rightly, that my younger sister and brother would set five plates instead of four. I also appointed myself the unofficial Conversation Police. The second any mention of my dad came up, I tromped out of the room. And I tried to keep my mom company. On the nights her friends didn't show, I sat up with her in front of the TV, then again at the breakfast table, eating cottage cheese, folding the newspaper back to the op-ed page, feigning adulthood. My mother was teaching seventh grade, her first full-time job in a decade, and she hated it. I did not want to be the kind of seventh grader that made her crazy. That was part of it. Mainly I didn't want her, ever, to have to be alone.

On top of everything came this vacation. A week at the beach was just the sort of pitfall I tried to steer us clear of. My dad had loved the ocean above all else. He fished from the rocks, and barbecued in the sand, and stared out at the waves. Now my mom had driven us there, alone, those fifty long miles. I was on red alert. Since there was nothing I could do to prevent her extended crying jags, I avoided Mom as much as I could. I lay in the sun and read my book, the recent George Harrison autobiography-I, Me, Mine-and when it got too hot, I waded out into the surf to stand where the waves break, going alternately over and then under them, determined not to be knocked down.

That afternoon I took one last swim, then just before sunset, we shut ourselves into the air-conditioned car and headed off. Now we reemerged from the foothills into the outskirts of our hometown. I was still talking, but I was getting too sleepy, too close to the end. I felt exposed, raw, having given voice to all that meant the most to me. I hesitated and caught my breath.

“So what did the others have against Yoko?” she asked, helping me out, giving me a cue.

“Nothing,” I lied. “Nothing at all.”

We weren't even close to our off ramp, and the breakup loomed, and I didn't want it to come to that.

By December, we'd be at Marie Callender's for dinner when the news would come: John Lennon shot dead in front of the Dakota. I was shocked by the news, and shocked, too, by the hoards of Johnny-Come-Lately fans grieving on the street. They sat on the television in New York and London, distant colder places, clutching bunches of flowers and weeping unabashedly. I should have been glad for the rush of specials, old film clips on the TV, but it wasn't the same. The Beatles were no longer just mine, and because of that, they lost some of their sheen. I wasn't done with them, not by a longshot. But that day marked, as John would say, the end of the beginning.

Much later, in college, I'd meet other people my own age who collected cassettes of the original albums - hardly anyone had LPs by then - and posted the 8 x 10s from the White Album on their dorm walls. I was shocked all over again. The Beatles were not my own. I had shared them all along, not only with histrionic British girls and grieving middle-aged New Yorkers in overcoats, but with scores of other preadolescent introverts who knew the lyrics to I Am the Walrus, a decade too late, better than they knew themselves. If it was a disappointment, it was also a relief to realize that through all those years I hadn't been alone.

I suppose I'd known it all along. After John's death, my love for the Beatles flagged, but my love for my mom remained fierce and loyal and unsentimental. We played endless games of Boggle and never missed St. Elsewhere, and each Sunday I followed her up the aisle at church and watched her receive communion, cross herself, and bow her head. I knew she would be OK.

Within a few months, I'd be talking more often, plenty enough, though rarely about anything that mattered. Nearly three decades after that drive I can still remember the intimacy of that night. How brightly it shines in the final analysis. As the streetlights and stoplights grew more familiar, four blocks then three blocks then two blocks from home, I searched my memory for just the right note to end on. I remembered the boys on the rooftop of the Apple offices. I told her how they just plugged in and played, how easy it was. Then we came to a stop. I didn't tell her how badly I wished, despite everything, that they could have captured the mood of that one jaunty afternoon, and held onto it. I don't think I had to.

One evening not long after our beach vacation, I overheard my mother begin to retell the story of that night, of she and I and the Beatles and our fifty mile ride.

“It was fifty miles, the farthest I'd ever driven…” she began. Then she stopped herself.

I was down the hall, ears straining long after I'd been sent to bed as usual-she had to know as much-holding myself taut and expectant.

“…without their father,” she said.

-Originally appeared as “The Beatles Drive” in The Rambler, September/October 2008-

(Illustrations: Troy Dockins)


Ana Maria Spagna lives and writes happily in remote Stehekin, Washington, where there are no phones, no stoplights, no taverns and no churches, but a very pretty river and many many trees. Her book, "Test Ride on the Sunnyland Bus: A Daughter's Civil Rights Journey" won the 2009 River Teeth Literary Nonfiction Prize. More from Ana Maria Spagna can be found on her website as well as in the Smokebox Archives.

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