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Testy moments, spiritual growth on a weekend road trip


A trip from Minneapolis to Chicago with my daughter, three of her friends and their mothers has given me new insights into that quintessential American experience -- the road trip. We planned and packed for every eventuality: swimsuits so we could enjoy the all-important hotel pool, a foot massage kit, walkie-talkies for car-to-car communication, snacks for the road, coins for the toll booth. We were prepared -- at least for the practical aspects of our journey.

What I failed to prepare for was the emotional journey. Eight hours eastbound on I-94 was a piece of cake compared to the unfolding drama that took place inside the cars. The complications of 10 year olds’ friendships, and the parallel maternal web of reaction and response surprised me. Everything is exaggerated while stuck in a car hurtling through Middle America at 70 miles per hour -- the amusing things become hilarious, and the annoying things become hurtful.

The first leg of the trip went fine until we stopped for lunch at a rest area. It was a nice place -- complete with playground. After we ate the lunches we’d packed, the girls ran off to play. They may be preteens who like to polish their nails and listen to pop music (but puh-leeze, no Britney Spears, she is way uncool), but they’re still kids who dash for the best swing when they see an opening. I was chatting at the picnic table with the other moms when my daughter came up and quietly asked for the car keys. This is a kid who wears her heart on her sleeve, so I knew there was trouble.

“Mom, can we just turn around and go home now?” she said tearfully when we got to the car. It was starting to look like a very long weekend.

Upon further exploration I discovered someone had said something “mean” to her. The details are irrelevant, but suffice it to say that when my daughter’s feelings are hurt, I want to hold someone responsible. One of the moms astutely arranged a “community” meeting so the girls could talk it out and patch things up. Yet back on I-94 eastbound, stony silence reigned for quite a few miles after lunch, as the mother of the offending friend sat in my front seat. I found myself seething at her. I inwardly criticized her parenting style, her personality, her very presence.

What was a good Christian response to this kind of situation? I guess I was “pondering all these things in my heart” as Mary, Jesus’ mother, did upon being confronted with issues around her child that she didn’t understand, but at that point I don’t think anyone would have seen me in a Marian light. I slowly willed myself to act from the left brain, not the right as I am wont to do. It was possible that she didn’t see her daughter’s faults. It was, I supposed, equally possible that I didn’t see my daughter’s faults. What I knew was that each of us wanted the best for our children. I managed to talk myself back into a civil state as we barreled through Wisconsin.

It was easy to put petty feelings aside as I took in a close-up Chicago skyline from our hotel window, people-watched on Michigan Avenue, and basked in the energy of one of America’s great cities. Here the paradoxes of American life are evident. We had a hard time resisting the blatant consumerism around us -- the girls had to check out the Disney store, the moms had to check out Crate and Barrel. We window shopped Cartier and Coach and sidestepped homeless veterans and street musicians. The girls indulged themselves in the playful pleasures of the city’s ubiquitous revolving doors, and in the budding sophistication of sipping icy frappucinos (decaf, of course).

Our stay was a whirlwind of museums, elevators, taxis, bustling crowds and the fun of being on vacation, away from laundry, cooking, schedules, siblings. We explored the Thorne collection of dollhouse scale period rooms at the Art Institute of Chicago. Some of the girls weren’t very impressed with the institute’s famous Impressionist collection, preferring the modern and contemporary galleries, where as one said, “You have to think about what it means and you can look at it upside down.”

We walked through a special exhibit of nudes by photographer Irving Penn, revealing the human female form in abstract poses. Perhaps predictably, the girls giggled about ample thighs, generous glutes, and the asymmetrical breasts of a reclining model. (We moms of course thought it was fabulous to see, as art, bodies that more closely resembled our own than those of impossibly lean and smooth fashion models.)

Some of us went to Holy Name Cathedral for Mass. I think the girls, though they couldn’t have expressed it, were secretly thrilled at being in this vibrant throng of churchgoers in this very Catholic city. Next time, we’ll make it to Hull House, the Du Sable museum of African-American history, the Swedish-American Center -- all things on our list that we just didn’t have time for.

Despite the testy moments, the trip expanded our inner and outer horizons, and we all agreed it was worth repeating next year. For me perhaps, the road trip was an opportunity for some spiritual growth. In any case, it was good practice for the next installment -- my family’s upcoming August camping trip to Yellowstone. Stay tuned.

Kris Berggren writes from Minneapolis. She can be reached by e-mail at krisberggren@msn.com

National Catholic Reporter, August 30, 2002