How Mom and I outran the tornado

On a tumultuous cross-country road trip to a new life, I saw how powerful my mother was -- and how vulnerable

By Kate Moses

Published May 9, 2010 3:01PM (EDT)

The beer, I thought, must be in the compartment under the trunk with the tire jack, or in the cooler with the baloney sandwiches and cartons of milk packed in ice, but otherwise I was puzzled. "Where are the Hershey bars and peanuts?" I asked.

"Huh?" my mom replied, distracted, her arms stretched over the roof of the station wagon, adjusting bungee cords. It was the morning we were leaving Sonoma, and all the neighbor kids and their mothers were crowded around our fully loaded car, which my mom had strategically packed inside and on top with everything we'd need for the week it would take us to drive across the country.

For days on end as Billy and John and I had raced our bikes in the cul-de-sac with the neighbor kids or gone swimming with Mary Anne or to movie matinees chaperoned by one of the other moms, my mother had been packing up in preparation for the moving van and driving us across the country by herself. When we reached Ohio, she would leave us for a couple of weeks with relatives we knew only by name, my father's younger brother Don and his family, while she and our dad found us a new place to live in Pennsylvania.

My father had already taken an airplane to Philadelphia, where he had a new job working for the government in the Department of Interior's Bureau of Indian Affairs. He'd sent us presents made by the tribes he was working for: I got a beaded doll without a face, which was hard to love though I tried. I'd asked my mother why he didn't want his little adobe office on the Plaza anymore, with its crackly leather chair and the enticing hot cinnamon from the bakery wafting through the open windows. She'd answered in terms that she must have thought were appropriately concrete but free of confusing details: His job in Sonoma made him sad. Years later I learned that most of his private practice work had been filing divorces.


My mom had been promoting our trip across America as a great adventure. Since she was about to drive 3,000 miles by herself with three children, two dogs, and three cats, one of whom was going to give birth again any day, her only hope for survival was to whip us into an enthusiastic frenzy and pray the spirit of fun would carry us through.

I couldn't wait. Seven solid days of McDonald's, A&W, Kentucky Fried, Shakey's Pizza, International House of Pancakes, Arby's, Foster's Freeze -- nothing could be better. And every night in a new motel: My mother, I knew, had left room in her suitcase for all the hotel towels we would be collecting for our new house in Pennsylvania. Holiday Inn's bath linens had a better color scheme, but by dint of some carefully timed wheedling I'd extracted the promise that we'd stay at a Howard Johnson's whenever we had the chance. If there was anything that could beat McDonald's Filet-o-Fish it was HoJo's crispy fried clams, and I saw the entire cross-country trip as an opportunity for reunion with Howard Johnson's coconut cake.

In those innocent days before car seats and seat belt laws, kids could roll all over a car unrestricted, so my mother put the back seat down in the station wagon and made our car into a big playroom. She padded the floor with a chenille bedspread, and she lined the edges with board games and coloring books and pillows and the camping cooler. Jean-Tom and Robespierre yowled in one mesh-sided cat carrier and pregnant Musette had a second to her preoccupied self, but the dogs were free to wander the interior, on the lookout for unattended sandwiches, ready to press their damp noses against my mom's neck as she drove. Our suitcases and an enormous bag of dog food were strapped onto the luggage rack under a canvas dropcloth.

"Your tail is riding kind of low," one of the teenage Verboten boys snickered from the curb when we'd gotten into the car. My mom sat in front by herself in her red bandanna, the Triple A Triptiks sharing the passenger seat with her purse and files of important papers and boxes of breakables she hadn't trusted to the movers. She checked her lipstick in the rearview mirror and beamed at us over her shoulder.

"This is going to be fun!" she cried, and we all hooted and waved as she laid on the horn and pulled away, the younger neighborhood kids racing after us on their bikes, handlebar tassels flying, to the end of the street.

That first day out, somewhere near the high-desert town of Winnemucca, Nevada, a freak flash flood washed out the highway. We turned back to the only motel we could reach; the proprietor put us in an upstairs room, as the creek we were on was expected to keep rising.

We sat on the lumpy beds and ate the rest of the baloney for dinner, listening to the endless surge of water pouring down the creek, the bar's neon sign throbbing red all night through the curtains.

"A flash flood -- now, that's exciting!" my mom said, peering out the motel's window at the churning creek. "This'll be something you can write on a postcard to your friends. I bet they've never been in a flash flood before!"

On the second day, a salt storm kicked up while we were crossing the Great Salt Lake Desert. We waited it out for hours, pulled to the shoulder of the highway like every other vehicle on the road, visibility nil as the storm continued to hiss at the windows, sandblasting the paint off our car. The wind blew so hard it knocked a livestock truck on its side, and giant hogs came bursting out of the opacity, lifting their pink snouts and squealing in panic as they trotted past us on either side of the station wagon, men chasing after them wearing their shirts tied over their faces.

"A salt storm!" my mother marveled, gazing out the blind white windshield as Billy and John and I played checkers in the back. "What are the chances we'd be lucky enough to see something like this?"

On the third day, after arriving in Denver long after dark, too late and too tired to look for a Howard Johnson's or any other cheap motel, my mother awoke in the middle of the night in our expensive downtown hotel room to discover that Musette was having her kittens inside my mom's open suitcase -- on top of all of her clothes, except for the grubby outfit she'd dropped on the carpet after wearing it for two days straight. Two kittens, three kittens, a fourth; then the fifth kitten started to be born breech. My mother went into veterinary midwife action. She tried to help Musette ease that kitten out, but it was stuck.

"What's going to happen, Mommy?" we asked, creeping out from under the covers to lean across the end of the bed, where our mother was hunched in front of her suitcase, muttering "geez louise, geez louise" over and over, telling us to stay back, the hotel's towels bloody all around her.

"I don't know -- " she said, her response unusually curt, then softening, as if she suddenly remembered us. "But it's going to be okay, don't you worry ..."

Throwing on her dirty clothes, a smear of blood across her cheek from pushing her hair off her face, my mother loaded us back into the car with Musette and the kittens. She drove up and down Denver's deserted streets in a futile search for a veterinarian's office, enlisting us all in a joint prayer to Saint Jude. Finally she was able to flag down a policeman, who escorted us to the only emergency vet in the city. We got back to our hotel and the other animals as the sun was rising behind the bright sharp edges of the downtown buildings. Musette survived, and the first four kittens. My mom's hands trembled as she packed us all into the station wagon to head for Kansas.

"That was the worst of it," she said, shooting us a weak smile in the rearview mirror and starting the engine.

After we'd passed through Topeka, the midday sky closed up and went black. As the local radio station we were listening to announced the tornado warning, the cars in the opposite lane of the highway pulled squealing onto the shoulder, the entire lane of traffic turning around and merging into ours, all of us heading east at increasing speed. Behind us, we could see the tornado's funnel sucking all the blackness toward itself.

"Put the leashes on the dogs now, Billy," my mom said, her voice brittle with false calm as she outlined detailed instructions for each of us in case she decided to pull into a ditch. The speedometer was showing 90 miles per hour, both lanes of the highway bumper-to-bumper with vehicles racing eastward, some cars and trucks passing us neatly by along the shoulders. "Not until I tell you to, okay? But here 's the plan -- Billy, you take the dogs. Cissy, you take the boy cats in their carrier. John -- John, you sit right by the door, Mommy will hold your hand and bring Musette. If I stop, we'll all crawl under the car, got it? Billy, tell me what it looks like now."

"It's closer, Mommy. It looks bigger." The radio had stopped working, broadcasting only a deafening spray of static.

My mom gunned the engine and drove. One hundred miles an hour, 110.

"That's fast, isn't it, Mommy?" John piped up.

"Yeah, that's fast," Billy and I confirmed, nodding our heads up and down.

When we rattled to a halt in Lawrence, Kansas, a couple of hours later, our engine was blowing billows of smoke almost as black as the tornado, which my mother had outrun at a sustained 115 miles an hour.

We spent the next day splashing in the pool of a motel in Lawrence while the station wagon was being serviced, my mother lying prone on a lounge chair in the shade, a wet washcloth draped over her face.

"Don't talk to me," she said when we came over and poked her shoulder to see if she was still breathing, "I just outran a tornado. Wait until Sally Verboten hears about this."

On the last day of our trip, we were finally closing in on our cousins in Dayton, my brothers and I campaigned heavily for McDonald's. Again. There'd been exactly one HoJo's on our entire route, and pancakes with blueberry syrup at IHOP had launched us every morning; otherwise we 'd stayed in whatever motels we could find and eaten every meal courtesy of McDonald's.

Not again, my mother said, but finally we wore her down. It didn't hurt that she realized we would reach Dayton well after dinnertime and a McDonald's sign appeared up the highway, beckoning in the distance like a mirage oasis in the desert, as we'd all begun to whine.

"Okay," she said wearily, flicking on her turn signal for the exit ramp, "but we 're not sitting inside. We'll go to the drive-through."

If you had a strawberry milkshake and a packet of fresh french fries, the best way to eat them, to my eight-year-old mind, was to munch a few fries, drink a bit of the milkshake, and dip the rest of the fries into the milkshake to taste the thick icy sweetness of the shake against the hot salt of the fries. The straw and the plastic lid on the shake, therefore, were impediments to complete satisfaction.

I was enjoying my first handful of fries and just prying the lid off my strawberry shake, humming noisily and perched cross-legged right behind the driver's seat, when my mother swung around to face me, her unwashed hair flying out from under her sweaty bandanna, which she'd worn every day since my dad left for his new job.

"DON'T --" she started to threaten through clenched teeth, her face contorted with menace, too exhausted and ground down to pretend anymore, this close to the finish line. "Don'tyoudare," she warned me, pointing a long, skinny finger at me, "takethetopoffthatmilkshakeit'llspillallover."

Chastened, I snapped the milkshake lid back onto the waxed cup. I sucked demurely on the straw. But after a while I just sort of forgot. As I started to pry the lid off my milkshake a second time, the cup somehow exploded in my hand, sending a pink tsunami of milkshake toward the back of my mother's head. In the rearview mirror I watched her eyes grow wide and black when the cold sting of milkshake splashed over her neck and started dripping down her dirty, five-days-worn collar, down her back between her shoulder blades.

For an hour she raved. "I hate this goddamned family -- nobody helps me -- I have to do everything myself -- I wish I could run away --" She wept and swore, her hands shaking with rage on the steering wheel. We were blown back by the force of her fury and frustration, huddled together at the tailgate of the station wagon, hugging the dogs. We escaped the car as if it were on fire as soon as we pulled to a stop in front of Uncle Don and Aunt Virginia's house, and I peeped through a window curtain in their living room and watched my mother continue to stammer and weep as she stood on the driveway rinsing herself off with the garden hose, holding the gushing end down the back of her filthy shirt.

"C'mon, kids," my aunt Virginia said cheerfully, luring me away from the window, rounding my brothers up from the couch where they sat next to each other, mute and paralyzed and white-faced. Her own two toddlers were already asleep in their bedrooms. She'd started running a bath for our mom; we could hear the water pounding into the tub. "Let's go in the kitchen," she said. "We can make popcorn balls."


Ohio rained.

The only thing for us to do in the inclement weather was to sit in the living room while our little cousins took their endless naps, eating popcorn and watching soap operas with Aunt Virginia as she ironed her clean laundry.

Some days we made popcorn balls with corn syrup that seeped at its own slow pace out of the bottle, and I paid attention as Aunt Virginia buttered the inside of the saucepan so the boiling sugar concoction wouldn't stick.

Sometimes we colored them red or green or blue. Sometimes we made caramel corn with brown sugar and salted nuts and it was better than Cracker Jack. Other times we made popcorn à la Rice Krispie Treats, glued together with marshmallows and margarine melted into a stretchy goo. We buttered our hands, too, when we helped shape the popcorn into balls big enough to last through an entire episode of "General Hospital" or "Guiding Light."

"Maybe tomorrow we'll go outside," Aunt Virginia would say hopefully, gazing out the kitchen window at the perpetually unpromising sky, even-tempered and patient though she undoubtedly had not anticipated being stuck inside with five bored children for two weeks when she agreed to watch us while my mom and dad house-hunted.

At last we were escorted to our new house in Chester County, Pennsylvania, in a rural township of gently sloping fields and Amish dairy farms that was the last stop on the Main Line. What had my mother done without us? Though my father had disappeared every day for as long as I could remember, doing his job or going to the dump with carloads of grass clippings, my mother had always been close by.

This was the first time my brothers and I had ever been truly away from her. She'd found us a place to live, Uncle Don and Aunt Virginia had told us, but how long could that take? I pictured her with my dad driving up to unknown but comfortingly familiar motel rooms with HoJos towels on the bathroom rack, eating fried clams in the restaurant with no one to share them with, packing the HoJos towels into her suitcase all by herself, with no one to help her squeeze them down while she zipped the suitcase shut. Beyond that I had no idea how she might have spent her time.

Now I wonder if she might have taken a walk alone, or an uninterrupted bath. Maybe she read a book. Maybe she finished the thoughts in her head, or lost track of where she was altogether. Maybe she spent every minute going from bank to phone booth to hardware store, unpacking, organizing, cleaning a kitchen and bathrooms that weren't left quite clean enough by the people who'd lived there before. Maybe she found herself sitting in the middle of a wide green lawn in Pennsylvania, watching shadows bend the fading light under a vast old black walnut tree, and in the distance her three children were shambling out of a car and approaching her, shyly, and she didn't look back to how beleaguered she felt the last time she saw them but, instead, without thinking, she swung her arms out to hold her sweet bumbling kids, her skinny blond boys and her newly tubby, graceless little girl -- who made her feel lucky to wake up every morning, who were running toward her across a vast space, relying on her to show them what it felt like to be home.




6 cups freshly popped corn
2 cups roasted, salted mixed nuts: a combination of peanuts, almonds, pecans, cashews, macadamias, and/or walnuts, to your taste
½ cup unsalted butter
1 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
¼ cup light corn syrup
½ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon vanilla

• Generously butter a baking sheet and set aside. Combine the popcorn and nuts, spread them on the baking sheet, and place in a low oven (200°) to warm while you make the caramel.

• In a heavy- bottomed, medium saucepan, melt the butter over low heat, then stir in the brown sugar, corn syrup, and salt. Turn the heat to medium and bring to a boil, stirring, then clip on a candy thermometer. Continue to cook, stirring frequently, until the temperature reaches hard-ball stage, or 250° to 260°. Turn off the heat, stir in the baking soda and vanilla, and quickly pour over the popcorn, tossing with wooden spoons to coat evenly. Return the caramel corn to the oven to further crisp the caramel, about 30 to 45 minutes (it will still feel soft when warm, but it will become crisp as it cools). Remove from the oven and allow to cool completely before eating. The caramel corn will keep, stored in an airtight container, for about a week.

Makes about 8 cups of caramel corn. The recipe can easily be doubled for a crowd. 

Kate Moses is the author of "Wintering: A Novel of Sylvia Plath" (St. Martin's.) She was the co-founder, with Camille Peri, of Salon's "Mothers Who Think" site, and she and Peri also co-edited the award-winning book "Mothers Who Think: Tales of Real-Life Parenting." She lives in San Francisco. This was excerpted from her new book, "Cakewalk: A Memoir." 

Kate Moses

Kate Moses is the author of "Wintering: A Novel of Sylvia Plath" (St. Martin's.) She was the co-founder, with Camille Peri, of Salon's "Mothers Who Think" site, and she and Peri also co-edited the award-winning book "Mothers Who Think: Tales of Real-Life Parenting." She lives in San Francisco.

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