By: Nena Jobina
I hoisted and heaved the heavy suitcase down the sidewalk and made it four blocks before my father skidded to a halt at the curb. Without a word, he flung open the door of our Desota and with a grim, teeth-clenched jaw, he set off at a frightening clip down the highway.
I’m sure somewhere along that whirly bird ride we must have had some dialogue, else how would he have known where to take me, but all my memory catalogued was a stony silence, the rigid set of his jaw in profile and the speed of the car.
The suitcase was an over-sized leaden tote because I was carrying the dental tools, heavy hand piece and all the other paraphernalia that I would need to take the Florida State Board Exam for dental hygiene in the lobby of a Jacksonville hotel. In desperate frustration, my parents made a feeble attempt to lock me in the house, forbidding me to go. But with defiant determination, I slammed the door as I huffed down the broad steps dragging that burdensome beast. I was to meet a ride with two dental students for the trip to Florida but if my parents didn’t take me to Chapel Hill, I had no idea how I would make the rendezvous. This was not a scene of overly possessive parents reluctant to see their only daughter move on into the world. No, not so. There was a bloody prelude to their justified stance.
At fifteen, working as a dental assistant in my hometown, I had an affair with a senior dental student who was working as the dental lab man in our office, a man thirteen years my senior, married with four children. After a turbulent three years, a slap in the face from his wife who surprised us in the parking lot, a coat hanger abortion where I teetered between this world and the next, my parents were aghast that I was still determined to join this man in Florida to work as his dental hygienist. What rational adult could be supportive of this illicit springboard into my first steps away from home? And yet, how could they subvert such willful, callous rebellion of a twenty year old?
After my return from the Florida Boards, I had to cool my heels for almost three months waiting for the successful result. What a slow, sullen summer that was for my parents and me. Neither could be joyful or excited; even a peaceful parting was in doubt. Those should have been landmark days, however bittersweet, a time when proud parents of a recent college graduate would wish to remember fondly but my folks had little cause for celebration, only a certain dread that I was destined for hard times ahead. They were left to harbor tarnished hope and stood helpless since I was free and “of legal age” to make my own mistakes.
Despite her strong disapproval, my mother could not send me into the unknown alone. She insisted that if I was determined to go to Florida, she would drive me there in our VW bug and satisfy her need to see me safely settled.
Our family took few vacations during my growing up years, but when we did, my dad drove. And yet, my mom was willing to brave crossing four states for the first time without him because my dad was ill at the time. In 1964, interstate travel was spotty to non existent in the South. My mom studied maps, listened to the advice of family and friends and decided we would take US 1 all the way. We chugged along, stop and go, stop and go through tiny towns across North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida. Unavoidable big cities made us both nervous but I hunkered down in my seat offering no comfort or encouragement. Slouched and silent hour after hour, I lacked any compassionate thought for my mother’s sad mission and offered no companionship to ease the tedious trickle of time. The courageous and selfless act of my mother confirmed the adage that no good deed goes unpunished.
Since I would be arriving in Ormond Beach, Florida with no car of my own, it was imperative that I situate myself within reasonable proximity to the dental office where I would be working. One would think that looking for housing on A1A, directly across the street from the Atlantic Ocean would elicit some enthusiasm but we approached the task with a dreary singleness of purpose. In those days, there were no high rises, just small mom and pop hotels, some few converted into monthly rentals. The first efficiency we looked at was dank, dirty and depressing for $65.00 a month but I said, “This will be fine.” My mother waited for the proprietors to leave and as soon as they were out of earshot, she burst into tears and said, “I just can’t leave you here in this place.” So, we moved down the row to look at the next place for $75.00 a month which was little improvement over the first. But I was anxious for my mom to be on her way so I insisted, “Really Mother, this will be fine.” She paid the first month’s rent and we headed to town where she opened a checking account for me and deposited $500.00. I know she must have stayed the night with me before striking out on her long trip back to North Carolina alone but I have blocked out our last night together. More uncomfortable silence would be my guess.
I was careful with that money in the bank but my commission on the sparse dental cleanings and x-rays in this new practice was 50% of $8.00. There were weeks when I earned $16.00 or less. As I watched the checking account dwindle, it became clear another job would be necessary but I had no car and there was no public transportation in that area so I called my mother to help me buy a used 1958 MG convertible. My first Thanksgiving away from home, I decided to drive my new/used sports car back to visit my parents in North Carolina. I’d never been more than 35 miles away from home by myself so I followed my mother’s example and carefully plotted my route. I was still shy of the Florida/Georgia border when the car over heated so badly that it blistered the top of my right foot. I nursed the car nineteen hours stopping every 50 miles or so for water and oil, not an easy task on the holiday. At 3:00 a.m., I managed to lose my way less than 25 miles from my final destination. Miracle of miracles, I was actually able to wave someone down at a crossroad to ask directions.
“Could you help me, sir?”
“Where you headed?”
“I live in Mebane and trying to make it home for the holidays.”
“You lived in Mebane all your life and you’re lost 20 miles from home?”
My mother met me at the front door in a state of panic, trembling from worry, lack of sleep and probably too much coffee.
“I had the highway patrol out looking for you. We’ve been terrified you were dead in a ditch somewhere,” she said.
The majority of our visit was taken up with finding someone to repair a sports car. Even so, I had to leave it and take a train back to Florida. Three months later, I flew up to retrieve it. The repairs cost more than the initial purchase price of the car and the right rear fender was crunched. With no explanation or apology, the repair shop allotted $35.00 for body work and I drove the car back to Florida.
Not long after, on another short obligatory visit, I left my mother in a sanatorium for exhaustion and my dad in another hospital for hernia surgery and drove back yet again to my paramour in Florida. My love for that man baffled and estranged my parents and me over and over through many years. Time passed and both my parents died but despite both a marriage and a divorce, it still wasn’t over between us. I didn’t leave him for lack of love. It was a matter of perceived injustice, a tale too long to tell here. I slept with him for twelve years after our legal division. He remained my dentist when geography was conducive. He called me to visit at the cabin when the kids were coming for a visit and gave me a heads up to pick the shitake mushrooms he cultivated so laboriously when he knew they would be flourishing. “You might as well go harvest them. I can’t get up right now.” I never failed to visit when I was in Florida and we hooked up when we could in North Carolina.
More than 30 years after our divorce, the kids called to tell me of his massive stroke. They kept me abreast of developments so that when I came to visit there was none of this… “Oh, I’m so sorry…blah, blah.” They prepared me for exactly what to expect and I had no trouble carrying along what conversation he was capable of. His brain was still working even if he couldn’t always get the words to line up. The last time I saw him alive I squatted down in front of his wheelchair and looked up at him when I said, “Short of your kids, no one has ever loved you as much as I did. I don’t think you deserved it but there it is.” He tilted his head in a coy manner and smiled without comment. When I got ready to leave, I said, “When I come next time… ” he interrupted me and said, “You’ll take me to bed?”
I called fairly often during the next few years and two weeks before he died he said, “Why don’t you come on down. I have plenty of room, you can stay here.”
I said, “Oh, Bud, you know I talk too much. It wouldn’t work out.”
“No, it would be different now,” he said. And those were our last words to each other after almost 50 years.
I would have missed a lot if I’d not left to be with that first and dearest love. I know I deserved to suffer because of the choices I made and the people I hurt along the way. I probably got my just desserts in the end. But sometimes, there’s no accounting logically for the people we choose to love early in our lives. No sane argument will sway us from what we know to be our destiny. It’s true he may not have deserved the adoration I couldn’t dispel and I know he never returned it in a conventional sense. But I remember when I woke up in bed in the middle of the night and with my chin in my cupped hands, I gazed at him and said under my breath, “I just love you so much.” And so I know, however misplaced, I have truly loved once in my life.
*Cervantes said, “The pen is the tongue of the mind.” I’d like to believe that the hard flinch of a painful memory and the concrete act of committing a tale to paper would be enough to bury the beast of guilt and absolve the suffering I caused my parents. My mom wrote me a letter a few years before she died and said, “Next to Buck (my father), no one has ever tried harder to please me.” I was astounded that she could forgive so generously. Is there any story with the theme of “Leaving” that isn’t tinged with some remorse, some prick of pain? I hold to the hope that we cannot become the person we long to be by ignoring or refusing to face the person we have been. So I say be kinder than necessary to everyone because we’re all fighting some kind of battle.
Every scar has a story and you can’t do wrong and get by for long without paying some price. Those few days that it took me to leave home for the first time bracketed by the prelude and prologue of that odd, long-standing, ill fated relationship has had nearly fifty years to bore a hole in my heart.
Nena Jobina lives in a secluded cove in Burnsville with her two dogs. At the top of her mountain she continues to inquire and ruminate. She will be offering an authentic log cabin with 13 stained glass windows and a wraparound porch along with a quarter share of 13.6 acres in hopes of attracting a good neighbor for a mutually contrived real estate land trust. Interested parties may inquire at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 682-9852.