Photo taken by Hedgehog somewhere in Louisiana
It's nearly a year from the day that my sister and I and then-8-year-old Hedgehog set out on our epic road trip through the Deep South, and I've been reminiscing lately.
The most remarkable thing, in hindsight, is the fact that Hedgehog missed the trip in its entirety. When I say she missed it, I don't mean she wasn't physically there, a fixture in my rearview mirror, stoically passing the thousands of miles strapped to her booster seat. I mean that she wasn't there with us, looking out the window, marveling over the eternities of strange sights: the strangling forests of kudzu, the eerie dusklit swamps and marshes, the signs enticing us toward Stuckeys and boudin, fireworks, peaches, pecans, above-ground cemeteries, the old mansions and slave quarters, alligators, dancehalls, and boiled peanuts.
A committed and compulsive reader, Hedgehog saw the trip as nothing more than an opportunity to read all day every day, across the hours and through the states, all the way across the country, four thousand miles total: a great tipping, sliding pile of books at her side. For her, Mississippi and Alabama will be remembered as a land of dragons and battles, Louisiana and Georgia full of magical swords and brave girl warriors--all punctuated by momentary flights of reality in the form of waffle houses and bright truck stops, necessary leg-stretchings, and portable lunches of tuna salad crackers.
Just once I insisted she catch a glimpse, when we passed through the French Quarter, and she obliged, looking up from her book with glazed eyes. I'm not sure to this day what she actually saw--the ornate little houses and rambling streets, or something else entirely, her mind still in the printed word?
Often as parents we have expectations of just how we want our children to experience some event, outing, or even a sculpture, painting, or story we tell; the truth is that, often, it just won't go as we hope. It can be hard to let go of our expectations, hard not to badger ("put down your book and look at that amazing view!!!"), hard not to pressure, hard not to feel disappointed when things don't go as planned or the enthusiasm just isn't there.
The biggest lesson I've learned as a parent is to try as hard as I can simply to let Hedgehog be. Not to force experiences on her. Not to feel let down when she doesn't react as expected, not to be overly invested in her reactions. That road trip was a real turning point for me in this regard. I very quickly came to a decision to let her read as much as she wanted, and not to insist she look at, or even pretend to care about, the marvels of the road.
I like to think that she will look back with fondness and satisfaction on our odyssey. The voices laughing chatting and arguing from the front seat, the country music on and off as we passed through local bandwidth, all a background murmur. Free from parental vigilance and pressure, in a cozy car full of books she could lose herself in the intensity of her stories. We had our adventures...and I am very certain she had hers.