By Kaitlyn Greenidge
When I was 16, my two sisters, my mother and I took a road trip from our home in Massachusetts to Iowa. My sister Kirsten had gotten into graduate school at the University of Iowa and we all piled into a U-Haul to help her move. This was the first mistake — the U-Haul. The clerk had assured my mother that it had an air-conditioned cab that easily sat four people. In fact, there were the standard driver and passenger seats and two hopper seats, facing parallel behind them. And there was no air-conditioning, only the windows up front and two small windows blowing hot exhaust into the back.
Before we left, my mother, in her best therapist way, asked each of us to list the one thing we needed on the trip to be comfortable. She believed this would cut down on conflict.
Kirsten said blankets, because even in a truck’s cab without air- conditioning in August, she would be cold. I said hotels with pools. Easy enough to research today, but this was in the late 1990s, before you could figure such a thing out with a few clicks online. My mother dutifully took out her map from AAA and a guidebook to the Midwest and a pink highlighter and plotted each stop to align with a budget hotel with a pool of some sort. My middle sister, Kerri, said, “All I want is breakfast.” By which she meant, a sit-down breakfast, with bacon, eggs and at least two bread options, every morning, no matter when we were supposed to get on the road. My mother, in the interest of fairness, agreed.
The summer of this road trip, I had just finished my junior year of high school and I was slowly coming to the realization, at a later stage than most, that I was separate from my family. The coming year would be the first one when I was the only sibling at home — a terrifying prospect for a family as close as ours.
Even though my oldest sister was in her early 20s, we all still spent weekends together, as we had since we were children. Every Saturday morning, my mother, Kerri and I drove to Kirsten’s apartment so that we could all run errands together.
My mother understood, though, that so much time defined by my older sisters could be a problem. So she once signed me up for a girls’ chorus on Saturday mornings. I hated chorus. It took me away from the gossipy cocoon of my mother’s shabby gold Toyota Corolla. On the way to chorus practice, my sisters and I would people-watch, make the perennial Bostonian complaint about all the nerds and hippies tripping, oblivious, in front of the car as we drove through Harvard Square. I would leave the car to try to sing in harmony with girls too rich to look me in the eye, and then, blessedly, I would return to laugh and talk with my sisters while my mother drove, only murmuring a disapproving “Girls … ” when our laughter got too loud.
It was a glorious place to be, with a language all its own. A single word — “mango,” “donkey” — said with the correct inflection could make us all dissolve into hysterical laughter, until someone would finally gulp for air, to tell the origin story of the special word, even though we had all been there when the word gained its significance, because back then there was not any part of our memories or existence in which we did not exist apart from one another.
This was a fantasy, of course. Even in the confines of the car, I understood that the idea that we all had the same memories, the same stories of childhood, was less an objective truth and more a desperate wish for cohesion. The four of us had just lived through my parents’ traumatic divorce, were still in the midst of a protracted custody battle and in the previous years had gone from a black-bourgeois life to living on public assistance. Amid all that change, it was a point of survival to constantly remind ourselves that our memories and experiences, at least, were all the same. We could laugh at the same things.
But this road trip was something else. In the morning, I would sit across from my sister as she painstakingly ate her full breakfast. At night, I lay back in the muddied, grayish pools of highway budget hotels and stared at the ceiling or sky and thought about what it meant for my oldest sister to leave, for my middle sister to go on to college, for me to stay behind at home.
The trip broke apart early on, though, when we reached upstate New York. Our U-Haul became ensnared in a miles-long traffic jam. We kept trying to get off and check into a hotel to avoid the worst of it, but every hotel for miles around was booked. “If we can just make it to Schenectady,” my mother said.
“Is that the sign for Schenectady?”
This was a refrain for what felt like miles until I yelled, from the back jumper seat. “Stop saying Schenectady!”
There was a shocked, stunned silence. And then, worse. Peals of laughter.
“You don’t like that word?”
“Kaitlyn doesn’t like that word?”
“What’s so bad about Schenectady?”
I can only remember the intense fury at this whole exchange. My cheeks burned, tears sprang to my eyes. “Stop, stop,” was all I could say, but of course, this only made everyone laugh harder.
A new word entered our family lexicon. “Schenectady” became code for whenever someone became annoyed with everyone else, for whenever someone tried to assert herself as an individual outside the family unit. They were saying it, I’m sure, later in the trip when I stormed out of my sister’s one-bedroom in Iowa City — where all four of us slept while she got ready for grad school — shouting expletives about the whole family.
It’s a strange, hard thing to pull away from family, to create yourself, and still try to stay close to them. I’m still not sure how to do it. The answer I came up with in my late teens and 20s was to pull away completely, to move to another city, to make friends with people they would never meet, to date men they would never see. But that only results in a false self, one that is as shaky and unknown as the stunted self that comes from sublimating your desires for those of your family.
This summer, I took another road trip with my sisters, again to upstate New York. As the signs approached, my middle sister began to smile.
“Remember Schenectady?” she said, already laughing.
Ms. Greenidge is the author of the novel ‘We Love You, Charlie Freeman.’
(New York Times)