Loving advice: Hit the road, son

For six months, it had been an ongoing topic of discussion. But by May of this year it was abundantly clear that the time had come for our 23-year-old son, Flannery, to get a place of his own.

I live and teach creative writing to college students in Alabama during the academic year. It's not ideal living 2,200 miles from my husband, but it's what we do to make a dent in the $100,000 in college debt we owe for our kids. My husband teaches second grade in Los Angeles, and I come home for summers. I love my son dearly, and was looking forward to seeing him, but I couldn't face another summer living with him.

When my school year ended, Flannery flew to Birmingham to drive home to California with me. I was excited about the road trip, which would also include his 21-year-old sister, Lucy, who'd flown in from school in New York, and their 13-year-old sister, Norah, who lives with me in Alabama during the school year. But I had braced myself to stay firm about Flannery's moving out.

In Alabama I don't worry as much about him. An actor-director-musician-screenwriter, Flannery lives an artistic life, etched in a noir palette of late-night L.A. It had been a relief to be far away from the ignored texts, thumping band practice and driveway cleanup after raucous parties. To clean up one postmidnight mess, I poured steaming water on the cement, while three raccoons rose up like misty figures from a Miyazaki film to observe the driveway debauchery.

Before he left for Birmingham, a sublet northwest of downtown L.A. had become available for the summer, and we were encouraging Flannery to take it. He was dragging his heels. I'd hoped we could settle the matter before we left Birmingham. But once we picked Flannery up at the airport, I only wanted to celebrate being together.

The morning we left, Lucy and Norah packed the car while I cleaned and unplugged everything. Flannery slept until it was time to leave. When he finally woke up, he announced, "I need a shower." After his shower, he tried to unpack the car to find his cell, but Lucy blocked his way and said, "Don't you dare wreck my packing architecture. I'll find it!"

Our first stop was to be Milledgeville, Ga. That meant starting the trip by going 250 miles in the wrong direction, but I wanted to show my kids the home of Flannery O'Connor, Flannery's namesake. He slept the whole way there, waking only briefly to gripe that the car was too small (it was) and the Krispy Kreme doughnuts weren't fresh (they weren't).

In Milledgeville, I would like to say we became our better selves, but it was 100 degrees, and we quickly became as brutish as O'Conner's most grotesque characters — snapping, nagging, accusing. Only Olive, our dachshund, seemed content, and that may just have been because her panting looks like a happy grin. The docent looked a little afraid of us.

I became obsessed with Flannery O'Connor in college after reading A Good Man Is Hard to Find. I tried to imagine her courage moving home at 26 to battle lupus, living with her mother who ran the family's dairy farm, dealing with unsolicited advice from visitors who suggested she write another Gone With the Wind "like that lady in Atlanta did." She wrote every day from 9 to 12, inspired or not, wanting to be there at the typewriter in case something showed up.

As the farm's peacocks howled, I buried some pennies in the red dirt for writer friends who had asked me to leave something of them with the spirit of O'Connor. I slapped a bumper sticker on the car that said, "WHEN IN ROME, DO AS YOU DONE IN MILLEDGEVILLE," from a letter O'Connor wrote when she went to Lourdes. But part of me couldn't forget about the 2,500 miles we still had to travel.

That night in Atlanta, we had sweet tea and barbecue with a friend. Then it was on to Chattanooga, where we saw Lucy's boyfriend and his family. We visited Mama Frances, the kids' paternal grandmother in Nashville. In Bucksnort, Ark., we noticed a low tire, and in Oklahoma City bought a new one. We drove through a crazy night storm with lightning bolts that split the sky.

Flannery, at the wheel and maneuvering through golf-ball-sized hail, said, "It's like the most intense video game with no reset button."

Lucy captured vistas with her camera, Flannery read us his noir screenplay, Norah knitted and monitored the GPS, and Olive drooled and tried to climb out the window.

But we still hadn't really talked about his moving out.

Somewhere after Flagstaff, Flannery finally raised the subject: "You sure you want me to move? I need to tell this guy if I want the sublet."

"Yes. Definitely. No question."

"But what about a job and money?"

"You'll find a job. This is what you do to become a man. You move out. You create your own life."

I knew pushing him out of the nest was the right thing to do, but I suddenly found myself remembering the spring of 1988, when I first visited Flannery O'Connor's Andalusia, and when I first saw my unborn son in an ultrasound photo. As we hurtled down I-40 toward a Western sky that was turning peach and sapphire, I couldn't help but wonder: Would this be the last road trip with all of my children together?

When we got home, Flannery packed up and moved out. It was that simple. Yes, he came home for dinner regularly, and yes, he frequently asked for a ride to work. But he'd found work, and he was paying his own rent. He may have had a leisurely start, but he was finally off and running.

Kerry Madden's picture book, "Nothing Fancy About Kathryn & Charlie," will be out later this year.

© 2012 Los Angeles Times

Loving advice: Hit the road, son 08/07/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 7, 2012 5:55pm]

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