Driving Toward Yes

By Dawn Downey

The desert wind whispered yes as it blew across Dad’s brow. In the summer of 1964, he and three of his teenagers (my older sister Michelle, younger brother Bill, and me) waited impatiently at the edge of the Mojave. Our road trip interrupted, because our family cat was having kittens in the back of the station wagon.

Five days earlier, at age forty-three, Dad closed up Bill’s Body Shop, his car repair business. He waived goodbye to relatives and friends, and drove away from Des Moines, leading a four-vehicle caravan down Route 66, off to California in pursuit of dreams.

Only a high school graduate himself, Dad insisted his kids would go to college. He had five children, number six on the way, and no means to finance all that education. But he’d read the University of California was tuition-free for the state’s residents. The fact that no job awaited him in the golden state—he’d work that out later.

He drove the station wagon and pulled a U Haul trailer. Michelle, who’d earned her driver’s license two weeks before, drove a second car. She towed a VW Bug, which Dad planned to sell in California. Bill and I rode shotgun.

A water pump or two broke along the way. An eighteen-wheeler mangled the trailer hitch. And Dad and Michelle parted company for a while—he following the arrow on a detour sign, she driving around the sign and heading toward Canada. But the four of us ended up together at the edge of the Mojave. While waiting to cross it in the cool of the night, we watched Cass birth her kittens, while the sun painted the sky pale pink, then navy blue. As we fussed over the cat and complained about the heat, Dad towered over us, as big as the desert.

Early the next morning he delivered his brood—three kids and five cats—to Pasadena. (The kids went on to college; the cats did not.)

Long before our cross-country trek, my father had outgrown his life in Des Moines. Between pounding out fenders, he’d written his first novel on a legal pad. A year after the move to California, the Santa Barbara News Press hired him, on the strength of an article he submitted. He was their first African American reporter. He walked into the interview straight from his job as a mechanic at the local Ford dealership, his muscled six-foot frame stuffed into a pair of blue coveralls.

While working at the paper, he typed his second novel during lunch breaks, in the back of his camper.

He stretched the newspaper job from obituary writer into outdoor columnist. Every week, he expanded Gone Fishin’ beyond the expected descriptions of the best camping spots and the latest model boats. His readers got to know his old Uncle Russell in Ottumwa, and his brother Al, a TV weatherman in Des Moines. When Uncle Russell got sick, he received hundreds of get-well cards from all across the country. I suspected then that Dad might be more than just the guy who grounded me.

After a ten-year stint as newspaper columnist, he transformed himself into freelance writer and then again into published author, with five books to his credit. He supplemented his income by teaching memoir writing through adult education. And that’s how he became a guru. Others taught; Dad cheered, encouraged, cajoled, nudged, nagged, poked and mesmerized. One of his students described the classroom experience as a cross between a quilting bee and a revival meeting.

Repeaters were common. Many took his course five years in a row. One returned fifteen times. On the rare occasions that illness kept him home, Dad learned that his substitutes had been greeted with surly expressions and sarcastic complaints. My father had groupies.

Over the thirty years he taught, he told his students to take more risks and write to their edge. After he died, a group of loyalists continued meeting, reserving an empty chair for him.

Decades later, I feel him pushing me too. Through divorce, lay-offs and career changes, he's challenged me to take a risk. When I’m typing against a deadline in the middle of the night, I catch sight of him standing at the edge of the Mojave. And I remember Dad driving toward yes.

Copyright © Dawn Downey. All rights reserved.

Dawn Downey, an essayist, finds inspiration in everyday situations. She writes about topics ranging from her pursuit of the perfect purse* to her search for the meaning of life--with jealousy, prejudice, guilt and inadequacy thrown in for good measure. She views them through the lens of a spiritual path that has wound through the teachings of the Buddha, around to non-duality, and has stopped for a while at devotion—a kinder, gentler relationship with the sweet goofiness that makes us human. She secretly wants to be a rock star, but since she can't sing, settles for reading her stories at coffee shops, galleries and book stores, anywhere there's a microphone and an audience. She lives in Kansas City with her husband, aka groupie, roadie and driver. He spoils her rotten. She reciprocates. 

Dawn Downey is the author of “Stumbling Toward the Buddha, Tripping Over my Principles on the Road to Transformation. www.dawndowney.com

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