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Summer Astrology: Behind the Wheel

by April Elliott Kent

When I was a kid, we spent several late-60s summers visiting my mother’s sister and her family in Los Angeles. After school let out for summer vacation, my brothers and sister and I would pile into the back of our Oldsmobile station wagon with a stash of science fiction novels, comic books, Spirographs, snack foods, pillows, and blankets to keep us occupied over the long, three and a half day haul across country from our home in Indiana to southern California.

The best part of the trip was staying in small motels in remote towns along Interstate 40 with exotic names like Tucumcari, Amarillo, and Flagstaff. These motels had large, neon signs and shimmering swimming pools that looked absolutely enchanting after a long, hot day of staring at steaming, never-ending blacktop. I don’t remember ever actually swimming in one of those pools, though; we usually ended the driving day with just enough time to have a fast-food dinner and watch a little TV before turning in early, so we could get up before dawn to hit the road again.

Daybreak was the very best time of day. We’d check out of the motel before dawn and drive for a couple of hours, dad and mom quiet in front, kids dozing in the back, stirring to watch the sky gradually transition from inky to crimson to pale blue. Then, just after sunup, we would pull over for pancakes and hash browns at some greasy-spoon, truckstop diner.

I loved those trips, loved being on the road, jostling along for days at a time; it was like being on a cruise. What luxury, to be in a small contained space for days at a time with nothing to do but munch Cheetos, read great literature like “The Adventures of Tweety and Sylvester,” and fight with your sister. When you’re young you instinctively feel safe with someone else, someone you trust, behind the wheel. All you have to do is sit back and entertain yourself while the world drifts by, filling you with a sense of adventure and endless possibilities as wide as the big desert sky.

* * * *

It was only four years after my first trip to California that we moved to Los Angeles permanently. Just before Memorial Day, almost exactly one year after my father died in a car accident, my mother, my sister, and I set out in a new station wagon to leave the place where all of us were born and raised. This time, Mom had to handle the driving chores alone, and often grew tired; I remember one witheringly hot afternoon nap under a freeway overpass in the middle of nowhere, when mom miraculously woke up just as a creepy looking stranger was approaching our car. The sense of adventure and wide open spaces had given way to a creepy sense of being pursued, and an awareness of our vulnerability.

In California we moved in with my aunt’s family, crowding their small, three-bedroom ranch-style house. My cousin suddenly had two roommates sharing her tiny, 10 x 10 bedroom, but to the best of my memory, she never complained. Oh, we fought, but in the way adolescent girls always fight with each other, passionately but briefly, over trivial things. I don’t remember any particular edge to our disagreements, the kind you might expect under the circumstances. I asked her once, not long ago, how she had felt at the time about being invaded by two near strangers, and her answer was immediate, and uncharacteristically serious: “It was the best thing that ever happened to me.” She’d never had sisters, had always had her own bedroom; but when we arrived on the scene she not only accepted our arrival as the new order of things, but embraced it.

Whether it was a result of having her space pried open at an early age, or whether it’s just something extravagantly openhearted in her nature, Kathy has always been more generous with her space than either my sister or me. In the grand tradition of her aunt – my mother – who never met a stranger, my cousin has always cultivated a kind of entourage comprising far-flung relatives no one else stays in touch with, people she meets and immediately adopts, childhood friends, coworkers, neighbors. She keeps her life full of people, while I avoid others as much as possible. She and I have always joked, in fact, that we were mixed up at birth, because she is so much like my mother, and I so much like hers.

For thirty-three years, my sister, my cousin and I have lived as sisters. Except for my fifteen months in Santa Cruz and my sister’s even shorter stint a bit farther north in California, the three of us have never lived farther from each other than a two-hour drive. When we came to California it was Kathy who taught us the ropes, instructing us in city lore and California slang, teaching us how to be big city girls. Since then, the three of us have shared four weddings, the birth of three children, the deaths of three parents and a brother/cousin, and innumerable calendar rituals – Thanksgiving dinners, Christmas Eves, graduations, birthdays.

Next week, though, Kathy’s leaving California to be with her brother and sister-in-law in Pennsylvania. It’s a sudden move, and none of us have quite adjusted, yet, to the idea. In my mind, Kathy and my life in California have been inextricably intertwined. In fact, were it not for her family, mine never would have come here.The joke is on my siblings and me, who are seemingly permanently transplanted to this once-alien place: Since the death of her parents, Kathy was the last of the people who were the reason we moved to California in the first place, all those years ago. Now, there will be nothing of family left to keep us here.

Maybe it’s no coincidence, then, that I’ve been yearning so much these past couple of weeks to hit the open highway, heading east this time, grabbing some onion rings in Roswell, staying in a crummy motel in Gallup, watching the sunrise over the desert, rich with vibrant color and possibilities. But unlike when I was a small girl, I don’t feel so safe out on the open highway, and I find reasons to stay put – work, cats, money. The truth is, everybody keeps leaving, and the more they leave, the more desperately I want to stay rooted in place.

At the summer solstice, the sun appears to stand still for a moment in its path across the sky. Likewise, the astrological fourth house, symbolically aligned with the solstice, is where we stand still and put down roots. When I was a kid, rooted firmly in the Indiana soil, I was eager to hurtle out into the world; these days, when so much soil has eroded around me, I rarely leave my city.

My cousin will leave town and step out on her big adventure just after the solstice, as the Sun begins to move again and the days begin their slow, gradual wane into fall and winter. Like my mother when we moved West, my cousin is moving East at a time of trouble and sadness in her life; she plans to fly to Pennsylvania, to get there as quickly as possible. But I know she hates to fly, and so I prefer to imagine her nestled, safe and snug, in the backseat of an old station wagon, fighting with her brother, watching the thrilling desert landscape unfold over a number of days; filled with a sense of possibility, as secure as a child who knows that someone she loves and trusts is behind the wheel.

© 2004 April Elliott Kent. All rights reserved

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