End of the Road

wings tattoo
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Dina L. Relles

The beat-up Volvo station wagon hummed softly. It idled in the vacant parking lot of the sports stadium at the far corner of campus. My hands lay in my lap, my legs folded underneath me against the tan leather interior. We weren’t touching; I could feel his familiar look of desperation from across the console. Even in the half-light, I glimpsed that endearing gap between his two front teeth.

The clear New England night tapped at the windows, but the air that hung between us was stagnant. Heavy with the weight of our weekend away, it held the closeness of two people who’d traveled together. I fiddled with the fraying fringe at the bottom of my jeans as he spoke.

“Which is more likely?” His voice cracked. “That your parents would get over you marrying a non-Jew or that you would get over me?”

There it was: our impasse. It was just like him to cut to the heart of the matter.


There is a framed picture on my parents’ mantel of my father holding my face in his hands. We’re both crying, though he is not a man of tears. He was whispering the traditional blessing parents give to their children every Friday night—and there was something else too, words I can’t quite recall. But what remains in the sieve of memory is the sound of relief mixed with hope.

Moments later, I walked down the aisle to someone I’d long known but waited until adulthood to love. We shared a common past, a summer camp, and now a cup of wine under the huppah, the Jewish wedding canopy. The room rejoiced. It was just as I’d always pictured it.


A phone rang in my freshman dorm room in early October. He’d sat three rows in front of me in the massive lecture hall with his perfectly tattered baseball cap and freshly pressed prep school charm. I’d noticed him instantly, and every day thereafter.

An innocent request to borrow a course packet was quickly followed by an invitation to meet for coffee one evening. Easy, endless conversation flowed over my grande house blend and his hot chocolate with whipped cream that stuck to his top lip. First kisses on a dimly lit dorm porch led to nighttime snowball fights in Roger Williams Park and private flights in the campus Cessna.

One February night, my right arm dangled off the edge of the top bunk in his dorm room. A thin white undershirt separated his skin from mine as we exchanged pre-dawn confidences. He told of the time he sang to a dying pigeon as a child. Then, propped up on one arm, he looked down with aching eyes that ripped right through me. “I hope this doesn’t scare you,” he said, “but I think I’m falling in love with you.”

He sailed in regattas, sang a cappella, piloted planes. He was the captain of the squash team and several numbers punctuated his last name. His parents were Republicans.

He was Episcopalian. I was the rabbi’s daughter.

We had nothing in common.

We fell in love.

I shouldn’t act so surprised. It was, in a way, inevitable.


Something about winter stirs up memory. Tiny reminders drift down like snowflakes, settling just long enough to make me shift with unease.

It was winter when I first stepped foot in a church. On a family trip to London, I’d insisted we visit St. Paul’s Cathedral. Religion had become academic for me; I was endlessly curious, inevitably skeptical.

St. Paul’s was dark, quiet, ornate. Candles cut through the black and cast strange shadows on the coarse granite stones underfoot. It was silent, save for shuffling feet and serene hymnal music. It felt thrilling, almost scandalous somehow, to be there, and with my family. As we stood in its echoing, cavernous belly, I was struck, above all, by how familiar it felt.


I’d long stayed the course—years at Jewish day schools bled into summers at Jewish camp. Synagogues were second homes where I’d spend Saturdays sneaking around back hallways and swelling with pride at my father perched on the pulpit, masterfully holding court.

But even the most charmed childhood is no match for coming of age. My small, unconventional high school encouraged critical thinking about religion in a way the Orthodox schools of my youth had not. Long after class let out, I spent late nights sprawled on my gray carpet, a telephone cord tangled in my fingers, debating and dissecting faith with provocative friends. Questions led to more questions with answers that all ultimately led to God. It felt cyclical and unsatisfying, and I hungered for proof that wouldn’t come.

The quest itself became a kind of creed, and if I believed anything at all, it was that we were all connected in our shared uncertainty. I felt suffocated by the singularity of perspective, the smallness of my world. I still followed, more out of familiarity than faith, but it grew harder for me to reconcile religious practice with my steady skepticism. Doubt became my dogma, and I set out for college drunk with desire for diversity and distance.

Even in the earliest weeks away, I’d stopped observing the Sabbath and avoided eager solicitations from the Jewish groups on campus. I drafted term papers disputing the divine and touting the relativity of morality and truth. I rolled the word agnostic around on my tongue.

Now my safe, inner explorations had propelled me into the arms of another. Now they lived outside of me—in pleading eyes that reflected back my deepest doubts.


I hear a knock on the bedroom door and I throw on a damp towel, droplets from my hair tickling my arms. My middle son stands on the other side, gripping a glass perilously filled with electric green smoothie.

“Daddy made this for you.”

Ours is a different love, no doubt. No two people love the same. Not even the same two people over time.

Ours is no forbidden affair and our first kisses have long since faded. We share a mature love of burden and responsibility, of bearing other people who fill our hearts and hours.

Ours is a love not of questioning, but constancy and comfort, of leftovers and lights left on. It’s routine and real, not sexy, but sturdy and sure. It is as it should be.


I was the one who subconsciously sabotaged our secrecy over winter break. He’d given me a single iris on the night before we left campus. I’d brought it home, openly clutching it so as not to crush it in my carry-all. Never one to lie outright, when my parents asked its origin, I uttered his Anglican name. On a sleepless night, through streaming tears that distorted the once familiar fixtures of my high school bedroom, I sat opposite my mother and father as they drew their line in the sand—and I was too close to home, in age and at heart, to cross it.

We returned to campus that winter with renewed resolve to plot our relationship’s untimely death. Our lips locked, but our hands were tied. Come summer, we vowed, we’d end it. In the meantime, we busied ourselves with letting our love linger longer than it should.


One October afternoon, my high heels click-clack on the uneven Philadelphia pavement as they carry me home from work. I clutch my cell phone with my free hand, catching up with my mother en route.

Our conversation is casual as we chat about my husband’s sister and her strong interfaith family. But then, with a carelessness more misguided than malevolent, my mother flippantly remarks that perhaps she could have made peace with me ending up with a non-Jew.

My reaction is not my standard-issue irritability, but a searing blood boil that turns me inside out until words form at my lips.

“You’re not allowed to say that.” I choke out. “It will never be okay.” And it isn’t. I hang up and hurry home, holding back tears until I cross the threshold of that cozy first marital apartment on 24th Street.


By late spring, under the pretense of a squash tournament in the neighboring state, we set out on a secret road trip to Concord, Massachusetts. I’d shifted uncomfortably on plastic bleachers as I watched his lithe, lean body flit back and forth across the court. I impatiently awaited our evening reunions, our no-frills dinner fare. We wandered Walden Pond in late afternoon light and spent nights on dorm room floors of dear friends. We’d driven ourselves deeper into the heart of the thing.

Upon return, unwilling and unready to reenter campus life, we hid out in his old station wagon at what felt like the edge of the world. In this makeshift refuge, we talked of our incompatible faith and future. We imagined a world where our love could live, where it could defeat difference.

“I believe in the god that brought us together,” he whispered into the darkness. As if that settled everything.


It’s nearing bedtime on a visit to my parents’ home, and eight o’clock finds my mother and me jockeying for access to toothpaste, sink space, and my two older sons’ mouths. The boys are wound up, and I steel myself for the inevitable resistance to lights out.

My well-worn “time for bed” speech is met with their most fervent protests until the volume in the little bathroom reaches a fever pitch. My mother, a panacea always at the ready, offers up the Shema—the daily prayer—if the boys get in their beds. They dutifully file out of the bathroom and climb under covers, my mother trailing behind.

Instead of turning right, with them, I duck left into my old bedroom so they wouldn’t see the tears forming.

I could hear my mother’s soft voice sending the ancient words of the Shema into the night—Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad. Hear, O Israel, the Lord Our God, the Lord Is One.

An innocent profession of belief and devotion. But also, unavoidably, a pronouncement, a tribal rallying call, ushering my children off to sleep as it once did me.


I leaned against the car seat, exhaling deeply. My mind wandered back to the open road, to that stretch of New England highway that rose and fell while Fields of Gold played in the background. Where we could quietly consider a different life.

Just the day before, we’d slipped into a diner on the side of the road, flushed with the promise of two more hours together. We sat across from each other, laughing and coloring on the backs of our menus with kid crayons. We were stealing time. Eventually, our casual conversation stuttered, giving way to the familiar desperation that followed us everywhere. To the outside, we must have looked so normal, I thought. Like a regular couple.

I stared straight ahead. There we sat. Steeped in the thick, black night. The station wagon. Our impossibly idealistic love.

“Which is more likely? That your parents would get over you marrying a non-Jew or that you would get over me?”

His words hung there. I didn’t answer. I didn’t know.


Winter again, and I’m sitting on the scratchy den carpeting surrounded by the smiling, soft-skinned loves of my life. They watch kid TV while I sip afternoon coffee. A silly bit flashes across the screen featuring cartoons introducing the Chanukah holiday to their wide-eyed audience. A character turns to the camera and simply says, “Chanukah celebrates the miracle of light.”

Yes. I look out the back deck door and up to the gray afternoon light of a quiet December day. For a moment, I let out the breath that it feels I’m perpetually holding and my shoulders slacken. Maybe I could do this, I think. Extract morsels of meaning and weave a tradition that could draw me back in, make me whole.

It’s true—it remains where I am most at home.

In the smell of freshly baked challot on Friday afternoon. At an evening prayer service overlooking the lake at my summer camp, where I now return to work. Familiar melodies float up in the open air; I mouth the words without intention but through force of habit.

And yet. If I let myself think, I no longer belong. Familiarity, even love, cannot foster faith.

I tiptoe through the hallways of my childhood home. I sit with secretive silence and summon a smile. I’m an outsider looking in, faithful to a faith in which I only have doubt, belonging to a life that accepts only almost all of me.

I will forever be stuck in the stagnant air of that station wagon, staring into the darkness, searching for answers.


We stayed late on campus, a week past semester’s end—he to sing a cappella, me to be with him. Both of us to savor and suffer a relationship that felt far from over. Our months had become minutes, but we kept our vow. We left for summer separate and single, admitting—only to each other—that the love lingered on. Of course it did.

Still, we ended it. A choice made when there was none: a promise to a faith I no longer had and an inability to imagine traveling the unpaved road that lay ahead.


I collapse on the bed one night after tucking in my boys. I can hear my husband clanking around in the kitchen below, fielding a few last phone calls as he readies his evening tea.

New impossible questions follow me: “Maybe God is like the wind?” asks my oldest after lights out. “Invisible and everywhere.” I hum a non-response, then softly step into the baby’s room to stare with longing at his simple sleep.

In this season of life, the day’s demands leave little room for worry or wonder. I welcome intrusions—endless child chatter, babies stirring in the night. I’m uncertain, yet content. Winter’s restless reminders, the grounding weight of home, the not knowing—it’s who I am now. It’s what’s left.

He finishes his work, climbs the stairs, and settles at the edge of the bed. I wedge my feet under his legs for warmth and finally drift off to sleep.


DINA L. RELLES is a lawyer, writer, and mother of three young sons. Her essays have appeared in The Atlantic, Brain, Child Magazine, The Huffington Post, and elsewhere. She is a blog editor at Literary Mama and writes regularly on her own site, Commonplace. You can find her on Twitter @DinaLRelles.

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My Best Stupid Decision

The author takes a picture of her son taking a picture from the top of l’Arc de Triomphe.

by Katy Read

The words surprised even me, tumbling from my mouth before my brain had a chance to process them.

“If you quit asking me for money for clothes for the whole school year then I’ll, um … okay, next summer I’ll take you to the European city of your choice, for a week.”

“Are you serious?” my son said.

Wait—was I?

On that night last fall, my son wanted a new shirt. I wanted peace. Both of my sons, at seventeen and eighteen, have higher sartorial standards than my budget allows—just one of many catalysts for the wearying intergenerational conflict familiar to parents of teenagers. No doubt I could have gotten him to drop the subject for the moment. But drop it for a whole school year? In eighteen years of parenthood, I had not found a way to achieve that. Clearly, it would take a bribe. A big bribe. A bribe so huge it would cost about twenty times more than the price of a few wardrobe updates.

“Let me think about it,” I backpedaled.

I thought about it, discussed it with others. Family and friends encouraged me, in the way of loved ones who like to imagine you having a delightful time overseas. My ex-husband had a different reaction, in the way of an ex who likes to imagine you paying your share of the college bills.

Oh. My. God,” he said.


Let me be more explicit about my financial situation, indelicate a task though that is, because this is the sort of story that certain internet types tend to dismiss as just another privileged person whining about her overblown problems. Fair enough, if your definition of privileged encompasses the middle class, including those of us who have slid down the ladder in recent years but are still clinging to a rung.

Yes, I know there are more harrowing recession narratives out there than “I stressed over whether to take the kids to Europe.” But this isn’t a tale of woe, really. It’s a tale of recklessness, a tale of casting aside common sense, a tale of shelling out money to buy something intangible and possibly foolish, and hoping desperately that it was not.

For most of my life, I have occupied the reasonably comfy middle of the middle class. I have acquired—through a combination of effort, luck and, okay, privilege, not necessarily in that order—typical middle-class advantages and buffers: a college degree, job skills, a resume, some savings. These can be parlayed, at least theoretically, into moneymaking opportunities not available to those who lack them. I live in the city, in a neighborhood of tidy little houses and gardens, trendy cafes, lush parks that I go out of my way to drive past when commuting to work to remind myself how good I have it. By national standards, I’m doing okay, at least for now. By global standards, I’m positively swimming in luxury. The fact that I can physically scrape together the means to pay for a trip to Europe—while others lose homes or shoulder crushing medical bills or line up at dawn to collect their family’s daily bucket of fresh water—unquestionably proves me fortunate.

It’s just that I’m not quite fortunate enough to afford a trip to Europe.

The past few years have left me, along with many of my middle-class cohort, financially bruised. My ex-husband and I split up just as the recession hit. For the previous twelve years, I’d been a freelance writer and at-home mother, developing my writing career in exciting ways but never earning close to enough to live on. I had some savings, mostly invested in mutual funds and whatnot, which collapsed by about a third in the fall of 2008. Meanwhile, my former employer, the newspaper industry, was not only not hiring; it was shedding jobs as fast as it could.

I desperately needed a steady paycheck. And it appeared to be the worst possible time to look for one.

I sold pieces of writing here and there, mostly for sums that wouldn’t have impressed a freelancer time-traveling from the 1970s. I slung sweaters at Macy’s for a dollar above minimum wage. For a few dollars more, I worked shifts monitoring online newspaper comments and deleting the vilest ones. My combined paychecks approximately covered our grocery bill. Child support and a little spousal maintenance covered the mortgage and utilities. For everything else, I liquidated investments at recessionary lows. I was so scared to even look at my bills they sometimes piled up unopened—never a smart strategy for establishing financial health.

Finally, after three years of job-hunting, I got hired as a staff writer for my local newspaper. It’s a fun, creative job and I’m thrilled to have it, but my financial problems aren’t over. The job is part-time. Nearly half my income comes from child-support payments, which will be going away before long. My retirement savings are a fraction of what financial experts say you need —and that sum is more than twice what I will gross, at my current salary, over the next two decades. Retirement is a dot on the horizon, a distant posse in an old-fashioned Western, inexorably crossing Monument Valley as a silent cloud of dust kicked up by thundering hooves.

This was hardly the time to be jetting off around the globe.

Unless … unless it was exactly the time.

My older son would be leaving in the fall for a college across the country. The younger would be a senior in high school. They would soon move past the stage of their lives—so endless while it’s happening, so telescoped in retrospect—when taking a big trip with one’s mom is a culturally approved option. They were almost grown men, and the image of a grown man traveling with his mother is considered so ridiculous that Seth Rogen and Barbra Streisand mined it for laughs in The Guilt Trip. Since long before Kerouac, young adults have hit the road with their peers. A young person’s travel is a proclamation of maturity and independence, an act of mastering the challenges of adulthood, a quest with solidly mythological underpinnings—concepts squarely at odds, in other words, with our cultural views about attachments to one’s mommy.

Said mommy, of course, holds a different perspective. Listen, I believe teenagers are programmed by evolution to drive their parents crazy—if they didn’t, we’d never let them leave, and the human race would die out. My kids are admirably fit, in that Darwinian sense. But lately, the surges of annoyance had been accompanied by twinges of foreshadowed loss. Already, I was too aware of the sound my footsteps made in an empty house.

So as I mulled over Europe, certain stock phrases kept floating through my head. This would be the Trip of a Lifetime. It’s good to Live in the Moment. I won’t regret it On My Deathbed. Besides, Anything Could Happen: I might get hit by a bus or win the lottery (note to self: buy a ticket). And especially, What Is Money For?

Financial advisors would call these terrible arguments. I’ve written some personal-finance articles, so I’ve interviewed a bunch of them over the years. One time I made a bad joke about how I’d be living in my car someday. Politely but firmly, the financial advisor told me that’s the way people talk when they haven’t faced facts.

What is money for? Why, it’s for security, these smart experts would counsel. It’s to save for a rainy day, to replace a blown hot-water heater, to ensure a comfortable old age.

But what about the age I was right now? What about the ages that my sons were about to leave behind?

It’s on, I told my son. We’re going. And I offered the same deal to his brother.


I rented an apartment at a great price from generous friends-of-friends in Paris who were serendipitously leaving town for a week. First, we spent three days in Barcelona, thanks to a travel agent who explained that buying three nights in a hotel somewhere in Europe would cut the cost of our plane tickets, oddly, by more than the hotel would cost (if you glean nothing else from this essay, remember: always check hotel-airfare packages).

Barcelona was sunny and warm and relaxing. My older son practiced his impressive Spanish. My younger son rode his skateboard and took hundreds of pictures. In the afternoons, I left the boys to mingle with other teenagers on the beach while I wandered further down the sidewalk, past the huge glittering Frank Gehry fish, to a seaside café with wireless. I spent the afternoon of the solstice sitting beside the Mediterranean, reading and eating tapas (and posting on Facebook that I was spending the solstice on the Mediterranean, reading and eating tapas). In the evenings, the three of us ventured out for sightseeing and gazpacho, pan tumaca, paella, more tapas.

In a poetic way, I felt we were traveling back in time. When my sons were little and we spent most days together, I took them around to beaches and playgrounds and sliding hills and apple orchards. When they entered their teens and started hanging out with friends, those outings receded into the past. The boys hardly remember them now, and to them it’s almost as if they’d never happened. But I remember them. And now we were enacting a brief, improbable echo of those long-ago adventures, with tapas filling in for Happy Meals.

Paris was cooler, cloudier, more contentious. It was June, but the air felt, at times, almost autumnal. I broke out my creaky high-school French. We saw Notre Dame, Château de Vincennes, the Louvre, Versailles. We browsed in a fashionable clothing store my older son somehow knew about. My younger son took hundreds more pictures. We climbed l’Arc de Triomphe’s 284 steps. We ate escargots and cassoulet and pate and lamb confit and pastries. We sat up late around the kitchen table, discussing sights we’d seen and people we’d met, good-naturedly debating politics or culture, showing each other YouTube videos we liked.

We fought twice. The first time was mild. My older son complained of boredom after a couple of hours of aimless strolling around Île de la Cité. After seeing my feelings were hurt, he apologized. From that point on, both boys showed apparently genuine interest in every painting and statue and gargoyle.

The second fight was bitter. The boys were roughhousing in the garden at Versailles and I got angry. I was spending thousands of dollars on this trip, I scolded, and the least they could do was knock it off when I say so. The fight escalated through the evening until my older son swore not to speak to me for the remainder of the trip. Fine, I told him, I would leave his pre-purchased Louvre ticket on the table and he could do whatever the hell he wanted. He announced he would not be going to college after all because he could not stand to live his entire life with his mother constantly reminding him how much he owes her.

The next morning, as the boys slept in and I drank my coffee, I saw that he had a point.

My anger over the misbehavior was reasonable. But it stemmed, I realized, less from the money I was spending than from the emotions I had invested. I feared any conflict could mar our Trip of a Lifetime. Now here we were, in danger of ruining the whole thing.

So when he got up, I pretended the fight had never happened. My son followed suit. From then on, all was friendly and peaceful, or close enough. The fight didn’t wreck the experience but became just another piece of it—another echo of what, frankly, things were often like when they were little and our days were punctuated with slammed doors and “you’re the worst mom in the world”s, eventually followed, usually, by an olive branch from one side or the other: “Clean slate?”


A couple of years ago, I wrote an essay complaining about having had to sacrifice financial security in order to stay home with my sons. I criticized American cultural and workplace structures that tempt parents to reduce paid work to raise their children, but deny them a financial safety net, and even resist letting them back in the workforce afterward (a major contributor to poverty among older women). Some commenters and bloggers missed my point, thinking I regretted having spent the time with my sons (“Let’s hope they never read this and find out how much she hates them,” one hissed). And more recently, other writers have begun publishing high-profile pieces expressing regrets at having opted out.

The fact is, I don’t regret those at-home years. Especially not now, as my sons prepare to leave home. My neighborhood attracts a lot of young families, with its elementary and middle school, playground, and starter-size houses. When I’m out for a walk and pass little kids with their parents, I sometimes feel a stab of nostalgia. Then I remind myself that, though those years are behind me, I made the most of them while they were happening. However financially risky, that time was priceless.

Oh, I’d be much more financially comfortable if I had kept my full-time newspaper job all these years (although that’s far from certain, given how many reporters I know who’ve lost theirs, including half the staff at the last place I worked). The idea of living in my car someday would just be a bad joke for a financial planner, not a sort of real, if remote—knock on my particleboard desk—possibility.

In my mind, I liken being a part-time stay-at-home mother to taking a long vacation I couldn’t really afford. Not the relaxing kind, with umbrella drinks by the pool—more like an arduous trek through the jungle. But still, an expensive luxury.

Now here I was on a literal vacation, taking another ridiculous financial risk, for much the same reasons.

The analogy isn’t perfect. I’m not blaming cultural pressures for my taking the trip, nor asking society to make it more affordable. (Come to think of it, though, that would be awesome; I’ve saved receipts!) The connection is that I did both things—two costly, possibly foolish things—ostensibly for the boys’ sake but really more for my own.

Kids, as a group, are resilient and resourceful. I imagine my sons would have been fine in daycare. And someday, they’ll probably manage to get to Europe on their own, if not too burdened with college debt.

But just as I wanted time with them when they were little, I wanted this last adventure, this last opportunity to just hang out, in a relaxed way, and do fun stuff together. What, in the end, is money for? In this case, it was for enriching my own personal Trip of a Lifetime. Not the eleven-day one to Europe, but the big one, the trip that takes you through childhood traumas and dumb mistakes and jobs that suck and ill-starred romances and unforeseeable crises … and, when all goes well and you grab the opportunities as they come, some excellent experiences and wonderful memories.


On the plane home, we sat apart: the boys side by side, me a couple of rows behind them. I was absorbed in Life of Pi when my older son stood and twisted in his seat to get my attention. Look out your window, he gestured.

I opened the shade and almost gasped. Below the plane, the world was all white. It wasn’t clouds. It was snow. Stretching to the horizon, for dozens if not hundreds of miles, nothing but blowing, vacant snow.

I put the movie on pause, unable to pull my gaze from the view. I squinted against the sunlight angling off that stark but dazzling land, a part of the world that I had never expected to see.


KATY READ (at Twitter here) has published essays and articles in Salon, Brain Child, Brevity, River Teeth, More, Working Mother, Real Simple, Minnesota Monthly and other places. She has been nominated twice for a Pushcart Prize and been honored in literary competitions including the Chautauqua Literary Journal Prize for Prose, the Literal Latte Essay Awards, the William Faulkner-William Wisdom Creative Writing Competition and the Mid-American Review Creative Nonfiction Competition. She is a reporter for the Star Tribune in Minneapolis, where she lives with her two sons. She won a 2013 grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board and is working on a collection of essays about the culture of motherhood.