Rebecca Shumway ©2017

By Faith: Growing Up on the Road


Short memoir piece on a cross-country road trip spanning several months.

“Pack everything you want to take into this suitcase,” my mother said, breezing into my room. She sprung open a hard Samsonite suitcase. I jumped up. “Where are we going? For how long?” My firefighter father was scheduled long vacations, so we often traveled for weeks at a time.“We’re going away for a very long time. In fact, we might not come back to Miami. And we will never come back to this house.” My spirit of adventure was extinguished. Cold walls of the unknown crowded in around me. “Why aren’t we coming back?!” Horror filled my eyes.

“We’ve decided this is the best thing to do as a family.”
“Where will we go? Where will we stay?”
“We don’t know yet. By faith.”

She left my room.

Annette, my half-sister, helped me pack. She taught me to sort things efficiently: One pile was for “keep,” one was for “trash.” The rhythmic percussion of keep-trash-keep-trash-trash-trash filled the next few days. Tanned, muscled firefighters with mustaches and white-teeth smiles carried away my furniture.

Finally, my most loved belongings were in a small pile in the middle of my empty room. Mother came in and stood with arms akimbo: “We still need to get rid of more. This won’t fit in the car, and we don’t have much space left in storage.” I fought back tears—I had already had so much taken from me.

From print series, "Home on the Road."

Large, black trash bags of stuffed animals lined the walls by the front door, waiting for Goodwill donation. I had already set aside certain toys for my friends, affixing pieces of masking tape with their names carefully handwritten. I had sifted my Little Golden Books collection down to a handful. How could I dispose of more?Mother saw my frustration.

“It will be a grand adventure,” she said, grafting a gypsy streak into me. “You will meet many new friends, meet family members you never knew you had. You will see beautiful places.”

I thought carefully. My toys would always be there when (if) we ever returned. A grand adventure! With this intent, my suitcase was readied in no time.

First stop: Grandma Nellie’s house. Equal parts sweet and sour, she barked, “But where will you stay?” after my parents clued her in on our impending cross-country journey. (We had, I found out later, $200 in the bank, and a jar full of change and penny wrappers.)

“We will call people we know in each town,” Mother said, calmly.

As if she had done this insanity before. In fact, she had: In the Sixties, she had traveled in a revamped school bus with a ragtag bunch of hippies. They stopped, worked and bartered in each town, expanding eastward until they dead-ended in a rural town. The land was cheap: They bought an entire mountain. Embracing chaos was her chosen lifestyle.

My father, a cold, stoic Yankee, was less adapted to these changes, though years in the Vietnam jungle equipped him for the unexpected. The fire department had become too hectic for him.

“Entire blocks of wooden-framed houses are burning down at a time,” I recall him saying to my mother.

After decades, running into firefight and fire to save people was losing its appeal. He was ready for a change of pace—even at the expense of his pension, largely taxed out when it was taken in
a lump sum.

“I just don’t know how you will find food to eat,” worried Grandma Nellie.

As Mother often would over the next year, she quoted Hebrews 11:8: “By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going.”

We never stayed in a motel. Yet, there was only one time we nearly didn’t have a place to stay, either free of charge or bartered for a day’s work. The car had come to a stop and the engine cut off. Doors slammed. I raised my head from my pillow. My parents were huddled outside, discussing something serious. Plans for the night have fallen through. The phone number in our dog-eared address book was no longer in service. “Let’s use the church directory,” suggested Dad.

“At this time?! It’s almost midnight!” Mother exclaimed.
“Do we have another option?”
“We could sleep in the car.”
“Let’s just give the phone number a try, and if nobody answers, then we will.”
“Okay,” said Mother, putting coins into the pay phone.
“By faith.”

I drifted back to sleep.

I woke up in clean sheets. Padding downstairs, I found Mother speaking to a slender Asian woman, who was deftly frying eggs.

“Rebecca, meet Li Chin. She is our gracious host.”

I bowed, and she served me a plate of breakfast.

Written while enrolled in Writing Strategies in the creative advertising program in the School of Communications + Journalism at Florida International University.