Author Kelli Jo Ford on the power of a road trip home

Kelli Jo Ford grew up traveling between Virginia and the Cherokee nation in Oklahoma. A key companion on the trip? Love’s Travel Stop, where they stopped for gas, snacks, and family reunions.

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It wasn’t until adulthood that I realized that people were going on vacation, real trips to Disney World, or visits to the world’s largest rocking chair. Growing up (mostly) as general citizens of the Cherokee nation, whenever we traveled, we went home.

This is what my aunt and I are doing this morning, the sun is starting to look over our shoulders. It’s July 2021, but my mom’s older sister has been my mom’s aunt since I was little. It still is, even though I’m middle-aged with a son of mine. I grew up with an Uncle and a bunch of powerful aunts, cousins ​​more like brothers and sisters. I guess it’s just our way.

Aunt and I go east through the green peaks and valleys of central Virginia to Interstate 40. COVID numbers across the country have improved. People are once again embracing their loved ones and it’s time we do the same. The I-40 will take us all the way back home to the Cherokee nation east of Oklahoma. There we will see my grandmother JoJo, 87, who lives in a care center.

Aunt and I leave early. Both vaccinated and caffeinated, we are happy to be in the same space, sharing the same air. She tells me all the gossip in the family and, as always, I ask her old stories about being a growing Cherokee and a very fundamentalist Christian, stories about what she left behind and where we are going.

My parents will meet us in Oklahoma. They will be driving from their farm in Texas with my eight-year-old daughter, Cypress, who has been visiting them for the past two weeks. We’ll all get together at JoJo’s and spend a week together drinking Sonic’s cherry limes, stuffing ourselves with Braum’s butter pecan ice cream and taking JoJo by car through its beautiful Cookson Hills. By the end of the week, my parents will be back home in Texas. Aunt and I will load Cypress with us and head east, back to Virginia, where Cypress will begin third grade in person.

Somewhere in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, I see a familiar sign of four hearts in cascade, red, yellow, and orange: the rest stop of the chain of road travel stores. “We’re going to time our stops with Love’s,” I tell Auntie.

“I love Love’s,” he says.

We passed through the pointed tip of Virginia to the endless Tennessee. Every time we go down to a quarter of a tank, we find a Love’s. There must be 50 or more loves between us and home spread across I-40. Every store, pretty much the same inside. Bigger than I remember, but like any other travel stop: sweaty hot dogs rolling on stainless steel rods, coffee stations, phone cards, stuffed animal containers with embossed T-shirts with the big college football team that is nearby. Usually the only people with masks, we do our business quickly.

People are once again embracing their loved ones and it’s time we do the same.

We’ve been doing some version of this trip for decades. Three-quarters of my grandmother JoJo’s daughters emigrated to Virginia from Sequoyah County, Oklahoma. They came slowly, starting with Aunt Mother almost 50 years ago. When I had a daughter, I joined my aunts in Virginia. The mother also emigrated, but only to Texas. When they are pressured over the years to approach one of their daughters, my grandmother JoJo always makes a family comeback: “I was born Okie and I will die Okie.”

On cool mornings, you can watch the steam rise from Sallisaw Creek from the JoJo porch. The house is silent now, still full of all its things that have not reached the care facility. When Auntie and I arrive, we will put the bags in the same closets, but it will no longer feel like home. I remember JoJo’s house always feeling quiet, a little scary for me. JoJo, a loving but stern woman, never wanted to be called a “grandmother” and did not want children to run or scream. That’s why I had to go to another house. My grandmother Longshore.

To get to Grandma Longshore’s house, you had to cross Sallisaw Creek. Not across a bridge, but across the actual stream. If the stream was up to par, the whole route had to be made through the town of Bunch, which, as I recall, consisted of a Baptist church, a post office, and a general store. That meant extra miles of gravel boardwalk road. It also deprived me of the crossing of the stream.

When I was little, crossing Sallisaw Creek with Grandma Longshore was crossing into a completely different world. As the car entered the water, he lowered the window and pulled his head out, watching as the water drifted away from the tires. If no one was looking at me, I would hang my body in the middle of the door and drag my fingertips through the water, as if we were boat people and this was one more day at the lake. If anyone other than Grandma Longshore was driving, she could deviate from the large flat rocks where it was shallow and into the canal. The car could float a bit, pick up traction, and then be fine apart from the floorboards that had turned into double sinks, full of water. Or maybe the dealer cover would get wet and the car would stop. Something terrible for the adults of the world. Delicious for a child. The big ones rolled up their jeans and pushed us to the far edge. He would jump on rocks or hunt crawdads while adults cared about adult things like drying engine parts or starting dinner late.

Once we crossed the stream, we would pass the house of the Big Feathers, the nearest neighbors, and make the fork by a steep hill where we would cross another stream, this only a stream of water. We passed by the landfill where they dumped household rubbish and dead, stiff chickens with straight legs and scales. Now I would lean my head out the window, ready for the last downhill curve that took us to the two-story farmhouse with a sleeping porch and a Weiner dog named Pepper.

Unlike JoJo’s quiet place, Grandma Longshore’s house was always occupied. He cooked some banquets that we ate around a full table in the narrow kitchen. The well was bad, so we took drinking water out of town in jars of white gallon bleach. Her four older or almost older children were coming and going, strong with their union and separation. They had a party row where the kids would sneak up and listen to the Big Feathers phone conversations.

Something terrible for the adults of the world. Delicious for a child.

Mom and I moved to Texas when I was eight. It was Grandma Longshore who would meet my mother halfway, at a Love’s Country store in Atoka, Oklahoma, to pick me up and take me home during the summer holidays. Waiting for Grandma Longshore at that Love’s, a big bag of Funyons and a Slush Puppie in her hand, I had the feeling that I might explode in hopes of crossing that stream again and everything that was coming. He never let me drift, no matter how far I moved.

Summers or graduations or weddings: It didn’t matter. Grandma Longshore got in her dusty car and traveled as far as I was. He had a burning temper for those who hurt his family, short, permanent hair and false teeth, and the best arms to embrace that ever existed. Grandma Longshore had many grandchildren of her own, some bloody and others like me. He wasn’t Grandma Longshore’s blood grandson, but I was her first grandson. She never let me forget it. Every spring I put wild onions, a Cherokee staple. She would save me a batch and cook them with scrambled eggs and brown beans and then send me back to Texas with strawberry jam in old margarine containers. This is the kind of woman she was.

As Aunt and I bounce down I-40, every love brings us closer to Oklahoma, but not the one in my memory. No one picks wild onions and labels them Kelli Jo. I’m old enough to pass on the tradition to my daughter, Cypress, but I wouldn’t know where to look. I no longer cross Sallisaw Creek, unless it’s by a freeway bridge, miles away. Grandmother Longshore died years ago. I don’t even know if the old farmhouse is still standing. JoJo, who suffered a lifetime of ill health, is the only one of my grandmothers still alive.

When we get to JoJo, it’s amazing how fragile she looks sitting in the hospital bed, wrapped in a pink Pendleton blanket. He squeezes us so hard that it looks like he might not let them go. But then we offer to take her to Sonic and then to Brushy Mountain. The promise of a little sweetness and a beautiful view loosens its prey. Every time we go home now, I understand better that maybe it will be the last time. Because the house is only partly a place.

Cypress doesn’t know JoJo as someone who has to walk on tiptoe. He knows her as someone who needs extra help, an elderly woman who needs care and love. He offers to refill his drink, proudly pushing his wheelchair. When it comes time to go back to Virginia, Cypress is sad to leave JoJo, with a broken heart to be separated from my parents by half country. But he has friends to wait for. Face-to-face school begins for the first time in a year and a half when we return.

Once we said goodbye and cried all our tears, Cypress, Aunt and I drove to the beat of our own voices. Every time I see the logo of Love, its four hearts stacked, I feel the time and reach of love, of our ancestors. A cynical part of me wants to turn a blind eye to such successful marketing. Really? But yes, that’s the story I’m telling.

And this glorious eight-year-old, Cypress, can’t stop talking because he’s been to Texas with my parents, his grandmother, and the poppy. Collecting eggs in my mother’s little chicken coop, driving the mule through pastures with mosque points to have picnics surrounded by squeaks of ponytails and cats that are thought to be dogs. Mom and the octopus put sauce on it. They saved some of last year’s jars to send home with Cypress, just like Grandma Longshore did for me.

On our long trip back to Virginia, we will stop at all the Love’s we can find. I’ll say yes to more treats than I want and I’ll buy him a bag of Funyons that will make him fake gag in the back seat. When we return to Virginia, Cypress will begin making plans for her next trip to my parents, mapping out her chicken feeding agenda and cat dispute. He will ask us when we can move to the Cherokee nation, where he can be close to JoJo and learn our language.

I have more questions than answers, more memories than plans. But I am grateful for what we have now: a heart full of family and a bumpy road back to our home in Virginia. When my daughter looks back, I wonder what she will see in our back and forth shuffle? What will you think of the time you spent in the middle of a pandemic, flying across the interstate, hanging up your hand in the shop window hunting Love’s Country Stores with your aunt and mother?

If we are lucky, we come from a family, or maybe the family chooses us, actively over and over again. And at home, it may be a place both at the beginning and at the end of our journey.

 

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