A Mother’s Advice

Like many other mothers, Mom had golden rules that she set forth for her children. Some of them were quite profound, some of them were baffling, and some of them were downright strange, but entertaining. Yesterday, as I sat on the airplane ready to take off from NJ to Seattle, I was remembering one of her rules.  A woman next to me was eating a banana and I wondered if she was hitchhiking her way home. Mom’s rule went like this:

Never pick up a hitchhiker unless he or she is carrying a bunch of bananas

When I was young, hitchhiking was a common phenomenon, and it was only just becoming truly dangerous. My mom, when she was a very young girl, around 15 years of age or so, hitchhiked out of Alaska, and out “the Alcan.” She was running away from a bad situation: she had been sexually abused by her stepfather, ignored by her mother, and was seeking safety or, at least, escape.  She took a large, serrated kitchen knife for protection, and she took off. I still have that knife.  It sits in a drawer, flung in there with other more mundane knives, knives used for butter or bread cutting, paring knives and plastic ones.  If only cutlery could tell us their history.

Mom was not alone when she took off on her bid for freedom. The first time she hitchhiked out of Alaska she went with her friend “Kathy” (they were “Kathy and Kathy”), and they had each other’s back. Mom talked little about this time, but from the little I heard, I gather it was an adventure, but a dangerous one. They hitchhiked from Alaska to San Francisco, and at some point she also went to Washington D.C. More than once she had to threaten somebody with her kitchen Knife, or so I was later told. I would gather to guess that none of these drivers had a bunch of bananas on them.

I liked to romanticize her adventures, but I know that this is foolish. Regardless, during that  time in her life she hitchhiked to see Dr. Martin Luther King speak in Washington DC (yes, she was at the “I Have A Dream” speech), and hitchhiked back to San Francisco where she slept in a rundown hotel with Ginsburg and other poets.  She too was “On the Road.” Mom allowed me to romanticize her travels until just before she died, when I heard the rather sadder portions of her adventure. Sexual abuse, robbery, and, at times, great life-threatening dangers.

Still, hitchhiking was in her blood, as it was in the blood of many young people during the 60s and early 70s. The philosophy of hitchhiking was not unlike the philosophy presented in Douglas Adams’ Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, the universe is big baby, and you got to get around somehow. Besides, if you have a good towel, you can get out of most scrapes. 

So hitchhiking was a given joy to embrace for many people in Mom’s generation. After Mom was married and had two young children, she again hitchhiked from Arizona to Woodstock, hooking up with some hippies in a bus who were also going.  Many, many years later, after I turned 21, while at a New Year’s Eve party with my folks, an old hippie walked up to Mom and started talking to her. He remembered her, and he remembered their adventure. My mom’s face dropped, and so did mine as he proclaimed moments, stories that she had told me from my childhood. They had all taken the bad brown acid you see, and they had all survived, all but one who ended up in a coma. Mom ended up under the stage, waking up and holding onto a large column that echoed with psychedelic movements, while Jimi Hendrix played homage to America above her – that’s a trip! Watch: Hendrix at Woodstock

But, let me get back to the bananas – and Mom’s Golden rule:

Never pick up a hitchhiker unless he or she is carrying a bunch of bananas

Where on earth could such a rule come from? After receiving my bachelor’s degree in acting from Cornish, I went to work for a children’s theater company in Idaho. At one point I drove from Idaho to Reno in order to play the slots, do a show, and have some fun. I went with a dear friend, and as we drove we passed a young man holding bananas. He was hitchhiking. What a strange sight … it seemed kismet… expected like destiny. What were the odds after all, to see a hitchhiker on the side of the road carrying a bunch of bananas? I pulled the car over. I picked him up. I took him with us. He was kind.

Many years later I told my mom of this event, and asked her why she gave us her golden rule about hitchhikers. Her answer? She said was playing the odds that it would never happen, and so we would never pick a hitchhiker up (the 60s being, after all, a memory of hippy love). Since mom was playing the odds with this particular golden rule, it seems only fitting that the one hitchhiker I have ever picked up in my life was on the way to Reno – a city made for odds. He shared his bananas. They were tasty.

R