Cardinal Event

Many years ago, when I was a young, single mother, I took my daughters, Jennifer and Meredith, on an ambitious road trip from Winston-Salem, North Carolina, to Booth Bay Harbor, Maine — a 15-hour, 930-mile drive. It was August, 1976, and Jennifer was nine and Meredith was six. Our car was brand new, a 1975 green Volvo two-door coupe that we named Victor and it was our first new car.

The night before the trip we filled the car with carefully chosen toys and games, pillows for naps, and specially packed snacks and drinks. We took off early the next morning — off to spend two weeks in the Maine woods with Gammie and Boompa, aunts and same-age-girl cousins on Damariscotta Lake in a house with a row boat, near Booth Bay Harbor where we’d eat lobster and ice cream with blueberries. The girls sang and chattered for about a hundred miles when Meredith said wearily, “Are we there yet, Mommy?” I said “no, but we’ll be there by bedtime.” This was going to be a long trip; it wasn’t even lunch time.

We took the first highway going into Virginia, the Cardinal State, named for the bright red birds that proliferated the woodlands bordering the highway. Not five seconds after I told the girls about the cheerful red birds and even whistled their song, a cardinal smashed into our windshield, splattering it with blood and red feathers. The girls screamed and sobbed. I pulled off the road and got in the back seat and held them tight. When their sobbing subsided, I asked them to put their heads on their pillows and take a nap. Then I proceeded to clean the blood and guts and red feathers off the windshield and with no more water than what was in the window washer reservoir and managed to get it relatively clean. I pulled the car back onto the highway and two little heads popped up on the back seat. Still sniffing, they asked me about the cardinal: “Was it a mommy with babies somewhere?” “No,” I answered, “it wasn’t a mommy. Cardinal mommies are brown, not red.” “Then it was a daddy and its babies would miss him.” “Yes.”

We drove on in silence for some time and the girls had fallen back to sleep, when suddenly there was an explosion and a huge black cloud of smoke blew out behind us. I pulled over and turned off the engine, praying that it would start again. It did, but with a deafening roar. I tried again, the same thing. I looked in the rearview mirror and saw alarmed tear-stained faces staring at me. It’ll be okay,” I assured them, “we’ll find a gas station.” After an eternity, I did. Young men stuck their head in the engine while another cleaned our windshield and I took the girls away from the car. It couldn’t be fixed there, something about a head gasket. But it’s new, I told a young mechanic, my heart pounding. He said I needed a Volvo dealer and the closest was in Washington, DC, a hundred miles away. He gave me the address and we took off again, slowly in the deafening roar of the engine, black smoke trailing behind us. In Washington, I learned that it would take a week to fix a blown gasket but I could drive the car slowly if I checked the oil regularly.

I decided to go on to Philadelphia where I had family and called ahead to tell them what had happened. My brother-in-law made an appointment at the dealership there. We limped up the Turnpike, adding oil every time the car overheated. We spent the night with my youngest sister and picked up one of my parents’ cars to finish the trip to Maine the next day. The nightmare of the cardinal and the blown gasket dissipated in the salt air with the welcomes of grandparents, aunts and cousins and sea gulls overhead. My girls were delighted; I wanted nothing more than my mother to hold me.

It was a memorable two weeks for us. Boompa transformed the rowboat into a sailboat with a girl pirate flag and the cousins created grand adventures on the lake, tethered safely to the dock. We picked blueberries for Gammie’s cobblers, had homemade clam chowder for lunch and lobsters with melted butter for dinner. We had picnics on rocky ledges at Permaquid Point, high above the ocean crashing on rocks below. The girls chased each other happily through the woods, with Meredith, the youngest, calling from behind, “y’all wait up for meeee.” At the end of the day we read Robert McCloskey’s “One Morning in Maine” and “Time of Wonder” before bed. The loon’s call from across the water lulled us to sleep at night.