Sharecropper’s Daughter Goes to Paris by Lydia A. Nayo

I am less than five days from my first trip beyond the continental United States to someplace where I will know no one other than the person I am traveling with.
I will not know the language, I will be unfamiliar with the customs, and I will have no idea how to express a need for allergy relief medicine. It is thrilling. It is not something I have ever done before.
I am a utilitarian traveler, the daughter of poverty. My family travels with objectives, to places that somebody else in the family has settled, away from the hard claims of the past. I go only where I must or only to where I know people.
This is not to suggest that I have been no place significant. Since my native Philadelphia, I have lived in three different states, in five different cities, at fourteen different addresses. I ventured forth, at age twenty, with a toddler on one hip, two thousand dollars literally pinned to my underwear, and all my belongings in drayage, to live in San Francisco. My objective was to hunt down and claim an identity. I was in search of the me that was not somebody else’s younger sister, or a young woman with one child who was at risk of becoming an unwed mother statistic, or worse yet (I thought at the time), my parents.
I have gone over the country of my birth at least three times in each direction. But over is not through. I have never seen Mount Rushmore, the Grand Canyon, or a field of wheat. I have not trod the streets of the City of Big Shoulders or heard the beat of the nation’s heartland. To the extent that I saw Charm City or the Big Easy or counted the number of streets, byways, and boulevards named Peachtree, there was a purpose underpinning my being there. Somebody I knew lived in Baltimore, New Orleans, and Atlanta.
Former sharecroppers do not teach their children to travel for pleasure. It is not that I blame my parents for their reticence to just up and go someplace. If, in my youth, travel had been fraught with the peril of the wrath of casual racism, I cannot imagine that I would have been quick to encourage my children to go someplace just because it existed on a map. Usually, we went back to see my father’s remaining family in South Carolina. We always traveled by car, and that car was hotel and diner through the minefield of Southern states between Pennsylvania and our destination.
My priority, when I left my father’s house twenty-five years ago, was to overcome the legacy of suspicion and angry fear that was his method of parenting. After finding a self to be on the left coast an effort that took a dozen years, and included getting a college degree and finding a life partner went back across the country to go to law school in Washington, D.C. Ever practical, I chose Georgetown Law School because my father had been diagnosed with terminal cancer, and it was close enough to Philadelphia so that I could regularly visit but far enough away that I would not be swallowed whole by all that I had run from.
The utilitarian travel habit kicked right in. My sister and I would go together to Philadelphia to spell my mother at home, to be there as my father died by degrees and, ultimately, to help put him away and see my mother into widowhood. We drove past, but never stopped in, cities large and small, hell-bent for Thirty-second Street. I never saw a town named Rising Sun, or learned what South East was southeast of. On those trips toward my father’s death, we sped past Baltimore and White Marsh, only saw the names of Christiana, Dover, and Wilmington. There was no reason to stop. They were merely markers of how much longer it would be before we reached my mother. There was an uncomfortable limbo on the road; during drive time, my father could die, without us there.
And he did, on a Thursday in August, in his sleep.
Later, there was more travel by necessity: delivering my daughter to Spelman College and then visiting her there on family weekends; visiting with my husband’s aging grandparents in a little hamlet outside Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and the ritual holiday trips to Philadelphia. Once, we drove to Saratoga for the annual jazz festival. Of course, I was willing because someone my husband knew invited us to join their party. But never, ever, to the criminally close Caribbean, or to any point south of Atlanta, for that matter. My mother’s daughter, the soul of caution, I did not go where there was no one to visit, no specific reason to be there.
Practicality, in the form of a new job, dictated that I return to California, this time to Los Angeles. A teaching position beckoned, fairly screaming my name. Once again, I traveled by air, knowing what I passed over only to the extent the pilot pointed it out, sotto voce. Utilitarian travelers do not see sights, do not take several days to make trips that can be completed in several hours. The travel-risk-adverse do not follow Route 66, or take up the lyrical invitation to spend the night in Gallup, New Mexico.
I have always been a woman who gets from one place to another for a purpose: switching gears in my career, giving my daughter the dream of college life, finding out what I was made of in the first place. But now I have finished financing my daughter’s education. The demons of poverty, if not overcome, have been wrestled to submission. I have completed as much formal education as I need to get the kinds of jobs that will redeem the hard lives of my parents. And I have moved along my current career continuum enough to feel certain that a life as a bag lady is not eminent. I have connected with my self, and I am comfortable with the woman that I am.
Finally, I am free to take a trip to a place just because it is there, although I can do no more than greet and thank the native population for its assistance. Maybe Paris will open the door to the rest of the world. Maybe I am ready to go.

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