Mother. Orphaned only child of only children. Blue jeans washed to grey. Hair wild. Dun brown curls that moved in clumps.
She’d stand firm. Feet together, sentry-straight by the roadside. In the early days she leaned a small holdall against her leg. Later a small child.
Fragmentary memories of the travelling years always accompanied by the smell of old cars. Tobacco, sweat, sunburned vinyl and gasoline. The holdall and I would slide from side to side on the back seat as we rode. The map would be unfolded. And the driver would always say, well, I can’t take you all the way.
The journeys would take days, moving from car smell to car smell, interspersed with periods of waiting. Some roadsides had white painted lines to stand behind. Never to be crossed without me, baby girl. All of them had grit. There are no surviving photographs of me from that time, but I imagine a fat-legged infant playing in the dirt, making piles of roadside gravel.
We never came back to the same place we left.
It would only be a week or two at most before she found the name of another person in another town. New kin to claim.
New doors to knock on. New faces with the same old expression: surprise, confusion, suspicion. Some of them invited us in. For a glass of water. A sandwich maybe. She said having me along helped a lot with that.
I don’t remember the names of the people we met on those long journeys. The intricate branches of the family tree my mother was tracing were never laid on paper.
I knew then as I know now, that some kin just don’t want to be claimed.
One heavy August day behind the white line. Never cross that line without me, baby girl. A big old white car pulled over for us. Covered in brown dust. She said, wait right here, baby as she ran ahead to the car, just like she always did. The driver opened the passenger door and she leaned into the car. Glanced at me. Then she jerked forward like she was diving into that car. Legs sticking straight out and kicking. The car started up and sped off with a squeal of tires and a spray of gravel. Door hanging open and legs hanging out.
No kin came to claim me. Waiting behind the line.