26 is a special number for me. It’s the date of my birthday, my mother’s, and my grandmother Nora, after who I’m named (Amanda Nora).

Today is Nora’s 99th birthday, and I’m  overwhelmed with finding words to describe what she means to me, our family, her friends, and frankly, to every person who’s had the chance to know her for more than 10 minutes.

So to honor grandma and to attempt to accomplish this task of describing her, I am going to share excerpts from a book I am writing about a trip I took inspired by Nora’s road trip of 1939.

Our baggage (all but necessities eliminated) consisted of three large suitcases, two small suitcases, 20 covers, a suede bag, an electric iron, a cooking kit, a hot plate, a hatchet, two boxes of staple groceries, 15 pairs of shoes, a radio, five purses, a shopping bag full of literature about places of interest, and five notebooks.”  Echoes, 1935

The album’s cover said Echoes in faded gold letters. It had pages the color of tea that smelled musty, like library books I checked out as a child where I would sign the card in back, always reading the names of those who came before me. On the left side of the book was handwriting in black ink, meticulous and flowing, feel like opposites a style of script foreign to my generation, but easily recognizable to me from a lifetime of birthday cards and letters. On the right side were pictures, black and white with narrow white borders. The first sentence said, “On May 25, 1935, I left Mulberry Grove at 10:30 a.m. by bus.”

The next 164 pages tell the story of Nora Stauffer, my grandmother, and four other women, Nellie Moser, Ruth Gregory, Helen Ott, and Marjorie Flory, as they traveled cross country for three months and 14,000 miles. They started in Wheaton, Illinois, just outside of Chicago and drove west through Iowa, Nebraska, and Wyoming, then headed south through Colorado and New Mexico before turning west again. When they reached California, they dipped into Tijuana, then drove up the coast into Canada before making their way back to New York City.

Nora kept a record of each dollar spent ($130), each mile driven (13,917), and wrote detailed stories about small towns, innkeepers and guides, the changing landscape, and daily interactions among the five young women. She kept the journal like many people keep journals, for memory’s sake.

But when I found it, sitting obscurely on her shelf, it meant much more to me. And I began to dream then about recreating her trip, about seeing the little town of Cozad, Nebraska and trying to find the keys at the Baldplate Inn in Colorado. About lining up travel companions – my own versions of Majory, Nell, Ruth, Helen, and Nora. The odds seemed almost insurmountable, but then grandma told me that if I did the trip, she’d like to join me on part of it. And my decision was made.

Five Years Later

The next day, I finished packing. I did my best to pack light, but given that the weather from August to October could range from severe desert heat to snow, I ended up with the following: a portable laptop and two chargers; a cell phone and two chargers; an Ipod and a charger; a plug-in cooler and a regular cooler; one large suitcase; one duffle bag containing six pairs of shoes; two large plastic containers from Target full of food and cooking supplies; a case of Gatorade and water; a box of books and writing materials; a propane stove, a tent, three sleeping bags; a gallon of bourbon; a plug-in espresso maker; and a glitter hula hoop.

Yosemite National Park

Excerpt from San Diego to San Franciso with Nora

Continuing our slow drive through Yosemite Park, Nora encourages me to get all the cousins together for a reunion. I promise her that I will do it. She instills in all of us a strong sense of family, not something I see much anymore today. Even my friends that are close with their parents or siblings, don’t necessarily value the effort of getting together aunts, uncles, and cousins in their busy lives. But Nora has always found time for it, and I promise her that I will do my best to find that time as well. “Even if it is every three years,” she said, “it means so much to you as you grow older.”

Nora has a sporadic but persistent cough, and though I always carry water, she prefers cold water, with ice. As we leave the park for Fresno, there is a farmer selling produce by the side of the road. Nora wonders aloud if he might have ice. It looks doubtful, but I stop anyway, buy a nectarine that the man says is “good for eatin’ right away,” and ask if he has any ice.

“Well, no, I don’t have any ice.”

“Thanks anyway. It’s for my Grandma. She likes ice.”

“Well, good luck.”

I start to walk away when he calls back to me.

“Wait a minute, I just thought of something. Do you have a cup?” He walks over to his car, a beat up, rusty sedan and pulls open the back door that squeaks on its hinge. Inside is a small, old cooler.

“I keep my drinks in here.” There’s just a little ice, mostly melted around a Pepsi can. He takes my plastic cup and scoops up the remaining ice.

“I don’t want to take your last ice.”

“No, please, have it.” The farmer hands me back my cup, and I thank him, not able to fully express my gratitude for not just the ice but for this warm reminder that the kindness of strangers is not a romantic concept of the past.

We get back in the car, and I pour the rest of her lukewarm lemonade over the ice. Nora murmurs as she sips it, “My, this is nice.”

Yosemite Visitor's Center

As we drive through Yosemite, maybe the grandeur of the landscape, the sense of being dwarfed by something physically larger and maybe metaphysically larger than ourselves turned the conversation inward, toward God.

“Well, I don’t think that he created the earth in seven days,” she said. “I don’t think there’s anyone sitting up on a throne with a golden street and angels flying around. Or that you’re going to meet your mother in heaven. How this earth got put together is a bigger mystery that I could understand probably. But it did get put together by some force or another, and I don’t think it’s anything that you can put a man to, or a being that could do it all. I don’t know. Do you feel that way or different?”

“I feel that way.”

“For want of a better term, we say God created the world. But how can you believe that any being…there can’t be a being who could do it. I know many people that I wouldn’t want to argue with. Who think they’ll know their mother in heaven, and I think to myself, well you know, I’m an old lady now. My mother only knew me when I was six years old. She’s not going to recognize me. How are you going to find anybody? Millions and millions of people died. If they’re all floating around up there…”

The redwoods close in our their canopy as I continue along the winding road.

“I mean, if you said you decided you wanted to find somebody even in Gainesville and you don’t have a meeting place or whatever, it would take quite awhile. How are you going to do it in heaven?”

“I think in a way that our souls continue through other people,” I said.

“Well, I think you know there’s the eternal life which is as long as somebody remembers you and says, ‘I remember this or that,’ and that’s a nice thought to have.” She was quiet, then added, “I don’t think you’re going to come back a bird or a cat or an animal of any sort either.”

“Would you want to?”

“No, I wouldn’t.”

“How about as Bill Gates?”

She laughed. “No, I wouldn’t. He has problems we know not of. I’d rather be Marie Curie than Bill Gates. Oh, those trees look beautiful, don’t they? So lush and green.”