All In The Family

||| |---|---| | | | A man approached me in the Flying tent at the EAA's AirVenture airshow last summer and thanked me for, as he put it, "working a miracle in my life." He explained that his wife, who in 20 years of marriage had never been willing to go flying with him, had finally agreed to go after reading some of my columns.

"That's nothing," I remember thinking as I listened to his tale. "You want to know a real miracle? I finally took my mother flying with me last week."

Flying, you see, does not exactly run in my family. My father is not a pilot. His father wasn't a pilot. None of my uncles, great uncles or any of the other men in the family were pilots. There were some pretty impressive ladies in the clan-my father's grandmother had a college degree (in 1880) and supported her family raising rabbits, and my mother's mom worked herself through Smith College in defiance of her father-and went on to get a master's degree-before women even got the right to vote. My mother had a career in politics and has run an environmental organization trying to clean up the Bronx for the past 19 years. But none of them ever went near small airplanes.

When we were kids, my sister Gail always said she wanted to be a pilot-as well as a fireman, a baseball player, an adventurer and an astronaut, of course-but she ended up traveling the world and teaching Spanish, instead. My computer whiz brother David in Silicon Valley can kick my proverbial tail end in any computerized flight game but, as far as I can tell, never showed any inclination to try out the real McCoy. And even today, the only friends I have who are interested in aviation are pilots I've met since I got my license.

When I learned to fly, I started hearing other people reminisce about going to the airport with their parents when they were young; of wearing their dad's old bomber jackets; of taking the controls when they were too little to see over the instrument panel; of knowing they wanted to fly before they could drive. They're interesting stories, but I've always listened to them with the bemused curiosity of a foreigner hearing tales of a strange land she's never seen.

My flying has always been much more of a solo endeavor for me, in more ways than one. When I soloed and then passed my private check ride, there was nobody in my world to share the achievements with me. So I just took myself out to dinner to celebrate and noted the events with simple postscripts to my sister, who was in the Peace Corps in Africa at the time.

My flying has been so separate from my family, in fact, that my parents didn't even know I was a pilot for the first eight years I had my license. I'm not kidding. I didn't purposely hide the fact from them-they knew I spent every weekend at the airport, and that I'd changed careers to become an aviation writer-but for eight years, it seemed that the subject always got mysteriously changed whenever I tried to edge them closer to an idea of what I was doing with all that airport time.

Looking back on it, I can't believe that my dad never pursued the question, even if my mother never did. Looking back on it, he says that he can't, either. But the bottom line is, it wasn't until my first book was published and my mom read the "About the Author" section in the back that my parents discovered that their youngest daughter was a pilot.

Even then, the family didn't seem wildly enthusiastic about the flying I did, with the possible exception of my six-year-old niece, Kinana. She's the littlest in the family, but she has enough spunk to match the rest of us put together, and she loves my airplane. The first time I ever let her sit in it, she snapped the headset on her head, grabbed hold of the yoke, and shot me a mischievous sideways look that told me if I ever left the keys in it, she might never bring it back. Every morning of that trip, she'd bound into my bedroom to ask if we could go flying that day. When I finally said yes, she bounced up and down all around the room, pausing only to ask, "Can we go upside down?"

Keeping up with that one is a trick, let me tell you.

Getting my parents in the airplane, on the other hand, was something I thought had about the same odds as snow in July. I thought my dad might actually be intrigued about this flying stuff and want a ride, but I figured he wouldn't want to worry my mom, and the opportunity to test the situation never seemed to present itself.

Until this summer.

I had my airplane on the East Coast, so I told my dad that I'd love to take him for a ride, if it was something he thought he'd like to do. His whole face lit up, but before he could answer, my mom cut in.

"Wait a minute," she said sharply.

Uh-oh, I thought as I turned to face her. Here come the objections.

"What about me?" she demanded.

It's amazing how slow the brain can move when it gets completely sideswiped.

"What do you mean, 'what about you?'" I asked.

"I want to go, too," she said.

For the briefest of moments, I wondered if aliens had taken over my mother's body. She couldn't mean it. I thought she hated airplanes. I thought she hated the fact that I flew them. The sun rose in the east and my mother would never go flying in a small airplane. This is how the universe I knew operated. I stood there for a long moment before I could even come up with something resembling a reply.

"You do?" I finally asked. "Why?"

"Because," she answered. "I want to see some of the things you write about for myself."

In any kind of relationship, there are sometimes magical turning points where the lens through which you've seen the other person shifts, showing you a new view of them that forces you to reevaluate who they are and where their limits and edges may lie. It's one of the surprises I love best about the complex human animal-no matter how long I've known someone, there's always the possibility of finding new depth, growth, layers and colors that I might never have suspected were there. Indeed, there are probably traits and colors within all of us that even we ourselves don't realize we have until something or someone brings them out of us one day. But in that dawning moment of recognition, new possibilities and beauty suddenly present themselves like the sun rising on a new day.

Perhaps my mother simply had never considered the beauty and perspective that flying might bring until I started writing about it. Or perhaps she simply loves me enough that she wanted to share and understand this piece of my life better, even if it scared her. I think, somehow, it was a combination of both.

In any event, I soon found myself at the Beverly, Massachusetts, airport, strapping my mom and dad into the Cheetah and praying for smooth air and a well-behaving engine. I took them over the harbor of Marblehead, where she grew up, and then up the coast to Ipswich and back. My dad had a big grin on his face the whole time, and my mom pointed out landmark after landmark in what sounded like a happy voice from the back seat. When we landed, the grin on her face was every bit as wide as my dad's, and she bubbled on about the flight to my siblings for a week.

A couple of months later, my parents came out to visit me in California. And when I asked my mom what she wanted to do while she was there, going flying was among the top three things on her wish list. I put her in the front seat this time and flew low over the vineyards and across the hills to the coast, where we'd driven the day before. She shot a whole roll of film and seemed to get a real kick out of seeing a landscape she'd toured on the ground from a whole new perspective. It was the end of the day, and as we turned back south along the coast, the setting sun lit the ocean with gold and the sky with streaks of orange, pink and red.

"Oh, Lane, this is beautiful," my mom said quietly.

My heart turned over, and I thanked whoever it is you thank for those quiet, profound moments when life hands you a gift you know you'll always remember.

"Yeah, Mom, it is," I answered.

My parents and I have been through a lot together, over the years. I've almost lost both of them to accident and illness already, and these days I just try to appreciate the gift of whatever days and moments we have. But no matter what the future holds, I will carry the memory of those flights within my heart forever. Fifteen years after getting my license, I finally got to show my mom and dad the world from the sky and saw the beauty and understanding of that perspective reflected in their eyes. It's a gift I never thought I'd be able to give them, and a gift I never thought I'd know in return.

It's enough to make one believe in miracles, after all.


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