- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 7, 2007

The grass gets greener by the minute — literally.

Heading south on Interstate 69 toward Florida, I’m struck by the accelerated onset of spring since this morning when we left the brown and lifeless landscape of our Midwest home. It’s gradual at first — a subtle change as if someone took green spray paint and lightly kissed the flattened blades of grass across the state of Indiana.

Then — bam — we’re in southern Kentucky and the dogwoods and forsythia have exploded, and those pretty purple flowers on the bushes I can’t name are dotting the expressway with brilliant bursts of color. The bluegrass is green, the bushes are green, the trees are hinting of green.

Spring has sprung, and we only had to drive six hours to see it.

It occurs to me that my “expressway spring” is the perfect metaphor for my life at this moment. One minute I’m trucking down the highway, waiting on a change of landscape and wondering why it’s taking so long, and the next, I’m inhaling the fragrant perfume of a new season, amazed that it’s here so quickly.

This is the vacation I knew was coming, but now I’m oddly stunned by the suddenness of it.

Unlike previous years when all six of us piled into the minivan for a reprieve from another northern winter, this year there are only four of us — the younger three children and me. Due to work obligations, my husband is flying south to meet us rather than drive; due to the fact that she’s growing up and moving on, Katie isn’t coming on this trip at all.

Instead, Katie’s senior year spring break is a mission trip that will have her painting and landscaping for poor families in Alabama. Along with a dozen other young women and three brave chaperones from her high school, she’s learning life skills and experiencing the satisfaction of volunteer service.

Not that we’re completely out of touch. Thanks to text messaging, I’ve practically morphed into a middle-schooler sending cryptic, digital “momisms” to my eldest daughter.

“Working hard or hardly working?” I type.

“Wrking hrd! Can u believe i m doing yrd wrk voluntarily?”

Actually, no. This trip is proof that miracles do happen.

“Gr8. Keep it up,” I answer. I’m thinking there’s a chance she’ll learn some landscaping skills we can put to use in our own yard, though I admit that’s an unrealistic notion on my part.

While Katie sleeps on a church floor and bonds with friends over paint cans and hedge trimmers, the rest of us look forward to setting up camp at a hotel pool and soaking ourselves in SPF No. 4.

Driving down the highway, we mark the miles chatting about vacations past. I recall trips the children were too small to remember; vacations before the younger ones were born. It seems we spent years adding people to our journeys. I spent weeks inventing ways to occupy them in the car.

I read aloud from chapter books. I played the “license plate” game. I created travel binders with maps and activities behind colorful dividers.

Mostly, I played referee in countless tussles over crayons, toys and Game Boy games.

Before every trip I spent hours devising the neatest delivery systems for snacks and drinks. They weren’t neat, of course, so the first thing I always did upon arrival at our destination was find a car wash with a coin-operated vacuum. (I could never relax on vacation with crumbled Goldfish crackers in the seats. It’s neurotic, but whatever).

A few years have passed since we took a car trip, so I didn’t realize how far we’d come from a child-development perspective. This time, my son takes charge of handing out snacks. Everyone has a personal music device, and the most popular pastime in my nearly silent van is napping.

Naps used to be something people cried about and tried to avoid. Now they’re recreational.

Eventually, darkness falls on our long day of driving. The two younger children are asleep in the back seats. Betsy sits in the passenger seat next to me, conversing casually about high school, friends and plans.

We talk about her goal for next year’s spring break — a Habitat for Humanity trip perhaps — and about her desire to go to Paris with the French club in her senior year.

I listen and nod. I’m impressed that she has the next two years mapped out already, but suddenly it strikes me that this is her last spring break with me.

How is it that my children are growing and changing so quickly?

I look to my right to catch a fleeting glance at my daughter. In the dim light from the dashboard Betsy can’t see me blinking back tears, which is good. My teenagers hate it when I cry.

In the morning, we awaken to a hot, humid Georgia day. Under cover of nighttime, I couldn’t appreciate the lush foliage surrounding us. We’re only an hour from the Florida line and the air already is tropical.

We pile in the van, excited to complete our traveling and begin the fun. It only took a day on the road to rediscover the balmy breezes and soothing sunshine that fulfill the promise of every new springtime.

Then again, when I think about it, this was a journey that changed a little bit with every mile.

Columnist Marybeth Hicks, a wife of 19 years and mother of four children, lives in the Midwest. She is the author of “The Perfect World Inside My Minivan — One Mom’s Journey Through the Streets of Suburbia,” a compilation of her columns. She uses her column to share her perspective on issues and experiences that shape families nationwide. Visit her Web site (www.marybethhicks.com) or send e-mail to marybeth. [email protected]

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