What Did You Want to Be When You Were at College?

Her green-gray eyes always get straight to the heart of the matter.

“A journalist,” I promptly reply. Live on CNN. Big dreams.

“You could’ve been famous, Mom,” those eyes so earnest, so certain.

I smile at her certainty. At her pure eight-year-old belief that if only I had become what I wanted to be then, I would be famous.

“But when I’m a famous actress and singer, then you’ll be famous because I’m your daughter.” Pause. “NYU has an acting school, right?”

The notion of Fame is irresistibly attractive to her. Recognition, adoration, attention. She loves watching Disney’s “Austin & Ally”, the story of seemingly ordinary teens who rise not only to glittery stardom, but also to wholesome lives of friends and fun. As I watch her watching, I see the dreams behind those eyes, the twinkly smile that lights her face as if it were aglow in spotlight.

The ephemeral promise of flashing cameras and screaming fans inspires her to sit at the small, white desk in the quiet corner of her bedroom, hunched over pages of colored paper, writing songs she will later sing to the adoring audience of her mirrored self, hairbrush-ophone tight in her hand. But she is also driven by the good ol’ fashioned belief that if you work hard enough at something you love, you will undoubtedly accomplish success, praise, awards, celebrity. You will be famous.

famous

It’s as simple and wholesome a belief as the freckles sprinkled faintly across her nose, and every time she imagines her future life out loud I feel warm and hopeful. Yes love, I want to say, it is as simple as that.

Of course, it’s not.

I wanted more than anything to be live on CNN. So I majored in drama and journalism, met a guy, married him, and moved halfway around the world to be a stay-at-home-mom with four kids. They’re the ones reporting live, from the minivan.

Maybe I didn’t work that hard. Maybe I didn’t want it as much as I thought I did. Maybe I got distracted, confused, overwhelmed.

Or maybe my dream changed.

Maybe once I met that guy, what I really wanted was to marry him, have kids and stay home to raise them.

In the humdrum of normal, everyday life in which success is defined by whether I get dinner on the table at a reasonable time (as in any time before bedtime) and by how often I mutter “Stop that” to the boy opening and closing the drawer with his foot, where my claim to fame is the chocolate mousse I make on special holidays, and the only journalism I’ve done in recent-ish years is edit the school newsletter, it’s easy to lose myself in the dreams that didn’t come true. It only takes a small question – What did you want to be when you were at college, Mom? – to stir up immense wistfulness about the great big plans I had for myself. But then, you know, life.

I’m not famous in the world out there. I’m not chasing leads or breaking news or reporting live from anywhere. But here at home? Definite star power. I’m famous for surprise tickles before bedtime, for homemade meat pies, for practical solutions to complicated problems. Their faces (mostly) light up like thousands of camera flashes when I walk in the room. Recognition, adoration, attention.

I look at her intent face, at her little self dressed much like me in black leggings, a tank top and slouchy sweater, and even as I answer that 20 years ago I wanted to be something I’m not, I realize I am exactly what I wanted to be. I wanted to be this.

From Nashville, With Love

(hit play – turn it up, way up)

“Hot, fried, and awesome. You know you’re in the right place when there’s live country music… at the airport!

I’d been in Nashville all of four hours when I sent this text back west to California. Four hours. Hardly enough time to fall properly in love with a place. I’d glimpsed the muddy Cumberland River, deduced that the tall AT&T building was the Nashville skyline, looked down a hot, still 4th Street and wondered where the hell everybody was on a Thursday afternoon. Downtown Nashville. Not a soul in sight.

Nashville

But I was. In love.

There’d been that live country band serenading me as I walked my red boots through the Southwest terminal. The best devilled eggs I’d ever tasted at lunch. The only item not fried at the friendly Southern where the hot chicken burns, and the cocktails go down way too easy. There was that southern accent flirting with me in the hot, steamy air, the twang that melts every bone in my body, and enough y’alls to send me to heaven and back again. And there was Johnny Cash. Just there. On the street. In an abandoned parking lot.

cash

We have murals in Oakland. They’re beautiful. They brighten the darkest underpasses, and bring colorful life to bare street corners. They’re of typical Oakland-ish scenes: Lake Merritt and the geese, Fairyland and the famous Grand Lake Theater, and the most iconic are the giraffes on the structural pillars holding up the 580 freeway. I don’t know what they symbolize, but in Oakland we have giraffes. In Nashville they have Johnny Cash. And Willie Nelson.

willie

Tennessee calls itself “the state that made country music famous.” This was my dream trip: Music City.

I’m not usually the trip-planner – I leave that to my husband. I don’t have a list of places I’d like to visit, or sights I must see. We’re a large, beach-lovin’ family so most vacations we pile into the minivan and motor down the California coast. If we have an opportunity to go somewhere adventurous, he and the kids have the strongest opinions. I let them decide. We always have fun.

I’m also not a milestone-marker kinda gal. Birthdays are birthdays – whether you’re 10 or 25 or 37 or 60. Yes, celebrate, feel special: party, balloons and cake, happy birthday, the end. (Except if it’s your bar or bat mitzvah – then it’s a really big deal, spiritually, religiously. Or if you’re 70 plus. That seems like more of a reason to go all out to me, having loved and endured and lived, really, for decades).

But suddenly never-turning-40 me was almost turning 40, and it felt like some kind of milestone. And my country-music-loving heart was starting to long for a visit to just one dream destination: Nashville.

Screw not marking a milestone – I wanted to go to Nashville. For my 40th. With my husband. And my friends. And absolutely no kids.

“It’s going to be like a dream come true,” I emailed a friend a few months ago. And it was.

I had imagined watching country music greats perform live. Dreamed about seeing those large, bearded guys with sunglasses and enormous cowboy hats pulled down so low you could see only their mouths move, tapping their weathered boots and playing the fiddle faster than a train hurtling down a track at midnight. I had wondered about this seemingly mythical southern city, where a guitar was practically the state emblem and whiskey flowed like water. Fantasized walking in my red cowboy boots past a honky-tonk bar, catching a tune and tapping my own heels to the country beat.

But I could never have imagined it would be so perfect.

The Charlie Daniels Band at the Grand Ole Opry May 9, 2014

The Charlie Daniels Band at the Grand Ole Opry May 9, 2014

I never dreamed it would be The Charlie Daniels Band singing “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” that I saw live at the Grand Ole Opry. A speeding midnight train had nothing on that fiddle. Could never have imagined that the honky-tonk bar from my fantasy was every few doors on Broadway, with a live band downstairs and a different one upstairs and where guys and gals of all ages turn out in their country finest – classic to hipster – and dance the night away: two-stepping, hip-swaying, clapping, spinning and twirling to more country music I could ever have hoped to hear.

honkytonks

And I could never, ever have imagined how it would feel to be in the City of my Dreams, with people who love country music, Nashville, fried food and classic cocktails like I do, who wanted to buy boots and go to the Johnny Cash Museum. With people who had arranged kids’ schedules, and sitters, and skipped work on Friday, given up Mother’s Day with beloved kids and moms on Sunday, schlepped from New Jersey and Oakland (and damn it’s a schlep), and who wanted nothing more than to celebrate just like I wanted to celebrate, who wanted to celebrate me with me. People who know me, who love me (or maybe know me yet still love me!), and whom I love.

I could never have imagined how that would feel. Like the first lick of caramel ice cream, water-skiing on the lake, tight hugs, love letters, warm pajamas, bonfires and marshmallows on the beach, winning a trophy, sweet juicy peaches, kisses and a breathtaking purple sunset all at once.

Josh and Lisa sang to me in the hotel lobby, a song they created specially for me, to the tune of Dolly Parton’s “Nine to Five” – they were nothing short of foot-tapping, finger-snapping a-ma-zing. Deb and Larry crooned the beautiful tune “A Life That’s Good” from my favorite show (Nashville, obviously!). Amy stopped Jared, The Matte Gray Band’s lead singer, on his way to the bathroom so that Bill could take a photo of all of us with him. When a country band can play Garth Brooks, White Snake and everything in between, that’s fantastic to the max. It was perfect. All of it.

I hate when trips, any trips, come to an end. I get moody and sad when it’s time to pack. I sigh heavily. Mooch a little. Ryan usually shoots me a warning look, one that says: “Don’t go down that wishing road.” He knows how much I hate to go back to “real life.” How I “wish I could stay here – wherever here – forever.” He reminds me that even the any “here” of my wishes would eventually become “there” – the place I have to go back to.

But I sat on the plane heading back to California so full of happiness I probably could’ve floated the whole schleppy way back home. I wasn’t sad it was over. I wasn’t wishing I could stay “here forever.” Because it was a dream come true… in ways I could never have dreamed.

From Nashville, with love.

(thanks, Deb, for this line)