Crater Lake

© 2012 by Lorrie Goldin

I’ve long wanted to visit Crater Lake, but my husband refuses.

“It’s hot and dry and endless,” he objects, recalling a boyhood vacation with his parents.

So instead I’ve roped our daughter, Emma, into a detour there. Crater Lake will be my reward for driving her back to college instead of putting her on a plane.

“Oh, you’ll have so much to talk about! What fun!” people say when I share my plans for a last mother-daughter weekend together.

I don’t think so, but I smile my agreement. Who am I to disillusion those lucky enough to have chatty children not plugged into their iPods? At this point I am grateful for a sullen front-seat hostage who will open the flip-tops on my Diet Cokes.

I used to dream of long, intimate conversations with Emma. That’s how it was with my mother. She and I had every detail of my wedding mapped out by the time I was eight. I felt her panicked claustrophobia each time she recounted how the nuns locked her in the closet. I told her when I went on the Pill. Later I learned that what I had mistaken for closeness was instead my mother’s need to live through me vicariously. Still, I loved it, and looked forward to the same intimacy with Emma. When it didn’t come, I consoled myself by thinking, “At least she’s not burdened by a mother who needs to live through her vicariously.”

Now, instead of talking, we’ll bond by listening to an audio book. I pop in the first disc of Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys. The narrator intones the dedication to the author’s wife.

“She’s an author, too,” I tell Emma. “She got into a ton of trouble by telling an interviewer she loved her husband more than their children.”

Why am I mentioning this? Emma cannot possibly understand the intricacies of motherhood, where everything is forced into a choice, and every choice is found wanting. If my husband and daughter were encircled by sharks, I would risk my life to bring her safely to shore, leaving him to fend for himself. This strikes me not as preference, but as the inherent obligation of parenthood. Must love come at someone else’s expense? I am spending this weekend traversing two states just to be with my laconic daughter, even though it will aggravate my sciatica. I pour myself out for Emma, and she yields nothing. Still, I choose her, although the silence between us sometimes breaks my heart.

“How long till we get there?” Emma yawns. My loaded conversational gambits go nowhere, but I notice her iPod lies untouched in the backseat.

The pine trees are endless. Just as I’m beginning to think my husband was right about Crater Lake, the forest drops away abruptly to reveal its sapphire treasure. Steep ashen slopes plummet into the infinite blue, inducing a delicious vertigo as we pause on the rim. The monotonous pine forest has been part of the set up, like the long, tedious ascent of the roller coaster before its stomach-dropping plunge.

I’ve splurged on a night in the beautifully restored historic lodge perched right on the edge of Crater Lake. Emma loves the veranda where guests sip cocktails and take in the view. After stretching our legs, we go to our room, where Emma falls asleep on the voluptuous bed, exhausted from fending off my attempts at conversation.

Nap over, we descend to the lodge’s elegant dining room. Emma and I speculate about the provenance of the summer help, all college students with foreign accents. Maybe she’ll work here some day. I don’t press it, though; Emma bristles at any attempt to map out her future. We focus instead on the scrumptious food, sparing no calorie or expense.

We sleep well, encased in crisp sheets and downy comforters. At breakfast we gorge on hazelnut pancakes and the berries that make Oregon famous. Although we would like to linger, we leave Crater Lake in the early morning. Sophomore year beckons whether or not we are ready.

We listen to Wonder Boys. It’s about half finished by the time we get to Emma’s dorm, so we speculate about what will happen. Does she want me to tell her the ending, or will she finish it herself someday?

“You can let me know what happens if you want,” Emma equivocates.

We’ve agreed that I will spend the night in her single dorm room to minimize expenses. What a mistake. After a certain age, no one should spend a night in a dormitory unless it’s as a participant in Elderhostel. I have never felt so invisible and out of place. I cannot wait to get on the road the next day, cured of whatever romantic notions remain about mothers living vicariously through their daughters.

I finish Wonder Boys during the drive home. It’s about a novelist whose untamed manuscript is a rambling disaster. He’s written five different endings for it, but none can bring it to a satisfactory close. His life is a parallel shambles.

My own trajectory is neat, known, almost finished. But Emma’s will still unspool erratically, with any number of characters and plot twists. Should I tell her how the story ends?

I think I will let her finish it on her own.

In addition to writing, Lorrie Goldin ( is a psychotherapist who practices in San Rafael and Berkeley. Several of her commentaries have been broadcast on KQED’s Perspectives, and her work has appeared in various publications.