Road trip teaches how family can help overcome adversity
Abraham Mahshie – Contributing Writer
I figured that if I survived the weekend, I would live a long and prosperous life.
I planned a family bonding trip with cousins for the same day I would reach my father’s age when he died: 39 years, 344 days. It was a coincidence. But, if I woke up the following day, I would be older than my father the day he died suddenly of a heart attack when I was eight years old.
I hear all the time that I lead a healthier lifestyle: I eat right, exercise, take statins for cholesterol and I don’t smoke, like my father did. Nonetheless, turning 39 was a foreboding thought for me, one that I had long feared. The day in August of last year when I turned 39 was also the last day I spent with my wife. Even though I loved her more than anything in this world, I didn’t feel like she could treat me in a loving way any longer. We cried that whole week and throughout my birthday before I boarded a plane the following morning and three days later found myself in a cabin in the woods in Western North Carolina. She started to pursue a divorce within a couple of weeks, and it was finalized in eight months’ time.
By October, my 1982 VW camper van arrived from my previous job overseas – actually, my dad’s camper van arrived. He bought it when I was five years old and most of the memories I made with my father were in that very vehicle. It had not been driven in North Carolina for 30 years.
The first months in Franklin were hard. I found great fulfillment in my journalistic work and the people I met and wrote about, but no sooner would I climb into my van and put my hands on the top of the steering wheel after an interview than I would feel the pain rush back.
I didn’t go on any road trips. I just worked, wrote the book on bullfighting that I told myself was the reason for coming here and fought through the grief.
“We should do a road trip”
In March, I flew down to my cousin’s wedding in Jacksonville. That’s when I discovered an extended family who I didn’t have the opportunity to know growing up. There were cousins my age and they were all Mahshies. They were like me, all Arab-looking and funny as hell and great people. I was gone from the states for so long that having a connection with extended family was a foreign idea to me. I needed to get to know them.
The sun was just setting behind the rice paddies and oak trees with their trailing Spanish moss where my cousin, Kristin had just taken her vows. I was fine for the wedding itself. My tears looked like everybody else’s. It was the first time I had attended a wedding without my wife. I feared all the family would ask me where she was. Thankfully, they did not. But sometimes, they would turn to me wanting to ask the question and remain silent. Technically, we were still married, but I couldn’t save her a seat next to me.
It was after the wedding itself, when guests were lining up for food at the reception that I had to walk back out to the oak trees by myself. The wedding, the vows, the excited families uniting. I remembered my wedding, and I hurt.
I was gone for so long that my brother made a plate of southern fixin’s for me. He wanted to make sure I got something from the buffet line before it closed. It was all delicious looking and cold and tasted the same to me. I couldn’t taste anything that day.
I was in one of my favorite suits: a light grey tailored suit with pink silk interior and a pink dress shirt with an open collar – at the request of the wedding party. (I had my Osborne bull tie in my pocket just in case).
By the time the father of the bride started lighting cigars, I was feeling better. I was interacting with all my new cousins. We were laughing and telling stories, connecting about similar experiences.
“We should do a road trip,” Elias suggested. “A Mahshie cousins road trip.”
A band was playing under an aluminum quonset hut, a huge airplane hangar-like, open-air building lined with tables and flowers. The oak trees formed silhouettes way off in the distance.
As soon as I got home, I started a text message group and suggested we all convene in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Emails started flying back and forth and rough plans formed.
In late July, Elias drove up with Uncle John from Punta Gorda, Fla., Roy drove from Charleston and we met at Johnny’s farm in Hendersonville to start five days of camping, fires, music, cigars, stories and Coors Light.
‘We’re all [messed] up’
I reserved us two days at Black Mountain Campground, where the Little Toe River creates a constant hush sound and tall pine trees are all around. I pulled in behind the two pick-up trucks my cousins had loaded with coolers and camp supplies. By the time I found the campground after making a wrong turn down a closed forest road, they had already set up four little tents and zero-gravity chairs around the fire. I pulled up my van, lifted the roof of my own pop-top tent and rushed to grab one of the comfortable zero-gravity chairs.
Roy used a battery-powered blo
wer and lighter fluid to catch the fire, then cooked us all a huge shrimp boil and dumped the contents on brown paper bags on the picnic table for us to pick at.
I was getting to know everybody. Uncle John was a police officer for 27 years, opting into retirement at age 48. He has been retired now for 11 years. He is the most fervently conservative of the group and did his best to instigate political debates with the rest of us. He has an upstate New York accent, is in good shape and has a crewcut like he was still a cop. His heavy chuckle laugh was delightful to hear.
Johnny runs the Veterans Healing Farm in Hendersonville helping vets learn skills like beekeeping or making a guitar out of a cigar box. He helps them to cope with PTSD and not jump into buying a whole farm outright. He even hires veterans who have their own nonprofits to teach his classes and give them the venue for helping others—a beautifully landscaped property scattered with fully sustainable, container-like buildings that house bunk facilities on a charming farm on Mahshie Lane.
Elias is an attorney in Punta Gorda. He did all kinds of law and even helped me write my will, which I was intent on completing before reaching my father’s age on the Saturday of the trip. I even put my ex-wife in my will and said that the first thing that should be done with my assets is to buy her the emerald tennis bracelet that I had been saving up for to mark what would have been our 10th wedding anniversary next year.
Elias got the will done just in time so that I could have it notarized at the Macon County Courthouse the day before the road trip. When it was signed and notarized, a sense of calm came over me. Elias has long hair, a receding hairline and drives or flies all over the country to go to concerts.
Roy builds custom homes in Charleston, S.C. – Mahshie Custom Homes. He gave me five cozies to keep in my van with his Greek pillar logo and elegant font. His home is a Mahshie custom home and is incredible with tall ceilings, and a full wall of windows that opens to a wide porch and fire pit hidden in the brush. When I first visited it in Charleston, he told me that after learning how to build homes, when he knew he wanted to start his own business, he spent a big chunk of his $35,000 in savings over two years taking every architect and engineer he could find out to lunch. He built contacts. He made relationships. It was such a gutsy move, I had never heard anything like it and I really admired him for it.
Johnny banged on a drum and rapped as the fire flickered our first night.
“Mahshie rhymes with a lot of things,” he told me. “The ‘ee’ sound rhymes with all the luxury brands: Versace, Gucci… fanc-ee, nast-ee.”
Elias expertly played a sunburst-colored Stratocaster electric guitar with a tiny battery-powered amp.
Roy was playing an acoustic guitar like a drum and occasionally strumming.
After Johnny rapped, I started describing his farm out loud. I enunciated each word fully and separately. I paused after each line. I talked about how beautiful Johnny’s farm was, how he dreamed about it and woke up in the middle of the night and made a little model of his farm then he went out and made it a reality.
“That’s spoken word,” Elias told me. “That’s really good.”
I did have a musical skill. I could sing spoken word lyrics and make them up on the spot. And man, it did sound good.
Then, I started talking about Roy’s custom homes. Johnny jumped in with a rap about the luxury add-ons, including $5,000 “heated bootie toilets.”
Suddenly Roy was singing the refrain in a falsetto: “heat-ed boot-ie toil-ets.” It was so hilarious, and it was catchy and brilliant.
Then Uncle John talked about his dream from the previous night. How his brother, Uncle Roy, appeared to him. He shot straight up in bed and let out a laugh.
“It felt so real, like he was there,” he said as the bongo drum played, the electric guitar finger picked and the acoustic guitar strummed. Then he let out a big chuckle.
I had never experienced anything like it.
Here we were, five completely different Mahshie relatives. We all had different jobs, different lives, different experiences and educations and we lived in different places. I came in thinking I was in a deep rut. I was thinking about the will. I was thinking about my dad. I was thinking about my ex-wife, whose things I was still separating with all the emotions that entailed.
But Roy was thinking about growing his business and the pressure to meet and exceed customer’s expectations. Johnny was worried about running a nonprofit and raising three kids. Uncle John needed excitement in his retirement and wanted to travel and be the fun person that he is. Elias had just broken up with a girlfriend. We talked about it a long time while climbing Mount Mitchell the next day and I felt good, I felt like he understood me. He was right where I was in a way. And he cared about me, because we were family.
After the 5.6-mile Mount Mitchell hike, some weary Mahshies took a shuttle to the bottom and had a much shorter musical evening. The next day, we paddled down the Ocoee River for six miles and more than two dozen rapids. With each wave of water that hit us, Uncle John would let out a big laugh, and we paddled like hell not to flip over.
By Saturday night at 12 a.m., Elias and Roy were still awake with me by Roy’s fire pit in Charleston.
“I’m older than my father,” I said out loud.
By the light of the fire, I could make out their caring faces look at me. Roy reached down into his backpack cooler, cracked open fresh Coors Lights for each of us and we toasted.
“We’re all [messed] up,” Uncle John had said at one point at the campground.
But we’re not. We all came into that trip with our own worries and troubles and anxieties. But really, we were all in marvelous places. Roy and Johnny have beautiful families and meaningful jobs. Elias has his own law practice across the street from the courthouse, and Uncle John is healthy and strong at 59.
I have my health. I have my education, my experiences, my talents and skills. I have drive and goals. I have a bright future ahead of me, I just have to make it. And I have loving family all around me, and they were singing about heated bootie toilets.