For our first fifteen years of marriage, Stephanie did virtually all of the driving. She was a better driver than I am, certainly, and when she moved out west to join me in San Francisco, she drove the loaded U-Haul from Wisconsin to California. I might have driven a hundred miles on that trip; the rest was Stephanie, and with this she earned a permanent nickname as “Truck Girl.”
In the era before GPS, I was mostly relegated to “Navigator Boy” duties, studying the maps and telling her where to turn. She was also, however, a better navigator than I ever was, and occasionally she took the map out of my hand when I’d gotten us lost. So in reality, even at the start of our marriage, she was both driver and navigator. Or as we said in our silly slang, she was both Truck Girl and Navigator Girl.
In San Francisco, we didn’t have or need a car. Public transit is easier, and anyway we were poor and parking would have been impossibly expensive. But Stephanie later drove and plotted the path for our eventual moves, first to Kansas City and later to Madison, and when we got a car she was again in charge of driving and navigation.
Then, for the last six or seven years of our time together, when health issues meant she could no longer drive, she became exclusively Navigator Girl. And she was mighty good at it. We never bought a GPS; instead we owned thick map-books of Wisconsin and Illinois, and Stephanie guided us to our destinations, almost always with no missed turns.
Oh, the places we’ve been! Rustic Roads all over Wisconsin. Door County, the tourist trap along Wisconsin’s lakefront coastline. Up the Mississippi River shore. Across Lake Wisconsin on the Merrimac Ferry, and across the Mississippi River on a different ferry. To Beloit and back so many times, for minor-league baseball. Bingo in the Dells, and bingo in Milwaukee. Scenic drives across half of Wisconsin, especially in the autumn, as the leaves were turning — Stephanie loved that drive, and we did it annually. Pick a state or county park; if it’s within 200 miles we’ve been there, probably multiple times, and Stephanie always found the most efficient or scenic route.
Everywhere we lived — San Francisco, Kansas City, and Madison — we frequently went to movies at the drive-ins, which are always a long, winding trip out of the city. She always laid the course to the drive-in and, more of a challenge, back home again late at night, when all the backwoods highways were blanketed in darkness.
She was an excellent Navigator Girl, as we often said to each other. It was an inside joke, but it was also true, and she would’ve found it hilarious that I got thoroughly lost, several times, on my first road trip without her.
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Stephanie and I didn’t have an extensive collection of friends in Madison. Our few friends are in San Francisco, and in Pennsylvania, and elsewhere, and my own family is a thousand miles away, so the only people we had in the area were her parents. They live in Racine, a mid-sized town a hundred miles from Madison. That’s where we had an informal wake, just her parents and I, at the house where Stephanie was raised.
I hate almost everything about the traditional American-style funeral, so this intentionally wasn’t anything like that. Nothing was organized, no scriptures or speeches were spoken, nobody sang “Amazing Grace.” There was a lot of crying, but mostly by me. Her parents are “Midwest stoic,” devastated by their daughter’s death but they’re not going to cry about it in front of me. Still, it was a surprisingly effective wake or going-away party, or whatever-it-was.
Her father grilled some pork tenderloin for lunch, and for several hours we talked about Stephanie’s childhood, and things that happened long before I knew her. I already knew many of the things they told me, but some of it Stephanie had never mentioned.
I knew, for example, that she had taught herself to read when she was a toddler, years before kindergarten. Hey, I told you she was smart. But I hadn’t known that people just plain didn’t believe that 3-year-old Stephanie could read. Her nursery teacher thought she had simply memorized the stories in her books, and when Steph’s mother said, “No, Stephanie can read,” the teacher skeptically handed the kid a book she’d never seen before. Stephanie read the title aloud, and then started reading the book.
Just for comparison, I wasn’t allowed to have my sixth birthday until I could tie my shoes. No party, no presents, no cake, no celebration. I wasn’t even allowed to say I was six years old. I had to continue telling people I was five for another several months, until I finally mastered tying my shoes. So Steph was reading at three, and I was tying my shoes at 6½.
She had told me that she could play the piano, but we’d never had one so I’d never heard her play. What she didn’t tell me was that she had been a piano prodigy, playing classical pieces by sight and sound well before adolescence. How could we be married for all those years and I’d never known?
She had told me she earned an academic scholarship at Michigan State, but she didn’t tell me that she aced her SATs with a perfect score. I never went or wanted to go to college, so I had to Google it when I got home, but yeah, a perfect SAT is incredibly rare. My assumption, then, is that she didn’t tell me about her it because she thought it might’ve made me uncomfortable at the difference in intelligence between us. But c’mon, Steph. I knew you better than I’ve ever known anyone, and believe me, I always knew that you were way, way smarter than me.
So, thanks, Mom and Dad Webb, for an afternoon spent remembering Stephanie. I cried a lot, and it felt good to share the grief. There’s been no-one I could talk to in person about Stephanie’s death, until today. They’ve always accepted me into the family, and today it meant the world to me.
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I thought that crying would be the most difficult part of the day, but it actually felt good to let the tears flow. Instead, the hardest thing for me was simply driving to and from Racine. I’ve driven there and back many times, because Steph liked visiting her folks frequently, but today I couldn’t bear the thought of driving our normal route via Interstate-94, where every landmark along the freeway would be a reminder of the person who wasn’t in the car. You know, We had lunch at that restaurant, and We filled the tank at that gas station, etc.
So instead I mapped out a longer trip, far from the interstate, along state and county highways we’d traveled much less frequently. And predictably, driving without my Navigator Girl left me confused, scratching my head, and completely flummoxed finding her family’s house. I arrived half an hour late for the wake. Then, on the return trip to Madison, I made two wrong turns and went 75 miles out of my way.
So, two things: First, it’s not just a cliché that I am lost without Stephanie. I am utterly, absolutely, and literally lost, and I’ll probably be lost for the rest of my life.
And second, I need to buy a GPS device for the car.
More about Stephanie.