The best part about a road trip is the complete spontaneity for which it allows.
I had given myself two days to drive from Atlanta to Philadelphia. I thought that would mean lots of stops and detours--discovering historic towns, off-the-beaten track eating establishments and antique stores. But what I hadn't considered was how someone who works 18-hour days at home would get all that same work done on the road. And so, large portions of the past three days have been spent catching up on emails, answering design questions, taking care of billing and bookkeeping--and, of course, this new endeavor called social media and blogging. Even though I type and think and eat and move quickly, I still can't quite keep up with everything I have on my plate. It seemed as if I was doomed to spend most of the next two days in hotel rooms and behind the wheel.
Fortunately, road trip spontaneity decided to take a different form--and I ended up having a series of amazing encounters.
On Wednesday morning in Atlanta--after catching up on laundry and virtual paperwork, I looked at the map and picked the halfway point between Atlanta and Philadelphia--a centrally-located hotel in Durham, NC. It was another cold day, but sunny as I set off on my drive. About two hours out of Atlanta, I needed to get gas, and so I ended up driving through a few of the historic small Southern towns near Clemson University in South Carollna. Suddenly a thought popped into my head. Doesn't Susan Klebanow teach somewhere in a Carolina? A quick search on Google revealed that she taught at UNC Chapel Hill, which is directly next door to Durham.
It was a long shot, but I called and left a message on her office phone number, knowing that the odds of a university professor actually checking in on their office phone were slim to none. Fifteen minutes later, the phone rang. Within two minutes I had reconnected with my beloved high school music teacher for the first time (other than on Facebook) in over 30 years, and she had invited me for dinner.
I pulled into Durham around 6PM, checked into my hotel and then plugged her address into the GPS. I had picked the absolute closest hotel to her house: Six miles down one road, one left turn, and one right--and I was there! It's hard not to believe in providence when things like this happen.
Dinner was perfect! I had underestimated the sheer joy of having a home-cooked meal on the road. In my real life, I eat gluten, dairy and sugar free--which is always a bit challenging when traveling. We had quinoa (my favorite grain) pasta with zucchini (my second favorite vegetable after asparagus) and shrimp (my first favorite protein), a delicious salad, strawberries (my favorite fruit) and herb tea. I couldn't have planned a better meal for myself. Susan's son Nick, a handsome and talented pianist, was home from grad school in Michigan, and so the three of us settled in at the kitchen table and caught up on the past 34 years. We also went through her photo album of my senior year in high school--as Kleb reflected back to me who I was then.
"You struck me as wanting to be anywhere but in high school," she said. It was true. I had spent the year between my junior and senior years as an exchange student in Germany. It had all come about after I turned 16 at the end of my junior year of high school, and my mother decided that she was going to send me to a religious boarding school for my senior year. I was horrified! My grades had been falling and my friendships becoming more important to me--but it seemed an extreme and punitive measure. Lee Walcott, the dean of the upper school, threw out a different idea and, mercifully, my mother accepted it. "She's so much younger than the other students in her grade," he mused, "why don't you send her to Europe as an exchange student? Then she can come back here for her senior year." Three weeks later I was on a plane to Germany--a place I had no desire to go, leaving friends I had no desire to leave.
It turned out to be the best year of my young life. For the first time, I got to be a kid--just a "normal" kid. NOT Vincent Price's daughter. When I meet fans, one of their first questions inevitably is, "What was it like growing up as Vincent Price's daughter?" It was wonderful, it was difficult, it was extraordinary, it was eye-opening, it was challenging. I had a father who I still think of as the most interesting person I have ever met--and I count as my friends Wimbledon winners, Mt Everest climbers, Cuba-to-Florida swimmers, Oscar, Emmy, Grammy and Pulitzer recipients. I am so fortunate in my many talented and loyal friends--and still my dad is the most interesting person I have known. . .because he moved through life with curiosity, generosity, true interest in others, with a desire to give back and be of service, the belief that we are always learning, and mostly with immense joy.
Growing up with my dad was wonderful. But growing up in Hollywood--with all its expectations of success and beauty, its superficial values and myriad excesses--that was much harder. Celebrity can be a lethal weight--as my brother, who has long kept a folder filled with clippings of other celebrity children who have taken their own lives, taught me. The expectations of celebrity are seductive, but they are unreal. And it is only by grounding oneself in the things that matter in life (for me those are my friends, my dogs, my spiritual practice, my intellectual curiosity, nature, art, reading, the daily expression of joy, and a lifelong journey of learning) that one can avoid the sinkhole of celebrity. It was living in Germany that taught me that. My exchange family and my friends there didn't know who my father was--they knew me, in all my imperfection. Tollpatsch was my nickname. Klutz. I loved that. Unlike my mother, who was always trying to iron out my rough edges, they loved me for who I was. That changed everything.
But coming back to high school and living at home for nine months seemed like a return to prison. And so my friendships with Kleb--the innovative new music teacher at Marlborough; Anne-Marie--our French teacher; and Michele--my dance teacher and dear friend then and now, as well as new friendships with six of my new classmates--they saved me.
We felt like a group of outsiders at a conservative, mostly Caucasian, upper-middle class girls school in Hancock Park. We were Palestinian-American or Korean; we were left-wing activists, environmentalists or artists; we were smart, creative, adventurous, with big ideas for our futures--and the fact that our teachers saw us as friends made all the difference in the world to us then.
Kleb told me that she was new to teaching then, and she wasn't sure that teachers were allowed to be friends with their students. She recalled a Saturday morning when she and her boyfriend Jeremy were at their Santa Monica apartment and we showed up to take them roller skating. She said, "You know, you adopted us." It was mutual.
It's easy to look back on the past with rose-colored glasses, but my dinner with Kleb was an incredible gift, because it showed me that the people I loved in the past I loved for a reason. We had a connection not just built on time and place and circumstance, but also on creativity, humor, intelligence, and an expectation of joy. That's something time can't touch--and getting to retrace that gossamer thread that connects past and present allows us to see life not as a series of isolated episodes, but as a continuum of joy.
The next morning, after finally catching up on most of my tardy paperwork, I set off toward Richmond, Virginia. A few weeks earlier, I had been emailing an artist about doing some cool projects for the Vincent Price Estate, when I noticed she was from Virginia. Serendipitously, I realized that she lived right on my route to Philadelphia. We planned to have lunch together at the Can Can Bistro in Careytown in Richmond.
After driving through the wooded beauty of the historic Duke University campus, I hit the Interstate. Two and a half hours later, I found myself on a street filled with boutiques and restaurants, where I met Abigail Larson--a wonderful artist and illustrator. We sat down to a delicious French-inspired lunch together as though we had known one another for years.
My dad would have loved Abigail's work. Her use of line and infusion of watercolor, her whimsy and darkness, her ability to evoke a smile and shudder in her superb work. We have high hopes for many creative collaborations together.
I asked her how she became an illustrator, and she told me about a wonderful teacher in her junior high in Williamsburg, Virginia, who had turned her fluorescent-lit classroom into an atmospheric lamp-lit boudoir filled with tapestries and cozy seating. (Bless the school principal who turned a blind eye and let an educator really educate!) Abigail told me that they would turn of the lights and listen to literature. She particularly fell in love with Poe, Shelley, the Bronte sisters, and, with her eyes closed in that room, she saw what heard. What she saw, she drew.
Toward the end of lunch, Abigail said, "I think there's a photo of your dad up in the Poe Museum. He visited there quite a bit." The Poe Museum! You know, there are times when I feel I'm just not very good at this whole Vincent Price's Daughter thing. How could I have come to Richmond, Virginia, and not thought of the Poe Museum? Fortunately, I am on a road trip. And so, after stretching my legs by walking through the bitter cold in and out of the fantastic shops of Careytown, I plugged the Poe Museum into my GPS and was there in 10 minutes.
One of the wonderful things about childhood--particularly mine, with a father who was such a wonderful storyteller--is that I grew up exercising my imagination with no restrictions. I drew, I wrote, I acted in plays, I created secret worlds in our gardens. As a result, reality and imagination often blurred. Because my father was so associated with Edgar Allan Poe, I sort of felt like Poe was part of the family. And that's exactly how I felt when I visited the Poe Museum.
I walked into the tiny giftshop in the 19th century brick building that is the entrance to the museum looking for the photo of my father that Abigail had mentioned. I quickly found it.
That, of course, led to my telling the two ladies in the gift shop that I was Vincent Price's daughter. I don't think I could have been treated any more royally had I said I was Edgar Allen Poe's long-lost great-great niece. I was given an absolutely fantastic tour of the premises by Alyson, who also leads historic tours of Richmond--and even went out into the gardens to meet the museum director and curator, who were meeting with the gentlemen who will be redoing the beautiful garden area.
Alyson introduced me to two students who were working on projects aimed at introducing Poe to new generations, and she told me about what the kids respond to in particular is seeing pages from the actual manuscripts and the desk on which he wrote. She said, "So many of these kids have never been to a museum, and so have never imagined themselves doing something creative like writing a story. You can see the light go on and new possibilities emerging in their minds!"
Driving to Philadelphia from Richmond, I found myself reflecting on my encounters with Kleb, Nick, Abigail, and the caretakers of the Poe Museum. And suddenly I was flooded with gratitude for my education. I was a singularly horrible music student, an irritating French student and probably and even worse dance student, but Kleb, Anne Marie and Michele not only raised my awareness and appreciation for their fields that enriches my life to this day, but more importantly, they taught me about life--about approaching everything with an open mind and an eagerness to learn about anything and everyone. They affirmed for me what I had learned at home and taught me how to take that out into the world!
Would Abigail have uncovered her talent for art if her high-school awakened her imagination for the mysterious and macabre in 19th-century literature? We can't know that. But it's a certainty that the infinitely imaginative Edgar Allan Poe, who slogged through his own life facing one disaster after the next, never imagined that he would become one of America's greatest literary voices--a continuing inspiration to all of the students who are introduced to him in their junior high literature classes.
If being Vincent Price's daughter has taught me anything, it has been to approach life as a learning experience. Every day is an opportunity to widen our view, touch another life, see the world with new eyes. And you know never what'll come of it!