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Mother Courage

After the death of their legendary father, two theater scions take their 73-year-old mother on a road trip through the desert. On Harleys.

Author Sam Whitehead Photography Courtesy Of Sam Whitehead

HE DID NOT GO QUIETLY into that good night. Far from it.

My father, Robert Whitehead, was an elegant character, a revered Broadway producer who put on original works by Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, Eugene O’Neill and Harold Pinter, among others. He was also one hell of a guy who worked and played hard until the very end. But he was a flat-out pain in the neck during the months leading up to his death at 86.

“You can’t die on a Saturday,” he liked to say. “Nobody reads the Sunday obituaries.” Conveniently, he held on till Sunday and got himself a full page in The New York Times.

I remember running to the end of the driveway to pick up the paper, then sitting on a rock on our property and reading all about my most crazy and beloved friend.

One of his last requests was that we not hold a memorial service, but rather throw a little party at the old Broadway hangout Sardi’s. “Get some friends together, serve some booze and Savoy sandwiches,” he said. “And make sure there’s a guy playing the damn piano.”

His theater friends took things a bit further than that. First they dimmed all the marquee lights on Broadway in his honor. Then they strong-armed my mom, my brother and me into organizing a huge, star-studded memorial at the Majestic Theater. It was followed, of course, by a party at Sardi’s, with booze and Savoy sandwiches in great supply and, yes, a guy at the piano.

It was all pretty exhausting and particularly hard on my mom, the actress Zoe Caldwell, who soldiered through the festivities, only later succumbing to melancholy. “When he died, I died,” she admitted when it was all done. An over-dramatic proclamation, perhaps, but Mom has won four Tonys for being able to deliver lines like that. It was then that my brother, Charlie, and I decided we needed to shake her out of her funk.

By any means necessary.

We chose a motorcycle road trip through the Southwest not only because Charlie and I both love bikes but because we figured eating desert dust for a few weeks would be the perfect way to put some distance, literally and figuratively, between Mom and the stylish New York life she and Dad had built together. If 2,000 miles of asphalt didn’t do the trick, nothing would.

Did I mention she was 73 and no great fan of motorcycles?

“Well, at least I still have one son,” she’d declared the day I brought home my first Harley, summoning the same unsettling conviction she used while playing Medea back in 1984 (“Death! Death! Death!”). Charlie bought his bike a few weeks later, which meant she had no sons. (My father, who had squired her around town on a Honda 650 on their first night out, just muttered, “My God, don’t you boys get into enough trouble as it is?”)

Eventually, I did manage to coax Mom onto the back of my motorcycle for a quick jaunt around town. But she had yet to face a real dust-eating hell ride replete with rain, breakdowns, bad food, marauding tractor trailers and all the other glories of the road.

“A motorcycle journey,” she exclaimed when we brought up the idea. “That sounds lovely. We must eat at marvelous restaurants and stay at the best hotels.

And I’ll get a massage every day.” She also mentioned something about being surrounded by ristras, the bright red bunches of dried chile peppers that hang everywhere in New Mexico. “They’ll make things awfully jolly, won’t they?”

The choice of New Mexico wasn’t entirely random. Thirty-two years prior to our motorcycle campaign, Dad had briefly transplanted the family to Santa Fe while trying out a little show called A Texas Trilogy, by Preston Jones. Charlie was five, and I was eight. It was Christmas, and all we wanted was to head out into the desert. While visiting Bandelier National Monument, I tumbled from a cliff, ping-ponged off a few ancient Anasazi dwellings and sustained a nice concussion before coming to rest. Not to be upstaged, a short while later Charlie was playing around on some pointy brick structure and tripped, falling head first onto the masonry, leading to a hospital visit and 36 stitches in his forehead.

With that history in mind, we decided to ease Mom in gently this time. We reserved a suite for her at The Bishop’s Lodge, a first-rate Santa Fe adobe palace chock full of every spa amenity you could conjure. We even called ahead and made sure her room was riddled with ristras. With Mom bathed in mud, Charlie and I picked up the bikes.

The rental shop was an old Ford dealership with an expansive, mostly empty showroom. Not a speck of grease, gas or oil anywhere. The rental guy seemed cool enough, if a little twitchy, but the two bikes he had looked as if they might have rocked the scene at Altamont in ’69. One featured a hacked exhaust pipe that spit flames and torched any piece of leg that wasn’t well placed. The other came with no front fender, no turn signals, crooked handlebars and a dicey brake light.

We roared into the hotel parking lot as Mom emerged from her suite wearing dainty sneakers, white linen pants, a red-and-white-striped Venetian gondolier’s top and a wide-brimmed straw hat. It was a stylish look for sure, but not exactly ideal for the task at hand.

“Did you get Mom the riding gear?” I asked Charlie.

“Nope. You?”

He and I quickly obtained second-rate gear at the local army-navy store and gave the good stuff to Mom. Suddenly she resembled a real “prospect,” as outlaw biker gangs refer to aspiring members—leather, denim, chains and all. A set of brass knuckles and she’d be set.

Perhaps it was out of guilt that we decided on one last spa before setting out, in the foothills outside of town.

Ten Thousand Waves is famous for something called watsu, an aquatic form of bodywork that stretches your limbs and is meant to make you feel as if you have re-emerged from the womb. Needless to say it was Mom’s idea. Thankfully, she didn’t overplay the metaphor.

Here’s how watsu works: You’re cradled by a therapist in a hot pool while being gently manipulated. It puts you in a glorious stupor. It’s also a bit homo-erotic, or maybe it just seemed that way because our therapist was chiseled and sporting a Speedo and was clutching me in a vaguely amorous fashion.

It was time to get back on the road.

ON OUR WAY NORTHWEST up to Telluride, we made sure to hit a few of the favor-ites—canyons, mud baths and such. It was Mom’s first full day on a motorcycle and she rode like a true old lady—high praise in biker parlance.

At one point we came across a weathered New Mexico highway worker who refused to believe she was not the legendary artist Georgia O’Keeffe, famous for her ultrafeminine abstractions, even though O’Keeffe had died in 1986 at 98.

“I love your work,” he said as we sat at the five-minute, one-way stop light and our mom, ever the actress, began to morph into the late painter, for whom she’s always had tremendous respect. The man seemed pleased with his star sighting and might have offered her a canvas if he’d had one handy. Just as the whole scene was getting ridiculous, and before Mom confessed to her joke, the light turned green and we were off . (Later, to commemorate the trip, I got a tattoo of an O’Keeffe cow skull. Mom usually winces at my ink, but she loved this one. “It’s so delicate,” she remarked. “I think it has your dad’s eyes.”)

We spent that night at a nice hotel in Pagosa Springs, Colorado, where we took in a rodeo. From there it was a skirt through the San Juan National Forest to Durango. Another night, another hotel, another rodeo.

The next evening, I floated the idea of trying out a mechanical bull at a bar. To my surprise, Mom volunteered to be first up. As she climbed aboard, I clasped my hands and gave the operator a please-be-gentle look. He took the hint, and Mom got off unscathed. Charlie too. I wasn’t so lucky. The steer wrangler clearly had it in for me. Within seconds, I’d flown into the western night and landed on my wrist. Lesson learned: Stick to the motorcycle.

In all, it was a fairly smooth ride. That is, until we blasted into a hailstorm during our march toward Gunnison, Colorado, and its astonishing Black Canyon. As the stuff came down in sheets, we huddled together under an outcrop-ping. We were soaked and miserable.

I thought of Dad and what he might make of our supposedly relaxing little adventure. I looked nervously at my mom, wondering how she was holding up. Although she hadn’t actually died when he had, it seemed her idiot sons were now set to finish her off .

But she was smiling. In fact, she seemed electrified, perhaps remembering her single days as a vagabond actress—a “mad gypsy,” as she often put it, of the theater world.

“It’s marvelous,” she said, gazing out over the gray horizon.“Quite biblical.”

Eventually we made it to Telluride, before bolting back to Santa Fe and our twitchy little rental pal.

Mom emerged from the ride more invigorated and stronger than ever. In fact, I now worry that she might steal off with one of my motorcycles someday.

“How amazing!” our newly minted road hog proclaimed after her final dismount. “Your dad never would have taken me on a trip like this.”

That’s not entirely true. But he didn’t. Instead he took her everywhere else. Bust out the booze and Savoy sandwiches. And for heaven’s sake, someone cue the damn piano player.

SAM WHITEHEAD lives and writes in New York, where he labors arduously to conceal his status as a “theater scion.”

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