Mom nor I can remember if we watched "Thelma and Louise" at the movie theater or on television. But we quickly identified with the pair if for no other reason than the characters lived in Arkansas and they embarked on a road trip. We, too, lived in Arkansas and we traveled. A lot.
At the time we saw the movie, I lived with my parents in a house with a psychotic garage door opener. So whenever Mom would shut the door from the inside, she'd dash out. Just like Thelma.
"Let's go, Louise," my mom would say.
And off we went, leaving my dad behind to watch CNN. It seemed funny at the time. Little did we know, those two characters would play lasting roles in our lives.
Thelma, played by Geena Davis, was a nutty, submissive housewife, married to a controlling husband. Susan Sarandon's Louise was the strong one and harbored a secret from the past. In that regard, Mom or I didn't fit the characters very well.
But we shared a common trait with them – we were strong southern women.
The next year, Mom had to have open-heart surgery. She was terrified, much more like Thelma than ever. Right before the nurses wheeled her into the operating room, I yelled, "Stop."
"You hang on, Thelma," I said.
"I will, Louise," she said.
She did hang on, and we forever became Thelma and Louise. My dad would even call "his girls" by those names, especially when we fought an enemy. Perhaps that was what endeared my mom and me most to the two characters. We took no prisoners – and we still don't.
Mom was nearly 38 when she had me – her one and only. She was practically ancient in the late 1960s, an era when most women had children in their 20s. Her doctor even told her she wouldn't be able to have a child. But thankfully, he was wrong.
From the time I was a toddler, Mom taught me about equality with boys.
"You can do anything a boy can do, except better," she would say with dead seriousness. She meant it, and she wanted me to prove it.
I grew up in a neighborhood with mostly boys. The only practical choice that existed was to become a tomboy with a long, brown ponytail. Mom pushed me to play baseball – not softball – better than the boys, to out-pop them with superb wheelies and to even skateboard with the best of them.
There was no pass as I grew up, either. The same philosophy applied to academics and my journalism career.
That kind of determination – get knocked down, get right back up attitude – keeps Thelma and Louise trekking on their trip to Mexico. When Louise's life savings are stolen by Thelma's young, hot boyfriend played by Brad Pitt, Thelma becomes stronger. She robs a store at gunpoint and transforms into a hard-drinking daring adventuress.
Over the years, Mom and I have switched parts depending on which one of us is more down and out at the time.
When my dad was critically ill in the hospital three years ago, we yo-yoed on any given day as we battled government bureaucracy in the VA hospital, inept nurses and severe exhaustion. My dad told a couple of nurses that we were Thelma and Louise – fearless fighters who would risk arrest for him to get the care he needed. Maybe it scared them into action because Dad started receiving better care.
I know Dad often felt like he was the third-wheel on our Thelma and Louise joy ride. It's a hazard of any trio but he rolled with the punches, staying out of the battles we chose. He knew better.
My Dad died unexpectedly last year. Mom and I were distraught for months. We tried hard to channel the screen sirens. More times than not, they didn't inspire us. Nothing did. At least we didn't think so.
Last Mother's Day weekend was the first without Dad. So I took Mom to a swingers' convention. I was working on a story and took Mom along for the ride.
While most daughters, especially southern ones, would have been embarrassed, I wasn't. Mom, who had helped edit my book, "Sex in the South," talked to the swingers like they were members of her church.
This year, we have emerged from grief's darkness with a helluva lot more Thelma and Louise in us.
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