Road Trips

Making memories on dad-daughter road trip

Instead of walking his daughter down the aisle, Stan Gornicz joined her on a journey of music and matching tattoos

Writer Stan Gornicz and his daughter Maggie (both left) on a road trip from Connecticut to Texas in 2019. Instead of hosting a big family wedding reception, the two went on a road trip to meet Maggie's new spouse in Texas.
Writer Stan Gornicz and his daughter Maggie (both left) on a road trip from Connecticut to Texas in 2019. Instead of hosting a big family wedding reception, the two went on a road trip to meet Maggie's new spouse in Texas.PHOTO: NYTIMES

I packed my bags for a trip I never expected to take, to a place I never imagined I would visit.

On a Sunday night in early January 2019, my 22-year-old daughter, Maggie, walked into the living room where my wife and I were watching television.

"I'm getting married," she announced. I panicked.

A recent graduate of the University of Connecticut, she had met her beau through social media four months earlier. He was an intelligence analyst in his second year of the United States army stationed at Fort Hood, Texas.

They were planning to marry at a courthouse in Killeen, Texas. I would miss the first moment gazing into my daughter's eyes in her wedding dress - something I had dreamt of since the day she was born.

"We want to make a commitment and be together before he's deployed," Maggie calmly said.

I grew up in Connecticut - the land of steady habits. My wife and I followed custom. We dated for 10 years before we were married, bought a house and brought two children into the world.

Maggie's plan broke all the principles I had lived with my entire life.

They tied the knot four weeks later, at a civil ceremony we could not attend because of the unpredictable schedule at the courthouse.

They stood in a quiet courtroom about 2,900km away from our home, promising to love each other in a tranquil yet joyous ceremony. They sent us their wedding video, taken on a smartphone by my new son-in-law's army buddy, his best man and witness.

Two weeks later, Maggie returned to Connecticut for a few of her things. "We need a car in Texas, dad. Would you drive down with me?" she asked. "We'll make a vacation out of it."

"Ship the car," I said. "It'll be cheaper to get it there by truck, figuring in gas, hotels, food and the flight back."

In a few days, she was off to Texas with her laptop, chargers and some shorts and T-shirts. I parked at the end of the airport runway to watch her early-morning flight take off, still trying to process everything that was changing so quickly.

"I'm in for the road trip," I told her on the phone the next day.

"Awesome," she said.

"There's one condition," I responded playfully. "I'd like to stop in Nashville for a few days. I've never been and think it'd be fun."

Music was woven into the fabric of our family. I had been a DJ for a decade after college and my daughter played three instruments.

Maggie flew back to Connecticut in early April to help pack her car for our road trip. We agreed to share driving duties and to be on the road no more than eight hours a day - in daylight.

I ordered a TripTik from the American Automobile Association, a spiral-bound booklet made up of 61 pages of paper maps, customised for our journey. According to the booklet, the trip would be four legs, almost 3,000km in total, taking 27 hours and 52 minutes of travel time.

"Ridiculous," my daughter said dryly, catching sight of the old-fashioned booklet.

We left in the early morning, choosing the scenic route on a highway that ran alongside the Blue Ridge Parkway. Vast rolling green hills were dotted by black cows.

The dogwoods planted by the road in Virginia and Tennessee were singing in full April splendour, their welcoming pink blooms tilting in the gentle breeze and pointing south towards our destination.

And there were crosses, all sizes and colours, the Bible Belt's symbol of continuing hope.

Two days later, we arrived in Nashville around supper time and Maggie spied a tattoo shop.

"Dad, do you want to get matching tattoos?" she jokingly asked, as she had many times in the past.

I was dismissive, never serious about getting inked, thinking only rowdy bikers got tattoos. But, once we were immersed in the aura of Nashville, I realised how the two of us would be forever connected in our own way. We had to do this. It was the perfect moment.

The next day, after a couple of slices of pizza at Luigi's City Pizza, I asked: "So, what kind of tattoos are we getting today?"

"Right, dad," Maggie said, thinking I was joking.

"Let's do it."

"What would we get?" Her eyes grew wide.

"I'm thinking music notes, since we're in Music City," I said.

She pounded out websites on her iPhone for designs and shops in the area. We settled on three music notes in a triangular cluster, inked on the inside of our right arms, just above our elbows.

I followed Maggie into a small, dimly lit shop, like a five-year-old getting his first bike.

We headed to the back, where the tattooist prepped our table. He worked up the design on a tattered legal pad, its worn pages curled up in the corners, printed the design on transfer paper, cut the cluster of three notes apart, and attempted to place them on my daughter.

"I don't want them cut apart," she said. "I'd like them together so the placement is exactly the same on both of us."

"Same. Positions. On. Both. Of. You. Don't. Worry," he droned. They started to argue. Her smile disappeared.

"We're not getting tattoos today," she said, standing up abruptly and heading for the door.

"I felt disrespected and wanted no part of it," she said outside. "And I'm thinking he was high."

"I'm proud you stood up for yourself," I said.

Maggie had another shop lined up. The studio was brightly lit with a line of client chairs and sparkling clean steel trays, each containing tattoo pens and needles.

Sizing our design on a gleaming iPad, our artist printed the pattern to be traced on our arms. My daughter sat first while the design was painstakingly laid out on her arm.

Then it was my turn. "First tattoo?" the artist asked, seeing my forehead wrinkling. "It won't hurt a bit. Just pinch a little."

I squeezed my eyes shut and listened to the buzzing of the electric pen, feeling the tingle of the notes being etched in place. I slipped two folded US$20 (S$27) notes in his hand as a tip as we walked out, beaming in our newly inked bond.

When we passed through Dallas with only two hours left until we reached our destination, Home To You by Sigrid drifted from the Spotify playlist my son had created for our trip. Fluffy white clouds floated in a bright blue sky.

Arriving at Fort Hood, my daughter closed the last page of the TripTik we had followed every day. She ran breathlessly into her husband's open arms. In the softness of the moment, I witnessed their love for each other.

The night before I boarded my plane after a five-day stay, Maggie and I sat in a convenience store carpark, tears streaming down our cheeks.

"I don't want you to go home," she said. "I've had so much fun with you. I don't want it to end."

Nor did I.

We got to know each other as adults in a brand new way. She would be okay. I could say goodbye to my little girl, who had turned into a confident young woman.

Life could be as unpredictable as transforming "ship the car" into an unexpected road trip and as surprising as my daughter embracing paper maps.

I gained more from our adventure than I would have in one hurried day at a wedding reception.

Instead of a walk down the aisle, with flowers gracing each pew, I drove my daughter down a scenic byway lined with pink dogwood blooms to her new husband, a man I could trust and admire.

We never had a father-daughter dance, but our shared tattoos represent the synchronised beauty of our bond. She will always remain as close as the three small music notes I will forever carry with me.

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 20, 2021, with the headline 'Making memories on dad-daughter road trip'. Subscribe