Fond memories recalled
It was a frosty morning, much colder than average for Indiana in early November. Heading out the door for my morning jog, I dug out an old parka I hadn’t worn in years. Pulling a stocking hat down over my ears I started out on my three mile route. About a mile into the run, a Buick flashed by and I thought about my mother. Mom had died four years earlier at age 95 and had been a Buick driver right up until her 92nd year. I negotiated the purchase of her new Buick every two or three years. Ever since my dad passed away I had been my mother’s “go-to” support person. That was expected; I was the eldest of my three other siblings and I lived closest, only an hour away.
While musing about my mother, I pushed my hand into the pocket of that old parka and found a note my mom had written and given me during one of my weekly visits. It was a “to-do” list she had given me and must have been written back during her driving days. It said “1. Take car, check oil and the tire pressure, have it washed 2. Get my mail. 3. Buy box of Kleenex. 4. Bring back fish sandwich and milk shake from Steak & Shake.
Mom must have been planning another of her trips. She was a fearless road warrior and would drive off to visit old nursing buddies in Fort Wayne, also driving solo to Connecticut where she had lived for six decades, and even making a solo trips back and forth to Florida during her 80s. The interesting thing about my mother’s cross country drives was that she never learned the orientation of North, East, South, or West. She refused to learn. I impatiently tried to teach her: “ South—the warm climates and Dixie are DOWN, North—the north pole and the frozen arctic are UP, West—cowboys and the west coast are to the LEFT, and the East --New England and Connecticut are to the RIGHT.” She refused to process any of that and before each trip would visit the triple A office and have them write out detailed instructions, avoiding any compass heading references. “Drive to Indianapolis, turn right, dive to New York, turn left.”
Mom never worried, she had great faith in guardian angels, “They always look after me she said.” And it seemed they always did. Once, on that trip back to Indiana from Florida, she had a flat tire in Atlanta.
“What did you do, Mom?”
“Oh I just sat there in my car on the side of the highway. Some nice hitchhiker came by and called a wrecker for me on his telephone. The wrecker man said he couldn’t change the tire on the highway and would have to tow the car to the garage. He wanted me to ride in his truck, but the truck was so high off the ground I couldn’t get into the cab.”
“So what did you do?”
“I just stayed in the car and let him pull both of us to his garage. It was quite a ride with the car hanging from the hook like it was. But the tire was soon fixed and I was on my way. Those guardian angels never let me down. ”
I knew the time was coming when she wouldn’t be able to drive and I was trying to keep an eye on her skills. If we were running errands, I’d suggest that we take her car and she could drive while I made a phone call or two. She knew of course she was being tested, but I must admit she didn’t do badly, even though approaching 90-years of age.
When Mom celebrated her 90th birthday we held a gala family reunion, children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, in-laws, and friends—60 in all—gathered at a nearby resort for a three day weekend. Saturday night was the big celebration and all the guests were prompted to prepare a five-minute reflection of Mom, Grandmother, Great Grandmother, Marian. The evening was going to be video recorded. What a wonderful night it was; a perfect blending of funny and heart-felt. Mom’s brother-in-law Paul, my dad’s brother, told a joke about Mom and Dad being married on Christmas Eve, 1937, in Elkhart, Indiana. After the ceremony, they immediately set out to drive to dad’s new job with General Electric in Bridgeport, Connecticut. They spent their first night as a married couple in Fort Wayne. My father, a bashful newlywed started to get romantic. My mother, encouraging him, said, “Jim, now that we’re married, you can go further. So my dad got back in the car and drove to Cleveland.” Paul told that same joke at my folk’s 50th wedding anniversary several years earlier.
Other reflections commented on my mother’s great love of family and how they each cherished memories of that love. My sister Cherilyn, known throughout my childhood as Cheri, brought up the 50’s TV show, “I Remember Mama” and used that as her theme of warm remembrances. There were several other stories of wonderful Christmas celebrations and joyful family gatherings around the big dining room table. Grandchildren reflected on how she never forgot a birthday or holiday. Each Valentine’s Day, Thanksgiving, and Halloween was marked with a card and a crisp new ten dollar bill. When the evening concluded, my mother, who had been beaming in the spotlight all night long, asked me, serving as MC, “Can I say something?”
“Of course, Mom.”
She said, “I am just so blessed. I have such a loving family. And I thank God in my prayers every night for giving me such wonderful children and grandchildren. But I tell God, ‘God, if you take my car away, one day before you take me, you’re in trouble Bub.”
That video clip was played at my mother’s funeral five years later.
Well, that statement certainly put me on notice that curtailing Marian Stark’s driving privileges was not going to be easy. But as I said, up until that time, she seemed to be doing OK. Then it happened—an accident—and it was a doozy! After stopping at a stop sign, mom pulled into a busy intersection and was hit broadside by another motorist. Fortunately, she wasn’t injured,. Her excuse? “He came out of nowhere. I looked both ways, nothing was coming, He just came out of nowhere.” That was her rational; She wasn’t at fault because he came out of nowhere. The car was totaled, but the insurance company paid the claim and mom was back on the road, once again driving a new Buick.
Another incident was the final clincher. I had arrived for my weekly visit when Mom sheepishly said, “Well, I guess I have to tell you. It wasn’t that bad and I put all the parts in the trunk. I think you’ll be able to stick them back on again.” Mom had attempted to pull into her garage but cut the turn too short. Not only did she contact the left front fender against the garage, but rather than stopping, continued forward wiping out the rear view mirror, the door handle, and side moldings front to back. “Sticking it all on again” would cost $4,000.
Driving back from the body shop, I realized this was the “key taking, Waterloo moment”. So how was I going to proceed?
Then I had a brilliant idea.
Sitting in front of my mother, with her scrunched low in her favorite overstuffed rocker, eyeballing me with anxiety and dread, I told her, “Mom, the time has come to turn in the car keys. And it isn’t that I think you aren’t a good driver. Here’s the thing. If you are even involved in a another traffic accident, regardless of who’s fault it is, you are going to be blamed because you are 92-years-old. And you know what else?
“What?” she said.
“The attorneys are going to find out just how much money you have, and that’s what they are going to sue you for!”
There was a long pause, and mom said, “Those damn attorneys.”
But she bought it. That afternoon, taking my mother to her doctor’s appointment, the nurse noticed mom’s depressed demeanor. “Marian, why so said?”
“My son took my car away,” she whimpered.
“Oh, I’m so sorry. But there comes a time you know.”
“Well, it isn’t me,” she said. “It’s those damn attorneys!”
The next week, my oldest son was going down to visit my mother. “Let me warn you,” I advised him via email, “Your grandmother is very upset about losing her car. But here’s the story she is buying.” And I told him the ‘damn attorneys’ excuse. My son emailed me back, “Great info dad. I’ll remember that when I have to take your motorcycle away.”
Some of the notes on her “To do list” had been crossed out as having been completed. “1. Call Cheri, and 2. Go to bank and pick up new ten dollar bills.”
Hmmm, that note must have been written around one of those holidays.