Carolyn White: Living the Good Life 5-2-11
Now that my mother is in her 90s, I’ve been flying back to visit with her twice a year. It’s reassuring to be reminded that some things – like her everyday habits – haven’t changed. Mom, who is in astonishingly good health, still reads and writes letters; outguesses the contestants on Family Feud and Wheel of Fortune; plays Sudoku and Bridge; and yes, even drives. That last one, however, could stand a few adjustments.
It’s always been somewhat nerve-wracking to sit in the passenger seat when Mom is at the helm, and during my most recent stay, in April, I started feeling it again. She has a tendency to zoom towards stop signs, hit the brakes at the very last minute, and then floor the accelerator pedal as she pulls into traffic. This made my late father absolutely crazy, especially after failing health compelled him into giving up his license. Riding shotgun, he’d growl, “DawGONEit, Honey, you’re going to ruin the transmission!” Often he’d flip down the make-up mirror in order to keep watch on any cars that were following us. “Quit stopping so suddenly!” he’d continue, “We’re going to get rear-ended!” From the back seat I’d watch in complete fascination as she totally ignored him.
These days, hunkered down in her boat-sized Mercury (with just her eyes and nose visible above the dashboard) Mom prefers to grip the steering wheel with her left hand and gesture with the other while talking. Occasionally, she’ll poke me in the thigh with the right index finger to make sure that I’m paying attention. Once, as we were breezing home from the grocery store, she nearly took down a mailbox and another time, startled several track students who were jogging toward an intersection.
Steadying herself by a cart, Mom also charges forcefully through the grocery store. One afternoon, anxious to get to the dairy aisle, she literally bumped two other carts out of the way and in the process practically ran over a middle-aged man who was standing by the cheese section. “Whoops!” he exclaimed in mock alarm, holding both arms up as Mom breezed by, focused straight ahead.
Following her dutifully, I leaned towards him and muttered, “Better watch out. She’ll run you over.” When he chuckled and nodded, I got the sense that perhaps his own elderly mother, too, was a NASCAR driver at heart.
Actually, she’s come a really long way with her wheel-type experiences and like lots of us she’s had a few crashes to prove it. Dad and I tried to teach her how to ride a bike around 1970, for example, but no matter how enthusiastically we trotted alongside her shouting “Peddle, peddle, PEDDLE,” she always fell sideways. Wearing a housedress, an apron, and her Keds tennis shoes, over and over again Mom would gamely coast down our gently sloping front yard on my brother’s big bike, holding her legs out to each side in an attempt to catch herself. That final evening, with a death grip on the handle bars, she tumbled face-first into a grove of pine trees. Regardless of my begging and Dad’s scolding of her to get back on, she brushed herself off and went striding across the grass straight back to the kitchen – and she never returned.
Two years later after he’d bought our first stick shift car, Dad tried to give her more lessons but Mom … just … couldn’t … get the knack of shifting. (She’d learned on a standard, column version back in the 1940s. Guess that’s quite a bit different.) I’ll never, ever forget the time that, while pulling into the driveway, she simply got confused about things and froze. The garage loomed closer and closer. “Mom … stop. Mom …” I warned with alarm. She remained motionless. “Stop, Mom, STOP!” I yelped, but her hands remained glued to the wheel. “MOOOOOOOOOOOOMMM …!” As if in slow motion, the Renault went smashing through the closed door and came to an abrupt halt at Daddy’s workbench covered with wood chunks, paint cans and shards of glass. My mother never moved. Staring straight ahead, she simply said, “You’d better go get your father.” Climbing into her car yet again last month I started chuckling at the memory … especially after she mentioned that her lawn would soon need cutting.
“You should see her on that riding mower,” another neighbor had already told me with amusement. “She drives it around so fast that it’s a wonder she doesn’t tip over.”
It’s a good thing the machine comes with an automatic shut-off feature.
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