Whatcha Drivin’?

For my mom, it’s all about the cars.

I’ve never met a woman more into cars than my mom. At 81, she is still busy looking out the window identifying cars she likes and dislikes as I drive her to the grocery store or church.  In fact, when she turned 80, she bought 2 cars! Paid cash. Test drove it with all of us watching or riding, biting our nails, then driving it off the lot to her senior living apartment complex. But things have shifted a little now. And she’s not happy with me.

The first car I can remember isn’t even really a memory for me. It’s a photograph. I think it’s a 1958 Hudson. It could be an Oldsmobile. My dad’s not around anymore to tell us. My mom isn’t really a reliable historian anymore.. We were a one-car family so my mother didn’t drive it unless my dad was at home. Just trips to the grocery store.

Next it was a big black Chevrolet, probably from the late 50’s. My only real memory of it was it sitting in the garage. I must have been under 4. My mom called it Big Blackie.

The first car I remember riding in was specifically my mom’s – a blue Corvair.  My little brother was only 2-3 and he could start in the back seat, but he’d end up standing straight between the 2 front bucket seats. My mom really liked that car. She’d smoke her Chesterfields and turn on WHB, the local music station. We sang along to Beatles songs and trekked off on carpools to school, ballet, or Mimi’s house. Corvairs had motors in the back and made a little humming sound when you drove. I always felt like we were on the back of some big bug, zipping along.

Times were good for a while so then we became a 2 car family. My dad bought a baby blue Cadillac. There was so much room!! I only remember riding in it to Mass on Sundays, so I’m guessing kids didn’t ride in that car much. I was so impressed that it had a cushioned armrest that I could pull down in the middle of the backseat. A perfect divider for my brother and me…he could stay on his side, and I could stay on my side. Why that mattered, I don’t know.

So a few years passed and the tide turned, as it so often does. A man was in our garage buying the Corvair. My mom was sad to see it go, but she shuffled us away, quoting a line from her favorite Doris Day song, “Que Sera Sera.”

Then they came for the Cadillac. They were coming for the furniture too, but that’s another post entirely. We moved in with Mimi, my mom’s mom. And my dad took a bus to Dallas to find work where my aunt and uncle lived.  Before he left, he went to his cousin’s used car lot. He came home with the car we called, The Pink Buick. No A/C and the heat only came out on one side, but it had a radio. That’s all we cared about. We sang along to Nancy Sinatra…she couldn’t really sing – but neither could we!

Later that year, we’d take that Pink Buick to join our dad and start our new life.  It’s normally a one-day drive from Kansas City to Dallas, but the Pink Buick could only go 45 mph.  So my mom, brother, and our Siamese cat, and I piled into a hotel room in Atoka, Oklahoma. The only thing I remember about it is that we had to cross Hwy 69 on foot to get to the restaurant to eat, and our cat, Tang, chewed her way out of her cardboard cat carrier. We left it at the hotel and endured her yowling under the seat (as only Siamese cats can do!) for the rest of the trek to Dallas.

My mom continued to drive the Pink Buick for another year or so. Knowing now how much she loves cars, that must have been a really hard thing for her.

Times improved for our family, and we were back to our buy-a-newish-car-every-4-years plan. We had mauve Cougar, a Lincoln Continental, sporty Subaru, the gold Nova, and a Chevy Chevette.

I guess because I was young and somewhat self-absorbed, I didn’t pay much attention to my mom and her car fascination. Maybe she didn’t speak about it to me. I didn’t really care about cars, as long as I could have somebody’s keys on the weekend. My mom told me a story about when she was a teenager. She was the youngest of three and she desperately wanted to drive. So they pushed the car out of the driveway, silently, and started it up down the road where her father couldn’t hear. I don’t remember if she got away with it or not, I just remember her face glowing with pride as she related this crazy story of sneakiness and defiance. I thought, why are you telling me this?? But her love of driving superseded all parental reason! ha!

When I was a teenager, my mom had a job later that would require that she drive a lot. That was her reason for why she wanted to get a new car all the time. And once my dad died, she did.  I lost count of how many cars she traded.

Then she started to have trouble with her driving. Initially, she was having angina, and would have to pull over to the side of the road to let the feeling “pass.” We were raising kids all over the country, and I’d ask my uncle to check on her. She’d downplay the whole event, and I let her.

Then she had a fender bender that wasn’t her fault. Next she was T-boned as she entered an intersection without really noticing the oncoming traffic. Then she backed into a neighbor’s parked car. Finally, she put her car through the garage wall, stopping only because of the kitchen stove and counter. And, actually, the insurance rep took me out to the garage when he was assessing the situation. He showed me burned rubber marks on the indoor-outdoor carpet that she had in her garage. (I know, only she would have carpet for her car!) The skid marks indicated that as her car was slamming into the kitchen wall, she was pressing on the gas pedal instead of the brake. She panicked and pressed the wrong pedal.

You’d think this list of “problems” would have caused a lot of alarm for us. And it did, to a degree. But we didn’t live in the same town and she was a really good bluffer.

Fast forward to 2009. My mom moves to Austin to be closer to us. Her health is so-so, and it’s clear she is more forgetful. She comes with her Chevrolet Trailblazer. She wanted to give it to Alyssa for her 16th birthday and buy a new car for herself.

So in February 2010, that’s what happens and she bought herself a Nissan Sentra. By the end of the year though, she’s not happy with how low she is to the ground. She wants to trade it. But after riding in the (now Alyssa’s) Trailblazer, she doesn’t like the sound of it. She wants Alyssa to have the Nissan and she wants to trade the Trailblazer for something else.  We trek over to CarMax again.  We scour the lot, she knows what she likes.  She opts for a Honda CRV. Great car. The scenario I gave at the beginning? That was what was happening when she was test driving the CRV.

We rationalized that it was okay to let her drive because, a) she really only drives a few beaten paths – church, WalMart, my house, Walgreens; b) she sounds really confident about driving; c) she’s had no little crashes, or car incidents since she moved to Austin; and, d) she loves cars.

We joke about my mom’s mom, Mimi, driving. She was only 5 feet tall and she drove until she was about 88.  She’d have 2-3 small fender-benders per year. Visualize this: tiny woman, sitting on a pillow to see over her ’66 Chevy Impala steering wheel, bending down to reach the lighter to light her cigarette. Her foot would slowly come off the brake and she’d roll into the car in front of her.  This happened 4-5 times! One time, she got sick – her annual pneumonia hospitalization because whose lungs can withstand anything after smoking for 80 years?!  While she was in the hospital, my mom, her brother and her sister, sold her car, packed up her apartment, and moved her from Kansas City to Dallas.  She never was specific but I think losing the car was the hardest thing for her. She was a quiet woman, and she’d just say to me under her breath, “they never should have taken that from me.”

I think that really affected me. I was very sensitive to the fact that I didn’t want to take my mom’s car from her before it was time. I wanted to learn from Mimi’s experience.  She and I would talk about “when the time comes that she has to give up the car…” And years ago, we set the age at around 80.  As 80 approached, she wanted to push it further down the road.  After all, she wasn’t as bad as Mimi.  And, did I SEE some of the old people MUCH worse than her driving in the apartment complex?

Even though she didn’t have any wrecks, it was clear that she was having difficulty. She’d get lost. She’d weave in the lanes. She was really unsteady on her feet, and she managed some of her balance issues with the steering wheel. She’d have trouble figuring out if the lights were on.  She was pulled over for speeding in her neighborhood. Her judgement was slowing, her reaction time even slower.

Still I wrestled with what to do. When you’re the only one making the decision, it’s a lot of pressure to get it right. I can’t blame a relative saying I had to do what they wanted. It all comes down to me.  I was explaining to Ron that it’s so hard because you can’t see where The Line is. You want to be able to let her get as close to The Line as possible, without going over it. But you’re in the dark!

Alyssa seemed to understand that I wanted to take in Grandma’s feelings. But Ron and Josh kept telling me that it was time.  And the worst part about The Line? What if the way you know you crossed it is that she runs over some kid darting out in the church parking lot? Or what if she’s like that elderly man who slammed on the gas, thinking it was the brake, and ran over people in a California Farmer’s Market?  We already knew she had done that before – maybe 5 or so years ago. And she was worse now than then. So…

I talked to her about taking the keys to the CRV. I talked to her about what we were seeing. I talked to her about the potential crises that could occur if she DID have a problem. She agreed that she was close to being of age to stop driving, but the time was not now. No, I could not have the keys.

Great. :/

Because my mom is really sexist, I knew I’d have to bring Ron into this. He went with me after work, and this time HE did the talking.  He was soft spoken and explained to her that it IS the time. And it’s really one of those things that you simply have to trust that your family has your best interest at heart. She agreed with that.
Although she semi-jokingly cut over to me saying, “I know you just want my CRV,” then chuckled.
Ron reminded her that she knows I’m not a “car person.”
“I was just joking,” she said.
A few more things were said about how we’d pick her up and take her wherever she needed to go. She didn’t argue with him. He reached for the keys and took the car key off her keyring.

For a month now, we’ve been driving my mom wherever she needs to go. She comes to our house to eat every other day now. We’re finding out that she’s been bluffing a lot in some of decisions about bills and her apartment and her medications.  I’m confident that we did the right thing, and I’m so very thankful that we didn’t have to have any “car incident.” She still won’t sign the title over to me though. I asked her if she was just waiting to get mad at me and then call the police saying I stole her car?
She laughed saying, “No, I just know you’ll get tired of coming to get me for everything and you’ll give me the keys back.”

We both try to laugh about it. We know none of it is really negotiable anymore. We’ve made a decision where The Line is, and there’s not really any going back on it.

And, just when I thought she was adjusting, she told me this weekend, “I’m still very depressed about the car situation.  I keep waiting for this feeling to pass, but I cry a little in the mornings.”

“Really? What makes you cry?”

“I look out the window for my little black car in my usual parking place under the tree, and it’s not there.” She pauses and adds, “I was talking to my dog-friends at the apartments. They all think you shouldn’t have taken my car. My friend Martha said, ‘these kids! They think they know everything!'”

“What did you say to her? How about ‘My family cares about me so that’s why this happened?”

“No. I told her ‘yeah. And mine’s the worst!’ Then we watched this tiny little old lady get into her great big car and drive off.”

“Oh, mom.  How ’bout I take a picture of the CRV, and we tape it on the bedroom window pane?”

Mom glances into the distance, “Maybe I should get a mini-Cooper. I like those cars. I think you’re too big for that car, so maybe you wouldn’t take THAT away from me. I could just go to the bank and withdraw money and buy it outright.”

“Yeah, but you’d have to have me drive you there – and that’s not going to happen!”

Aging, it’s not for wimps.

May 2012 – There’s a Part 2 to this that I haven’t written yet. Mom’s friend Martha took her to the Car lot and they bought mom a car – paid cash, didn’t tell me until a couple of days later.  Sheesh. I’ll write about it soon.  Maddening!

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