The Trip to Uncle Leon´s
Ruth F. Michel
She pulled open the back door of the Cadillac. “Mother, will you please just get in the car?”
“You can be so harsh, Gracie. I don’t know what side of the family you got that from. Your father was always such a gentleman.”
“I’d be glad to have you ride up front with me, if you didn’t have a cast from your ankle to your thigh. Remember, it’s a five hour drive to Aunt Lo’s.”
“I just want to be able to visit with you,” her mother said with a sigh that Grace suspected could be heard half a mile away.
“You’ll be a lot more comfortable in back. Now, let me help you.”
“I’ll manage myself, thank you very much. Take this, then.” Her mother pushed the portable oxygen canister at her daughter, and slowly lowered herself onto the back seat.
They were taking her father’s 1998 Cadillac after all. Grace had wanted to drive her own car-a twelve-year-old BMW. Her mother wanted to take the Cadillac, with only 25,000 miles on it, the last car Grace’s dad had owned. “It needs to get out of town once in a while like everyone else,” her mother had said with a twinkle in her eye - like a joke she was trying to share. Grace knew she was licked. She could not even remember the last time she had been out of town.
“Now hold my cast up for me, and I’ll scoot in. I’m really glad your Uncle Leon waited for cool weather to die. I’d hate to be sliding over these leather seats in hot weather.”
Grace looped the strap for the oxygen canister over her shoulder, balancing the cast between her hands, as her mother inched across the seat to the other door. “Thank God there are no men around,” her mother giggled, “my slacks are coming down off my bottom.”
“Mother, we don’t have all day,” Grace rested the cast on the seat, walked around the back of the car and opened the other door. Crawling onto the seat, Grace hooked her arms under the old woman’s shoulders. She yanked a few times until her mother finally slid the rest of the way.
“My God, I’m going to get leather burns. Gracie, pull my slacks and panties back where they’re supposed to be. We don’t want to cause a scene before we’re even out of the parking lot.”
“If we ever get out of this parking lot.” Gracie mumbled, shoving a pillow behind her mother and closing the door. Ten minutes later, they drove out the security gate of The Villas Retirement Center. Her mother’s oxygen was adjusted, the wheelchair was stored in the trunk of the Cadillac, the sun shields had been positioned and repositioned on the side windows, and the air conditioner was just enough to keep the September dust out of the car.
“Off we go,” the older woman said, waving to other residents who were out for their morning walk. “Gracie, I just hated to ask you to drive me, but your brother has so much work at his store. It must be so stressful owning a store.”
“Manages, Mom. Pete manages a hardware store, not owns it.”
“Well, pretty much the same thing. I asked him, but he said he couldn’t get away. He works too much.”
Grace thought of her own cluttered desk at the medical clinic she managed, an accreditation survey looming at the end of the month. “That’s where I ought to be,” Grace said under her breath.
“I can’t hear you, honey, back here,” her mother protested, “I missed what you said. Turn off that radio maybe.”
“I wasn’t saying anything, Mom.” she switched off the radio. The only sound was the whoosh of the oxygen canister. “I don’t see how you can hear anything over that thing.”
“Oh, I get used to it. I don’t even hear it anymore.”
Grace concentrated on traffic as she merged onto the interstate. She had told her mother she did not like to drive her Dad’s Cadillac - it was too easy to over-correct, the brakes were touchy, the ride put her to sleep. The truth was the Cadillac still held the mix of smells that had been her father - sweet cherry pipe tobacco, Juicy Fruit gum, that he always had in his shirt pocket, Old Spice soap. The smells had all but faded from Grace’s life, except for the few times she had driven the car since he died. She looked in the rear view mirror. Her mother had gotten out her knitting. She was making something long with irregular rows of lurid green. Grace hoped it was not intended for her.
“Who’s that for, Mom?”
“I don’t know, just something to keep myself busy. Maybe you’d like it?”
With a sigh, Grace returned her attention to the road. She suspected her mother had been lonely a lot during the six years since her husband’s death. Many of her friends had sold their homes, moving into apartments or assisted living. Yet Grace’s mother had refused to talk about making any changes in her life, and Grace became her mother’s anchor in a life without her husband.
All that changed last Easter, when Pete casually mentioned he had heard The Villas was a fun place for seniors. That was all it took. Their mother put the house on the market, and sold it in five days. Grace was left to slog through the remnants from the home her parents had lived in for over fifty years. She made arrangements with movers and estate sale dealers, and fielded endless requests from Pete’s wife to save this or that for one of their children. The Cadillac ended up in the second half of Grace’s tiny garage, when Pete could not find room in his four-car garage.
At the Villas, Pete showed up for the “glory shots” as Grace called them. He made his appearance at family events, stayed the minimum amount of time, and ducked out after making thin excuses. Grace was the one who escorted their mother back to her room, helping her change into her nightie, kissing her good night. When Grace was there, her mother refused to let an aide do anything for her.
“You doing okay up there, Gracie? You getting tired? I could probably drive.”
“Mother, don’t be ridiculous. When was the last time you actually drove a car.”
“Well, let me think. It was right after your dad died, because you told Pete I shouldn’t be driving and took my keys.”
“Mother, how can you say that? You’d just been picked up for speeding through a school zone, clipping the side of a school bus filled with children.” Grace hated the shrillness rising in her voice.
“It was the bus driver’s fault. I saw no call to take your daddy’s car from me.”
Shaking her head, Grace focused on the back of the semi in front of her. How had they gotten into this discussion again?
“Besides, Gracie,” she heard the catch in her mother’s voice, “I would’ve just died had I hurt any of those little ones. I never would’ve forgiven myself. Do you have a tissue up there, honey?”
Grace passed the tissue box over the seat. Why am I always the one that makes her cry?
“Mom, I didn’t mean to upset you, but it wasn’t easy for Pete and me to decide either.”
“I knew Pete was upset. It wouldn’t have happened if your dad were still alive. He and Pete would’ve figure out something. You want a banana?” A black spotted banana flew from the back seat, bouncing off the dash, landing in the passenger foot well. “I smuggle these from the dining hall.”
“Mother, I don’t want a banana, especially not now. Besides, my rates were going up because of your accident. I couldn’t see wasting money on car insurance when you hardly ever drove.”
“Your rates, Gracie? We always had our policies with State Farm.” Once again, Grace explained to her mother that she had put the car on her policy, and paid the premium.
“Oh, that’s right, I forgot “ I thought Pete took care of it.”
“Mother, just because Pete’s a man doesn’t mean he “takes care of things” as you say.”
“Well, the car still rides smoothly doesn’t it? Is that nice neighbor man still taking care of it for us? He’s a good looking fella; maybe he’d be someone for you?”
Grace’s neighbor across the street had adopted the Cadillac the minute she parked it in the drive. Every two weeks, Clay backed it out of the garage, letting it idle on the driveway for a half an hour. He had it serviced twice a year and washed it by hand once a month. She knew Clay had driven to the Villas more than once to take her mother for a ride around the parking lot.
“Whenever I ride in this car, I feel so close to your father. It’s funny, but I can almost smell his pipe tobacco. Do you think the car has a funny smell?”
“Yes, it sort of does, Mom. Now why don’t you settle back and take a nap?” “Your father loved this car. We sure did a lot of research before we decided. We were always a team. He wanted something practical like a Chevy. Your Dad never asked for anything, but for once I wanted him to have something special.”
“I thought you insisted on the Cadillac, Mom. That’s what Daddy said.”
“Not me, honey, he just said that. What do I know about cars anyway? I just let him think I wanted this one. I think he knew it might be his last car. You need me to help you drive? I always did that for your dad.”
“Thanks, I’m doing fine.”
A few minutes later Grace looked in the rear view mirror. Her mother had fallen asleep. Grace turned the radio back on, drowning out the oxygen canister and her mother’s snoring. “Yeah, I certainly remember you helping Daddy drive, you two fighting about where to turn off, how to get anywhere.” Grace said to herself, “I’m surprised Dad didn’t have a stroke a lot earlier than he did.”
Three hours into the trip, Grace took an exit off the interstate. Her mother woke up as she felt the car slowing.
“Hi ya,” Grace smiled at her, “have a good nap?”
“Yes, dear, I was out dancing with your father.”
“A little, but I’ve kind of a headache. Maybe some food’ll help. Be sure to bring in my Depends. I can tell I need a change.”
While Grace was wrestling the wheelchair out of the trunk, her mother tapped on the back window, mouthing something. Grace yanked open the car door, “What, Mother?”
“Don’t go to all that bother, honey, I can just eat that banana in the front seat, or we can drive-thru at McDonalds.”
“No, mother, it’s fine. I’ve got the chair out now.”
“That wind seems pretty nasty, dear; can you find my rain bonnet in my purse?” Grace sat down on the back seat, struggling to get the car door closed.
“Watch my chair, it doesn’t blow away or somebody takes it,” her mother warned.
After rummaging through six pockets of the purse, Grace found the rain bonnet in a brittle plastic case. “You think you have enough pockets on this thing, Mom? Gads, you could do with a seventy-five percent smaller purse” you have nothing in here anyway, but old tissues and your wallet.”
Her mother laughed, tying on the rain hat. “You sounded just like your Daddy. Always talking about numbers.”
She helped her mother maneuver into the wheel chair and wrapped a fleece blanket around her legs. The older women pulled it up to her throat and they made their entrance into the IHOP, her mother’s favorite place to eat. By the time they got through in the restroom, a busload of people was waiting at the hostess station.
“Grace, we were here first, go tell that girl,” her mother prodded.
“No, we weren’t. We’ve just been in the ladies” room for the last half century. She sees us.”
The hostess smiled and seated them ahead of the bus crowd.
“See, being old does have its benefits. I bet she’ll expect a big tip now.”
They ordered, and Grace gratefully worked her way through a carafe of coffee. Her mother was enjoying the attention as other diners and wait staff stopped by, asking about her cast. Grace had to admit her mother told a good story - she had fallen at the Fourth of July square dance picnic at The Villas. She made sure her audience knew she had been with a date. “There are still a few live wires at the Villas, and we try to have some fun. I get my hair done every Thursday just in case something comes up for the weekend.”
After her mother’s move to the Villas, Grace was not sure who had had the adjustment period - her mother or herself. Once her mother had connected with the Villas activities director, things smoothed out considerably. Grace had a few sessions with the staff social worker, took a deep breath, and finally stopped taking her mother’s laundry home.
Grace cradled the coffee cup, waiting until a young couple moved away from the table. “Mother, now you wait here until I pay the bill, then I’ll be back to help you. Please don’t move.” She finished her coffee, and found the check among the litter on the table. “Mother, you shouldn’t tell people - strangers - that your son owns a store, like he’s such a big deal. Or that I’m not married. It’s no one’s business.”
“Oh, Grace, Pete does work hard, and he does have a store. Anyway, somebody just might have an unmarried brother or friend for you. But you do have your nice fella across the street.”
“Mother, Clay is my neighbor - only. Anyway, Pete wouldn’t manage anything if his wife’s father didn’t own a chain of stores across the Midwest.”
“Well, he’s got to get something out of that marriage,” her mother said, starting to scoot out of the booth.
Grace could feel her stomach tighten as she walked up to the desk. She heard her mother telling two bus boys to maneuver the wheel chair closer to the booth. Grace shook her head and paid the bill.
The wind had died down as they reached the car. Her mother looked tired and her color was a pale. Grace perched her on the edge of the seat.
“Ready to scoot over?”
“Gracie, do you mind pulling me, like you did earlier. I think I ate too much.”
“Mom, are you feeling okay? You okay?”
“Just a little tired. All that attention in there. I’m not used to it. Things move a little slower back at the Villas, you know. I just need a little lipstick.”
Grace took off the rain bonnet, brushed her mother’s hair, and helped her to put on lipstick. Tucking the fleece blanket around her, Grace gave her mother a kiss on the forehead. “You look awful cute there, Mom.”
“Thank you, Gracie. I probably don’t say that enough, do I?”
“Oh, no need.”
“It’s a shame you never had children before that husband of yours ran off. Really, Grace, you have a nice way about you. You would have made a good mother.”
Grace turned away, carefully folding the plastic bonnet
“I don’t know how you do all you do, honey. You have that big job, and you take care of me. I know you think I’m always singing the praises of Pete, but he’s always needed it more than you did.” Her mother reached up and patted Grace’s cheek, “Pete’s more timid, more like me. You were like your Dad - self-sufficient and smart as a whip, didn’t seem to need anyone. Pete’s never had your backbone.”
Grace’s eyes smarted with tears, “Mom, I don’t always know what I’m doing. I’m just trying to do my best, taking care of you since Dad’s gone now.”
“You’re doing just fine. Your Dad and I were always so proud of you.” Her mother squeezed her hand, “Hey, we’d better get going before they have Leon’s funeral without us. We could sit here and talk all day, couldn’t we, Gracie?”
They rode the next few miles in silence. In the rear view mirror, Grace saw her mother’s eyes flutter and close. The only sound was the whoosh of the oxygen canister, her mother’s occasional snoring. Grace kept the radio off.
“And don’t you think I was fooled one bit,” her mother suddenly spoke up from the backseat, her eyes still closed. “I know Pete was playing golf today. He wouldn’t have dreamed of changing his plans to take me to Uncle Leon’s. Anyway, I’m awfully glad it’s just you and me taking Daddy’s car to Uncle Leon’s. It’s just the kind of thing a mother and daughter do together”
Grace smiled to herself, and continued driving, turning on the blinker when she saw the exit for Carroll.