A Car Gone Missing

My mother’s car was missing.

It wasn’t in her driveway, when the boys and I arrived, after the hour and a half drive to her house, Kenny’s voice raw from his endless “Are we there yet?” mantra. (I was reconsidering buying them the Nintendo DS so they would have those itsy bitsy screens to stare at.)

She usually only drives locally, literally, a half block to the grocery store, or a full block, to get her hair cut.

Without her cane, she greeted us with open arms and big wobbly hugs. As if her car missing wasn’t perhaps news.

I had to ask. “Mom, where is your car?”

“I’d rather you ask me where my cane is – I can’t find it.”

“Here it is, Gramma,” Ryan said, reaching just to his left, where it was leaning against the foyer wall.

“You know, you’ve always been such a good finder. Always finding my glasses.”

He shrugged. “They’re usually right there…”

I rested my hands perhaps too firmly on his shoulders; Gramma is forever flattering Ryan, as a way of forgiveness for the one time she mistakenly gave him a cookie with peanut butter in it. Ryan is allergic to peanuts, and rightly, she believes that Ryan has never quite been able to forgive her for sending him to the hospital where he spent the next six hours.

“It’s my birthday. I’ll tell you my little saga later,” my mother chirped, too happily.

“What does saga mean?” Kenny asked, at six, collecting new words as he did rocks.

Then I saw them: carpet swatches. My mother had been threatening to go out carpet shopping ever since the cats peed on her bedroom one, when she’d been away with us on vacation. I took a deep breath, calculating these clues, realizing she’d driven all the way, three towns over, to the carpet warehouse.

But she’d made it back in one piece, with her carpet swatches. That was a good sign. Though one that still didn’t answer the question of where her car was.

Gramma, where is your car?” I asked, trying to sound as chirpily nonchalant.

“It’s my birthday!”

It was her birthday. And who knew how many more there were, so I had to let the car issue rest, though my palms were sweating as they would when she would try to keep things from me, like the fact that she kept forgetting her purse in the grocery shopping cart, even though it was always safely returned.

Every year, the boys help me plan a kind of kid’s party for her, my tribute to her really, for all the elaborate birthday parties she planned for me as a child – I would wake to the magical transformation of our dining room table into a party one, replete with balloons, streamers, accordion paper centerpieces, and goodies, back then not bags, but boxes of pickup sticks, or kaleidoscopes – we were a bunch of little girls, holding them up to the light, dazzled by the reflected brilliance of such simple colored beads.

I’ve carried on this same birthday table tradition with my own children, though pirate or Spiderman themed. The boys love their parties, and love planning ones for Gramma. This year, because she is a “girl,” they’d insisted on a princess-themed tablecloth and bought her a child’s plastic crown with pink rhinestone jewels.

The crown was too small, but Gramma wore it anyway, despite how it stuck up like some kind of satellite on her head. Ryan and Kenny had made huge cards for her that they folded into tiny squares and hid as a treasure hunt. They loved treasure hunts, and they excitedly yelled “hot” or “cold” as Gramma poked around the room with her cane, lifting up seat cushions and the edge of couch throws.

She took a long time to unfold the cards, each with free-spirited drawings, and scrawled “I love You”s. They do love their Gramma. At 93, she may not be able to get out there and play tennis with them, but they love collecting shells on the beach with her, to string together or glue into sculptures.

Ryan especially loves her toolbox. How many Grammas teach their grandchildren how to hammer nails? All the same, Ryan can be a bit suspicious of Gramma, since that cookie incident when he was four. Within 20 minutes of a single bite, he’d been besieged by paramedics in rubber gloves and locked himself in the bathroom. When he’d finally come out, he was covered in hives.

She was trying to stand the enormous cards up on the party table, when he asked, “So, Gramma, where is your car anyway?”

She leaned toward him and whispered, “I hid it.”

Ryan looked confused. Not believing this, but not quite entirely disbelieving, as was true with the Easter Bunny, Santa, and even dragons. If he and Kenny were a few years younger, the prospect of a treasure hunt for a car might have sent them skipping outside, to seek out the car in the backyard, in amongst the trees or under bushes. Back when they were still young enough to have as little sense of actual scale as they still did of time.

“How can you hide a car?” he asked.

Magic,” Gramma said.

“Magic?” Kenny piped up. Kenny loved magic. He wanted to go to magic school. “Gramma, watch this,” Kenny said. He rubbed a balloon on his sweater, then stuck to his cheek.

“Oh, how do you do that?” Gramma exuded, clearly grateful for the distraction, grinning too broadly. She showed her perfect front teeth, a gorgeous bridge. In every photo I have of her, even from our wedding, her smiles are tightlipped, as she’d always been embarrassed by her crooked teeth, her parents never having invested in braces.

She’d finally invested in the bridge when a couple of her front teeth crumbled into bits. So she liked smiling now. The smile lingered long enough for Kenny to peer in to her mouth, as he was now sitting next to her on the couch, the balloon still stuck to his cheek. “Did you know mommy’s teeth are falling out just like yours, Gramma?”

My mother looked at me.

“They’re not falling out. They’re just a little loose….” I began dubiously. When I’d first announced to my family that my dentist said my wiggly teeth were a result of teeth clenching, which could be stress-related, they’d all looked at me yes, a bit concerned, but also with the curiosity of onlookers witnessing some poor caged monkey picking at a scab.

“A whole lot of them are loose now,” Kenny added gleefully. “Because she chewed right through her night thing that’s supposed to keep them from falling out.”

“They’re not….” I hate when I become at a loss for words in front of my own children. “It’s a night guard. So I won’t clench. Which is what loosens teeth.”

“You clench your teeth?” My mother was fully my mother in that moment. A mother concerned about her child. And I started to feel young. That glimmer of an old worn but familiar feeling, that of being a daughter who finds comfort in the warmth of a mother’s concern.

“I clench my teeth. I’m a certified teeth clencher.”

My mother carefully folded a piece of wrapping paper, from the sweatsuit I’d given her, for her physical therapy sessions to help improve her balance. I used to buy her interesting sweaters and jewelry for her birthdays, but as she doesn’t socialize much anymore, the sweatsuit seemed the most suitable gift.

She saved all wrapping paper for future use, as she would rinse out and reuse freezer bags and aluminum foil, putting me to shame for throwing anything out. “You worry too much. You clench your teeth because you’re always worrying. Stop worrying.”

Stop worrying? Your car is missing. I thrust my tongue between my teeth so I wouldn’t clench them.

“Momma, can we have the cupcakes now and our goodie bags?” Kenny asked me. He has such a penchant for breaking the spells of every uncomfortable moment.

My mother finally told me about the car, after cupcakes, and after the boys went outside to talk on the toy cell phones from their good bags that they’d picked out for themselves from Target’s dollar bins. They paced the backyard as they’d seen me pace the kitchen, doing this and that, my phone forever cradled on my shoulder (most often when I’m talking to Gramma, trying long distance to help her find her misplaced TV remote control). Ryan seemed to be stirring an invisible spoon in an invisible pot. Kenny seemed to be opening and closing invisible refrigerator doors.

My mother and I were still sitting at the party table, littered with cake crumbs, broken noise makers and spilled juice as if it had been a party with ten rather than a mere two children.

She told me the “little saga” of how she was parking in the handicapped space outside the carpet place, when she stepped on the gas rather than the brake – and slammed into their front window.

“You crashed their window??” I pictured shattered glass, a shattered windshield, wondering how she’d escaped unscathed.

“Not the window exactly.” She went on breezily to relay the details of it really being “just the wall” beneath the window. That a “few” bricks had come down. But since the wall is the full support of the window, the entire wall would probably need to be torn down and replaced. She held a noisemaker between two fingers like a cigarette; she sometimes confessed to a longing for a cigarette, although smoking was something she’d quit a good forty years ago.

And she still was able to come home with carpet swatches?

“Well, there was no sense in just standing around there while waiting for the police to come, “she explained. “I mean I’d driven all that way…”

This actually made sense to me, to us, and I’m sure only to us (she told me how the policeman seemed annoyed at having to navigate his way through piles of carpet to find her in the back of the warehouse). I knew that getting dressed, getting there, had been an ordeal, had used up all her energy for the day. I knew how much it meant to her to get done what she needed to get done, despite having slammed her car into a wall. I understood, as perhaps only her daughter could, how she had been able to walk away from the scene of an accident to go pick out carpet swatches.

She’d told the police that she’d mistaken the gas pedal for the brake.

“They’re just too close together, those two pedals,” she said now.

“Mom, car pedals are like that. There’s a good reason – so you can make a quick switch from the gas to the brake. “

In all the years that we may have tried to prove each other wrong, as only mothers and daughters can do, in that moment, she had nothing to say. She looked out at the boys. I thought she was going to try and change the subject by talking about them. Instead, she told me about how her insurance doesn’t cover collision and it would cost $2000 out of pocket to fix the car. “I don’t know if I should spend it.”

“Mom, you have to get the car fixed…”

“Not if I can’t drive anymore.” She dropped the noisemaker on the princess plastic party cloth. She spread out her arthritic fingers, as she would sometimes to examine their knobbiness, to remark on how she can’t believe how old she has gotten. How “sick” she was of her body and its ailments. “They said I may have to take a driving test.”

I looked out at the boys now too. They’d abandoned their cell phones, for the simpler pleasures of blowing bubbles from the mini goodie-bag wands. I relished these moments, when they would forget about how anxious they were to grow up and own adult things like cell phones; when they were stripped of such self-consciousness, and fully in the moment, one as tactile as when, as toddlers, they’d forget themselves as they shoveled sand at the beach.

Usually looking out at the boys would prompt comments about them, how fast they were growing, or how different they were. My mother often wound up these discussions saying how much she wished she could live long enough for that, to see how they both would “turn out.”

We didn’t say anything now. But in the silence there was our comradery. One that has always been there, especially when my father was ailing for so many years from alzhiemer’s. When my heart would break for my mother, on those mornings when she would have to zip up his coat as she’d only ever had to do for me as a child, before the bus picked him up to take him to the daycare center.

My mother was used to taking care of other people all her life. She financially supported her parents during the Great Depression, took care of them in their old age, then took care of me, and finally my father. Now her final struggle is to be able to take care of herself – to keep her independence. She is not a retirement community sort, to play bridge or sit around and chat with girlfriends. But neither is she someone to sit in utter isolation, in a house with just her cats, without even the freedom to drive a block to buy her own groceries. I was overtaken as I can be, by a longing for her, as if she were already gone. I felt the lengths I would go for her. I could imagine my helping her to study for the written driving test. I could imagine reteaching her to parallel park, something she had avoided doing for years now.

But this day was her birthday. Birthdays should be just that, what she had been requesting since we got there, a day of reprieve. When we can be to each other at our best – how we are when we are most able to enjoy each other. When time spent together is authentically shared, not shattered by the angst of how she is going to get by much longer living alone. As it is shared when sometimes we still go out to dinner just the two of us, and she listens to all that is going on with my writing and artistic endeavors, with the same rapture and close attention she used to when I was growing up, after school over milk and her freshly baked butterscotch brownies.

One thing we’ve always enjoyed sharing is advice on decorating; when I was single, and moved into a new apartments, I’d seek her advice about, rugs, bedspreads or couches. And the last time she’d reupholster her own couches, some years ago, I remember helping her to pick out the fabric.

Now she needed to pick out a new carpet. “So can I see your swatches?”

We got up, moved on, as she told me about how she’d thought she’d go with the same beige, but was thinking something radical.

We stood in her bedroom. “I’m thinking blue. A colbalt blue.” I nodded. I could see it. It would beautifully complement the colbalt blues in her paintings hanging on the walls, turbulent but evocative landscapes only she could paint, as she had been painting all her life, until even stretching her own canvasses had become too strenuous. It would be for her, I knew, a small, but very welcomed change, a bright splash of hope.

About Sandra

Author;editor of The Woven Tale Press at thewoventalepress.net; mother; weaver
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17 Responses to A Car Gone Missing

  1. Manzanita says:

    A heart warming story….. reminds me of “Driving Miss Daisy.” Your mother seems brilliant for age 93. Driving can be a problem when one gets older. I like cozies as the Snoop Sisters and the adventures with their chauffeur. We should all have chauffeurs. 🙂

  2. My and my mom have been there iwth my grandma. Just this year, nearly against her will and strong encouragement from her doctor, my grandma went to assisted living. My grandma could sit in her dark house and now apartment all day and be just fine. But she’s come out a bit since living there almost 9 months now. She’s got her independence, but assistance when needed.

    I’m glad your mother wasn’t injured in the accident. She’s very lucky. But then, sounds like it wasn’t a surprise either. Strong willed woman.

  3. What a wonderful story. I feel your pain for your mom…. getting old is not a piece of cake. I wish you luck.

    Teeth clenching and grinding…. Oh my. I stopped doing that after going through a parasite cleanse. I used to clench until my jaws hurt.

  4. Barbra says:

    Wonderful,heart wrenching, tender post.

  5. Sandra, your stories and writing just captivate me. Your sweet mother. What a life she’s led. I once heard someone say, “Those so-called golden years are laced with lead.” I love that she still got her swatches and am glad she’s going with the colbalt blue.

    I’m not sure when this happened, but Happy Birthday to you mom!

  6. It is great that she picked out the swatches waiting for the police – I totally understand too, makes perfect sense.
    We all could learn a lesson from just that.
    Beautiful post tho. Reminds me of when my mother once finished getting her hair cut, around the corner from her house, and couldn’t remember how to start the car, much less get home.
    Your mother is lucky to have you and your boys to enjoy. And it is so great you enjoy her just as much.

  7. Courtney says:

    Hello! I’m following from the Wild Wednesday Blog Hop! I’m following you through Google Friend Connect, Facebook, Twitter, and Networked Blogs, as applicable!

    I hope you’re having a great week!

    Much Love,
    Courtney P.

    P.S. Touching story.

  8. I can’t imagine having to take a driving test again. I so feel for her.

    Blue does sounds like a great choice!

  9. ~ Kel says:

    New follower from Finding New Friends Weekend Blog Hop!

  10. corabeth says:

    New Follower from Finding New Friends Blog Hop. Hoping you will follow back! =0)
    My Crazy Life

  11. echo says:

    Hi, I just found you via the blog hop, and I felt like I was looking in the mirror to a past me. I have a 17 & 18 year old now, but I am a writer, Mom, and weaver. I used to run the weaving lab at Southern Oregon State, but I no longer have a loom or toddlers. Now i teach Special ed and write novels. Nice to read your blog

    Dixie Goode

  12. Cheryl Z says:

    just beautiful, sandra. how lucky you both are to have such a tender relationship, with such understanding. love your writing.

  13. CheesyDoug says:

    I have the attention span of a gnat usually, but I made it all the way through this one.

    Nicely written. I don’t hand out compliments better than that.

  14. Sometimes I think your posts ought to have a disclaimer at the beginning saying “don’t read this unless you have tissues nearby”. This made me laugh and cry.

  15. Enjoyed your story! My mom loves everything cobalt blue!

  16. I kept wanting this to be fiction, so that she wouldn’t REALLY be losing her independence. The pacing is exquisite.

  17. rashmenon says:

    beautiful and so, very real. touched me so much that i almost couldn’t breathe as i read through. We do owe you for this lovely piece of writing

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