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Monday, August 1, 2011

Born To Drive

July 4th, 2011

Born to Drive
Today being the Fourth of July, I find it natural to reflect on the concept of freedom. Being able to live as you choose, including traveling about in your own vehicle, are key components of this theme. With this in mind I want to tell you about last October, and Mama’s desire to retain freedom.
Which of the following reasons would prevent a person from obtaining a driver’s license?
a)  Being eighty-eight years old
b)  Having cataracts on one’s eyes requiring surgery
c)  Having limited use of one of your hands, because an ailment has developed, making use of that hand impossible without a fair amount of pain.
d) All of the above.
e) None of the Above
If you guessed “e,” then you were right. It’s a long story, but kind of an important one in the big picture, because it tells us a lot about Mama. She is an independent person, and to her, independence means being able to get into her car, and go to the post office. Independence means not having to rely on others for transportation. Independence means renewing her driver’s license every October.
Unfortunately, living up on a ridge-top in northern Mendocino County does not help the situation out. Even to get to the nearest town requires some tricky highway driving, exacerbated by the Type A driving personalities one encounters on the highway these days. Not long ago, Mama returned from a trip to Shingle Town with the side of her little station wagon all scraped up. 

I had stopped by to carry in her groceries for her, and it was pretty hard to ignore.
“Whoa, what happened? Drop your watch?”
“What? Oh, that. I have to make an appointment at that place in Willits.”
“Yes, I can see that. Jim Yokum’s body shop is the one you mean,” I murmured.
“I suppose.” That pained expression.
“And how did it happen again?”
“Well, it’s kind of hard to explain.”
“Could you try?”
“Well, there was this pickup truck.”
“Pickup truck? What kind of pickup truck?”
 “Big. It was huge and covered with mud, like they were doing a lot of off-road driving.”
“Or a lot of on-road driving, at high speeds. So what about it? You didn’t like the color and decided to sideswipe it?”
“No, he sideswiped me," she exclaimed indignantly.
“What did you do? Did you get his license? Are you all right?” She looked fine, just moving slowly after the long period of sitting.
“I’m fine but I couldn’t get his license; I was trying to keep from ending up in the river.”
“Hold that thought, Mama.  Can you start at the beginning? Take a load off your feet. Here’s the mail; I’ll just put it on the table next to you. Where did this take place?
“Right where you leave Highway 5 to get back here to Mendocino County.”
“And this man tried to force you off the road? Did he even see you?”
“How should I know? He came out of nowhere.”
“I hate when that happens. He didn’t stop? You didn’t call Po-Po?”
“No, he didn’t stop. I don’t think he ever saw me.”
“So you don’t want to pursue it? We should just ignore that someone tried to kill you, whether purposely or not?”
“I don’t think he saw me.” 
“Well, I don’t think so either, otherwise he might have avoided you. So OK. Let’s make an appointment and get rid of the evidence.”
"Can we make this our little secret?" she implored. Uh, oh.

When I relayed this to her, Annie couldn’t help thinking of Dean, the ninety-one year old beau of a friend’s mom. Dean was personable, even charming, and he was also desperate to retain his driving rights. Unfortunately, he kept running into other people’s cars.  
To avoid complications, he had taken to carrying around large amounts of cash, so as to better extricate himself from any legal entanglements before they began. He simply paid off his victims so handsomely, that all discussion of constabulary procedures evaporated.  
It’s not that Mama went around running into cars, or paying off people with cash, but there was that desperate need to retain her driving rights. It goes back to being independent. She will be the first to say, “I have been driving for more than seventy years.” You can look it up.

When it came to renewing her license last time, Mama had problems with the vision portion of the DMV test.  It seems those pesky cataracts were being problematic, and she had had to go to her eye doctor for a statement that her vision issues were not severe enough to prevent her from operating a motor vehicle. She emerged triumphantly from the Ukiah DMV, license in hand, ready for action for another year.
This year, in addition to vision challenges, Mama had developed some technical difficulties with her left hand. I came in one morning in early October, to fill the woodbox and empty the compost. Mama was quiet, reserved, her face pinched in pain.
“Morning, Mama. What’s up? Are you in good shape for the shape you’re in?”
“Good morning. Not so’s you’d notice it. I’ve been better.”
I looked closer. It was chilly outside, the October air tinged with the coming winter.  The breeze carried with it the threat of things to come, as we readied ourselves for winter. Mama was hovering over one of the candles on the counter, fumbling with a wooden match, striking it against the box fruitlessly. She had the match in her right hand and was attempting to keep the box in place with her left hand. Something was not right.

I have found that when something is not right, it is generally wrong.
“Is everything OK? What’s with your hand?”
“I’m not sure.”
Whatever answer I was expecting, it wasn’t that one. “You’re not sure? It hurts though?”
She was still trying to light that candle.
“Here, let me do that for you.”  Mama had her hand in front of her at stomach level, looking somewhat claw-like, with her fingers closed in a weak fist. “I can’t seem to open my hand.”
“Yes, I noticed that. Does it hurt?” Jeff Foxworthy would have been proud. 'Here's your sign.' I could tell that it hurt; I just wasn’t sure how severe the pain was. 

“Yes, it hurts when I try to open my fist, or pick something up.”
“Have you ever had this problem before?”
“No, but Robert did. He dealt with something just like this and eventually, it went away.”
“OK, then. Why don’t you schedule an appointment, and we’ll get it checked out?”
“Well, I will, but that won’t be able to happen until after my driver’s license test; I can’t delay that.”
“Mama, don’t be ridiculous. We will have to postpone the driving test
if you can’t use one of your hands."
“Postpone? My driving test? Why? We can’t do that!”
“But Mama, how are you going to take the test if you only have one useable hand?”
“Never you mind [Mister]. I am perfectly capable of driving. I will come out of the DMV with a driver’s license.”
“Well. excuse me for asking, but are you going to drive one-handed or develop a third arm to help out?  Otherwise, I’m sorry Mama, but this just doesn’t make any sense. How can you drive a car if you can’t grip the steering wheel?”
“I can drive just fine, thank you very much. I only have to drive around Ukiah.”
“Ukiah has deer, rabbits and other things that get in the way of cars, like big rig trucks and lots of traffic. I still don’t know how you can drive a car, when you can’t light a match.”
“I can drive just fine [Mister],” she repeated.

Deciding that the best thing to do was to call on older brothers for assistance, I responded, “OK, Mama, how’s about I call Bro Brian and ask him what he thinks?”

Brian was the chief-of-staff of the Veterans' Hospital in Martinez.
She nodded enthusiastically. “That’s fine.”
I was a little surprised that she acquiesced so easily, but I suspected that it was because she already knew what his response would be, unlike me. I was taken aback when Brian responded to my concern by being sympathetic to her cause.
“I don’t think there is a problem,” he announced, after I had presented the situation to him.
“Not a problem? She can’t even close it, let alone clench or unclench her left hand. How is that not a problem?” On the one hand, I was happy to have Brian make the decision; on the other hand, I had been certain that he would side with me.
“Mark, listen. She can take this test, It’s not going to affect her to the point that she can’t handle the car.  She is as sharp as a tack.”
“Dude, you didn’t see her. She’s in a lot of pain. How is she supposed to drive a car? And what does being sharp have to do with being in pain?”  

I always hit the “Dude” button when I get worked up, though Brian stopped being a dude when he became chief of staff of the Veterans’ Hospital in Martinez, a hundred years ago.
He responded in a matter-of-fact voice. “The pain is not so debilitating that she can’t handle it for fifteen minutes during a driver’s test.”
That was that. I was relieved on several levels, especially after I spoke with Eric and got the same feedback.  All I was trying to establish was that someone who knew more about the nature of the ailment, was able to override my opinion so that fingers would not point to me later, as someone who should have stepped in.
The grand day arrived all too soon, and Annie elected to drive Mama down to Ukiah. Mama was so matter-of-fact about the whole thing, it was somewhat disconcerting. Here I was, apparently ready to shuffle her off to pedestrian land, when she still had “wheels” on her mind.
Later, Annie was to tell me in great detail about the day, it being one that mixed routine with adventure.  Because they had to travel all the way down to Ukiah, there were ample stops along the way. In Laytonville there was the first of two stops at the post office, on the way down to Ukiah and on the way back through.  Now, as she resumed her seat in the car, Annie asked what was next and was told that the gas company was.  They stopped long enough for Mama to run in and pay a bill before they went on to the pharmacy, where she picked up a prescription.
Without going into detail on every pause, let me just say that there were fifteen stops all together, the most noteworthy being the Willits Senior Center, where Mama stumbled. She tripped over the cement stop that jutted out on either side of the front of the car. She recovered sufficiently enough to shuffle along to the bank, Coast-to-Coast, Safeway, the Triple A outlet (to pay another bill), and then on to Ukiah, where the first stop was Food-for-Less.
“Maybe we should go have a cup of coffee and take a little break,” suggested Annie. “You need to conserve your strength for the driving test.”
“Oh, I’m not too worried about that,” said Mama, and Annie believed her.
Eventually, they made their way to the DMV for the eleven o’clock appointment. They parked out front, entered the glass door and stopped in front of the window. Mama presented her appointment slip and the woman motioned her to be seated, while they processed the paperwork.
Five minutes later Mama and Annie were directed off to the right, where the driving appointments were handled, to a desk where they found the driving examiner herself, seated. She was formidable indeed, with a desk that contained all of the embellishments one would have expected to find: computer, printer, in/out box, and a jumble of papers. 

Standing there in the in front of the desk, Annie and Mama presented an interesting spectacle. Mountain people was the term most frequently used. Annie was dressed in Levis, hiking boots and a heavy blue sweater, her long, perfectly straight dark hair hanging almost to her waist.  
Mama had on green polyester slacks and a flowery blouse, cleverly concealed by her voluminous tweed coat, heavy and blue, that reached down to her knees. She was dwarfed by the coat, her head sticking out, as though from a blue turtle shell, clinging to her back.  

She had donned her trademark black dress shoes, with the inch-high heels. Annie was terrified to see her in them, for the exact reason that the fall at the senior center suggested. Flat heels would have worked better, but flat was not her style.  

“Please take a seat right over there,” the woman behind the desk said, indicating a row of chairs to one side.  Already perched on one of the hard, plastic, bright orange chairs was a dapper gentleman, older in appearance, dressed nicely in cream-colored golf shirt with tailored, chocolate-colored trousers. His neatly trimmed mustache was salt and pepper-colored, and his rimless glasses made him appear more dignified than the jaunty yellow cap might have indicated.
The woman behind the desk, indeed, the driving examiner herself, was a study in contrast to Annie.  Whereas, Annie was a mountain gal, this woman was a city girl.  I could describe her as business-like, but only in a San Francisco setting.  Here in Ukiah, swank was more like it.  
Her perfectly coifed blonde hair was elegantly styled, without a strand misplaced. Her black wool skirt was impeccable, and the turquoise silk blouse, decorated with a brooch in the shape of a butterfly, was stunning.  She was slim and trim, and looked as though she belonged in a law firm, with a bevy of secretaries to serve her.
Alternately studying the paperwork in front of her, while glancing surreptitiously at Mama and Annie, waiting expectantly, she seemed to be searching about for a lifeline. She shifted in her gleaming swivel chair, rustled that paperwork around once again, before seeming to reach a decision.  
A few minutes later, Mama’s name was called out and she and Annie stood up and approached the desk.  Ignoring Mama, the woman gestured to Annie, saying, “Why don’t you bring the car around to the front here, so we can get started?”

“You want me to get the car?” asked Annie, momentarily surprised that it wasn’t Mama being asked.

“Yes, if you will.  I would like to take one more look at this paperwork.”
Annie snagged the keys from Mama and brought the car around front. The woman had busied herself in the few minutes it took to accomplish this, and now she gathered herself up to take the plunge. Standing up, she glanced to her left as Mama’s car came into view, and then abruptly sat back down.
What she saw was a product of the hill. It being fall and the rains still being held in abeyance, the little station wagon was an interesting sight. We are talking about a 1994 electric blue, Ford Escort Station Wagon, in need of washing. The little car was covered in a filmy cloud of dust.  
The side visible to us was the side that still showed the ravages of that incident with the errant pickup truck, and the oak branch jutting out of the windshield reservoir, presented the crowning touch. Not just the branch but the leaves and acorns too, were clearly visible from her vantage point. This desultory symbol, so innocent, in and of itself, was the final straw. 
The driving examiner sat back down with a whoosh, surprising for a woman so slight. Reaching for her phone, she hit one of the buttons, and spoke earnestly into the mouthpiece for several minutes. Replacing the phone, she looked up at Mama with a dazzling smile.
“Good news! I have determined that your driving test is unnecessary.”

For emphasis she shuffled through the paperwork one last time. Annie wondered what she had found there, that had not been present the first seventeen times, and the only conclusion she could reach was that it involved Mama’s car.  
“You simply need to have your picture taken, pay the fee and then you are set.” Meanwhile, she glanced past Mama, and smiled becomingly at the gentleman with the yellow cap. “Are you ready, Pierre?”

“Oui, Mademoiselle,” he said, doffing his cap and bowing ever so slightly, as he smiled broadly, revealing the best set of dentures that money could buy. “I’ll vill bring zee Bee-mare around zee frahnt.”
And as that little BMW convertible glided to a stop out front, the driving examiner allowed herself to be escorted around the tiny car, while Pierre opened the passenger door. The little smooch he bestowed upon her outstretched hand spoke volumes, and the last Annie saw, the car was shooting away without a speck of dust to be seen.
After only five minutes, Mama emerged once again, clutching both purse and newly acquired driver’s license, ready to prowl Mendocino highways for another year. 

Annie asked brightly, “Shall we see about a little lunch? How about if I drive?”  

Mama agreed, settling back into the passenger seat, after carefully removing and discarding the little oak branch, and the gesture, so casual in nature, made Annie think again.  
Was it possible that Mama had known more than she let on? Was there a plan all along? I’d hazard a guess but that would be all it was, a guess. From what I have seen and heard, I think Mama was following a road map all along, one that she drew up as the situation warranted.  

After all, if she wants to drive, she needs to be able to follow a map, and it’s always nice if you are the one who made the map because then you know where you are going.
Born to drive.


  1. Hi Mark, I enjoyed rereading this one again! Such a great description, I felt like I was there for the entire story! Thank you!

    1. Thanks, Laura-lai! Seems like yesterday.