Driving Mom Home

Mom with our favorite treatWho wants to drive cross country with an elderly mother? It wasn’t me.

The trip odometer rolled over to three thousand miles just as I pulled into my mother’s driveway in Edmonton, Alberta. I’d turned it on when I left my home in Schenectady. I’d just completed five days of hard but glorious driving.

It was two in the morning. I was weary and my left forearm was badly sunburned on one side. All day long, with the sun beating down, I’d rested my arm on the open window of my little red hatchback.  Nobody does that anymore unless their car, like mine, lacks air conditioning.

It was two in the morning, but all the lights were on. When I rang the doorbell, my mother flung the door open wide.

“Guess what!” She beamed and hugged me. “I’m driving back with you!”

“No!” I blurted. And I meant it.

The drive was my big adventure. Mine. Driving across the continent. Alone. This trip was about my solitude and my healing after a painful divorce. It was about the forests and rocks and lakes and prairies of Canada, my native land. I’d already stored away a thousand memories and needed about a thousand more.

My mother coming would ruin everything. She wouldn’t understand my trip. She would talk too much and repeat her same old stories. She’d gossip and fret about all the people in Alberta and never inquire about my life in NY State.

Even as I was bringing my luggage inside, I was frantically trying to think of excuses to make her change her mind. For the next several days, I would try to soften the harshness of that too shrill “no,” while still presenting logical and caring arguments to persuade her to stay home.

She had arthritis. She wouldn’t be comfortable in my tiny car. I didn’t even have a radio for heaven’s sake.

She was old and frail. Her heart was bad: she’d had heart attacks and open heart surgery, and congestive heart failure and angina. She could die on the road in some remote place far from medical care.

But a tide of opinions slowly rose against me, mostly from my mother.

“Margaret, you must have been terribly bored all alone all day, not even the radio to listen to. I could keep you company.”

“Margaret, dear, you looked awfully tired when you got home. We could share the driving.”

No way! My mother was the worst driver in the world. I remembered the time she backed out of the garage with the door still down. I remembered her hurtling down the Rocky Mountains on our way to Vancouver. “Mom, Mom, slow down! You’re going 125 km/hour on a twisting mountain road.”

In the coming days, Mom continued.

”My health? Why, I’m feeling perfectly fine. For heaven’s sake, we’ll be on the Trans-Canada Highway! Don’t you think there are doctors between here and Schenectady? And just in case I need to see a doctor in the States, I’ve bought supplemental insurance!”

“I heard my brother Russell isn’t doing so well these days. He’s blind now, did I tell you? Same thing I’ve got, macular degeneration. I suppose I’ll be blind one day soon, too. I won’t be able to travel at all then. I sure would like to see my relatives and old friends one more time.  Your brother Vance, of course, in Ottawa. And Geneva in Kingston, Ontario. Did I ever tell you that I went to school with Geneva? And Russell and Margaret and Jeanne and Hilton and the others in New Brunswick…those that aren’t already dead….

Family and friends began to come around to her way of thinking, rather than mine.

Her best friend Jerry took me aside, “Margaret, dear, this trip is so very, very, very important to your mother. Faye knows the risks, but she wants to go anyway. She worries that this  will be her last chance to visit your brother Vance and all her relatives in the Maritimes. And you know what a good traveler she is.”

Doug and Patti, my younger brother and sister-in-law, understood perfectly well why I resisted. They were the ones who were always there for my mother, taking her to doctors and shopping and helping her out. They knew all her medical problems—and they knew how she could drive a person crazy. Late into the night, after my mother went to sleep, we talked the pros and cons. Maybe my mother wore them down.  Maybe they looked forward to a holiday from her. Whatever.  They began to urge me to let her come.

“She could have a heart attack anywhere. She could have one here in Edmonton. If she were to die on the trip, at least she’d be doing something she really wants to do. And it has been a long time since she has gone to the Maritimes. Maybe it’s the right thing to do….

I was cornered, and I knew it. The decision was made. My mother was coming with me.

It was soon time to leave. We loaded up the car. It was a hot day, but, as always, my tiny mother wore a full slip, panty hose, nylon top, polyester skirt, and black sensible shoes with laces. She perched on the passenger side, barely tall enough to see out the front window. She cheerily waved the family good-bye, and we were off.

We talked…well mostly my mother talked.

“Margaret, did I tell you that Mr. Hill built a new planter for my patio? It’s the green one that I planted yellow nasturtiums in. He’s such a nice man.”

“Margaret, I heard from Irene. She’s doing ok, but her diabetes is worse. Still she bakes bread every day. Gives it away to the neighbors because she can’t eat it.”

“I worry about your sister.  I wish she and Richard would sell the farm and move to town. And I think she’d be happier if she had a hobby—she should knit an afghan or something.”

“I don’t get to church as much as I used to. Hazel would take me; she just lives across the lane, but that’s not the problem. I said to her, ‘Hazel, those wooden pews are just too darned hard to sit on for an hour.’ ”

Mostly during the day I watch the news on CBC. In my opinion, those idiot politicians in Ottawa should all be shot dead. They’re less than worthless. Though from what I see on CNN, the ones in the States are just as bad, maybe worse.”

At no time along the way, driving a week together, did we bare our souls. I never told her much about my life in Schenectady. I was always careful to guard my secrets. She never asked much. The stories she told me, I’d heard before. We mostly stayed on the surface of things, as always.

But we began to collect our shared memories of the long trip home.

We drove a couple of hundred miles out of our way to Moosejaw, Saskatchewan to buy a tee shirt for a friend of mine. My mother didn’t mind. “Of course you should buy a tee shirt for your friend. Why not!” (Afterwards, I took her picture beside the giant statue of the moose.”)

In southern Saskatchewan, it was almost 100 degrees. I was wearing a loose tee shirt and shorts and had wrapped a wet dish towel around my neck to stay cool. My mother was wearing, of course, pantyhose, full slip, nylon top, polyester skirt, and sensible shoes. I—not she—complained about the heat. I stopped in a little town just to find shade somewhere before I died of sunstroke. I’d spotted one lonely tree near an ice-cream stand. We stood in that tiny bit of shade. “This strawberry ice-cream is delicious!” said my mother. “almost as good as the grape nuts ice-cream they make down east. Maybe I’ll have some when I get there.”

We stopped in Swift Current, Saskatchewan, a little prairie town with a lot of spanking new farm equipment for sale and not much else. As we pulled into a motel parking lot late in the afternoon, I could see that my mother was in serious pain from angina. She took her nitroglycerine, then I hurriedly checked us in.  As my mother sat a little distance away, still in pain, I quietly asked the clerk “Can you give me directions to the nearest hospital?” All the scary scenarios we’d talked about came to my mind. My mother would die on the prairies while I was looking for a hospital.

“Margaret, don’t worry,” my mother insisted. “The pain has eased up. I’ll let you know if it comes back.”

I hoped she was telling the truth. We ate dinner in an improbably large Chinese restaurant near the motel. I had directions to the hospital tucked away in my purse, just in case. Only one other table was filled even though it was Saturday night. Could there possibly be enough people living near Swift Current ever to fill the restaurant? A woman with a sweet voice sang a country western song about the Pembina river in Alberta, a river that runs near my sister’s farm a hundred miles north of Edmonton. We were far from my home, far from my mother’s home, and far from the Pembina. And I didn’t want my mother to die there.

Somewhere in the mid-West, we drove into a huge thunderstorm just at sunset. Almost the entire sky, horizon to horizon, not just the sky in the West, was burnt red by the sunset, punctuated by vivid streaks of lightning. It was spectacular. I pulled the car to the side of the road. “We must remember this,” I said. “This is why we came, to see such sights.” My mother nodded yes.

East of the prairies, we drove into the spruce-dark forests north of the Great Lakes. For hours we saw few signs of civilization, so when we spotted rustic cabins, we knew we’d be spending the night. I have never seen  flying insects the likes of those inside our motel room. While my mother got ready for bed, I did battle with them. I pulled out my can of hair spray and leapt from one bed to the other spraying them, gumming up their wings, and removing them from the premises.

“How clever you are to think of such a thing,” my mother said.

I thought, “other mothers might have complained about a motel room chock full of big flying bugs.”

In Ontario we went south to a ferry to Manitoulin Island. In the motel near the dock, keys to empty motel rooms hung on an outside wall. We could choose whichever room we liked, unlock it, spend the night, and pay in the morning.

“Would you believe any business could be so trusting!” said my mother.

I’d never seen such a thing, either. We liked it.

At some point, traveling down the highway, many miles of wilderness between every hamlet or gas station, with nothing to see or everything, depending on your point of view, my mother turned to me, eyes shining, hands folded on her lap, and said serenely,

“Margaret, I want you to know, I’m having a marvelous time.”

Think of it. For seven days, my mother didn’t complain about anything on the trip. On a road punctuated mostly by signs warning us of moose, in a little car without air conditioning or even a radio, she had not complained about a single thing.

Over the next few weeks, she saw her relatives and flew home to Edmonton.

When she died a few years later, her best friend Jerry took me aside again. “Margaret, Faye always talked about the time she drove east with you. It was the very last time she saw her folks Down East.  And,” Jerry, said, “she always told me she’d had a wonderful time.”

Looking back, it didn’t hurt that, like a good Canadian, Mom remembered that even if life is hard, you don’t complain.

Too grudgingly I admit that it’s taken my lifetime to acknowledge my mother’s strengths: her adventurous spirit, her courage, her sense of humor, and her boundless will to persevere.

Even more grudgingly I admit that traveling home with my mother was not so bad.

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Photos, Rafting Trip Through the Grand Canyon

Here are photos of our Grand Canyon adventure to go with my last blog: “Imminent Death and Bathrooms.” Click to enlarge. Enjoy.

Imminent Death and Bathrooms (a rafting trip through the Grand Canyon)

Jay rowing in rapids.

When my husband Jay and I were dating, we had the first great adventure of our lives together, a twelve day rafting trip through the Grand Canyon, an improbable adventure for two middle-aged people who had never rafted before.  Jay had never camped before either—except when he was in the army.  And he hadn’t liked it.

It had come about by accident. George, a geology professor at Union College where I worked, spotted my friend Sigrid and me buying lunch.  Apparently we looked especially gullible that day.  He was planning another trip through the Grand Canyon—he’d made umpteen trips already—but was looking for a way to finance it.  That’s where we came in.  If he could inspire a few colleagues to become fellow adventurers—and if he rowed the supply raft—he could travel for free. We said we’d think about it. After all, it was a year and a half away.

In the end, ten people had a Union connection, half the people on the trip: John, an engineer; Dave, a chemist, and his wife and teenage sons; Sigrid, who taught German; George the geologist and his daughter; and Jay and me.

We women had our worries, mainly about how we would go to the bathroom and about sudden death.  George, the geologist, assured us that everything was easy, safe, and great fun. We’d love it. Dave, the chemist, had done the trip once before.

He warned, “If your raft capsizes, be careful not to get trapped underneath.  You will die.”

He explained other ways people die on the Colorado River.  He described near escapes. He told me his family would sleep in their own tent, the better to be safe from the snakes and scorpions. And he told me the truth about going to the bathroom. (I will spare you the ungodly details.)

Before the trip, we had to buy stuff, all indestructible, most of which I’d never owned before:  water bottles, river shorts, Teva sandals, kerchief, flashlights (preferably the kind that attached to one’s forehead), dangling things you hang from your glasses so they don’t fly into the river, carabiners so your water bottles and other belongings don’t fall into the river either, a sunhat with a flap on the back that makes everyone look dorky. We clipped our hats to our tee shirts, so—I have a theme going here—they didn’t fall into the river either.

We met the guides and the other members of our group at Lees Ferry, just down river from the Glen Canyon Dam.  The river flowed gently enough with little hint of the drama we’d face ahead.

All the guides loved the canyon and the river, hated dams that changed the environment, hated the motorized rafts (so did we), and hated people who didn’t respect and take care of the river.  Most on our trip were women: tough, crude, gutsy, funny, and smart.  They peed standing up; I hadn’t known it was possible.

The guides gave us little metal boxes to store the things we’d need during the day and two big, heavy black rubber bags each, one for a sleeping bag and ground cover, one for our clothes and other personal belongings we’d need when we camped each night on shore.  They showed us how to wear our life jackets and assured us that they would prove utterly necessary for survival. Our bags were stowed in various rafts, many on the one that our Union colleague George would be rowing. If we didn’t roll the bag tightly, properly, they warned, our things would get wet if the raft carrying it overturned.

When George’s raft went sideways, backwards, and upside down through one of the monster rapids, it turns out I had not packed one of my black bags carefully enough. Everything inside was soaked with muddy Colorado River water. My  camera and my shrink-wrapped tins of curiously strong mints were destroyed. I spread everything else, including my underwear, on big rocks at our next evening stopping place.

Twelve days and not one man shaved.  In fact, all were all darned proud of their scruffiness.

“Are you going to shave?”

“Nah. Are you?”

“Nah, Me neither.”

None of the women brought lipstick. We did nothing with our hair except comb it down in the morning.  We were not a stylish lot.  We crouched in the river in the morning and washed as quickly as we could in the cold water, craving only a smidgen of privacy and warmer water. Once or twice, in the warmer shallow water of a tributary, we poured water over each other, shampooing our hair gleefully.

Jay was the oldest person on the trip.  To my pleasant surprise, since we hadn’t yet traveled together, he was a trooper. It was he, not I, who took the oars going through one of the rapids, small rapids, but rapids to be sure. At sixty-five he had more reason to be concerned about the exertion and the heat.  And he had to make more trips than most to the river in the dark of the night. (It was on one of those middle of the night trips that he injured his leg and got the infection—but he was ok, eventually, a few weeks after we got home.) Jay was facing surgery for prostate cancer after the trip, and he was determined to enjoy every minute of our adventure.

We became part of a different world of deep cold river and hot canyon walls. We swam in pools in the streams that flowed into the river and slid on rocks behind waterfalls. We hiked up canyon trails that scared me half to death. I hadn’t known I was afraid of heights until I stood at the edge of dizzy-making, rocky precipices overlooking the river below.  Once Matt, one of the guides, had to take my hand and talk gently or I would have spent the rest of my life somewhere on a ledge jutting precariously near the river and the jagged rocks. The teenagers on our trip scrambled up and down as if born to the life.

Twelve days on the water. Twelve days to float past mile high, ever changing canyon walls, punctuated by brief, laugh-out-loud, oh-my-god thrills of unimaginable drops of twenty-five feet and more into churning water.  Once I found my body stretched out in the rapids in the Colorado River, my only connection to the raft my fingers clutching the rope that circled the top.  I had made a resolution that if the raft remained right side up, I would remain attached to it.

In calmer waters, Matt, the same guide who talked me down the canyon trail, taught me how to yell out loud.  Yee haw doesn’t come easily to me.   He called on me to perform at our farewell get-together, and in my opinion, I did well. I may have forgotten how, one gets rusty.  If you ask, I’ll say no.

At night we’d scramble onshore, drag up the rafts, help unload the supplies and search out soft sandy spots for our sleeping bags. Once while we were setting up camp, a small rattlesnake slithered three or four feet from the head of my sleeping bag, the second snake we’d seen in five minutes.

“Don’t worry. They’re not aggressive; they won’t hurt you,” the guides assured me, too quickly.

I knew those guides.  They also thought the daily canyon hikes were a piece of cake.  But if I were fumbling for my glasses and flashlight in the night, preparing for a trip to the not-to-be-discussed bathroom facilities, and if I accidentally whacked that snake on the head, he’d strike, and I would die far from medical facilities.  We were still days away from the possibility of a helicopter rescue.  I slept in a tent that night. (My friend Sigrid later admitted to me that she had wanted to sleep in a tent too, but didn’t want to be thought a wimp.  I didn’t care.)

But other nights I slept under the stars, a zillion stars hanging in the sky between the dark canyon walls while below, benign shadowy bats darted above our heads.

Each morning a guide would walk around our camp, yelling that it was time to get up and drink coffee. By the time we had washed up a little, rolled up our sleeping bags and ground covers tightly enough to fit into our waterproof rubber bags, dressed in our shorts, tee sheet, Tevas, and sun hat, breakfast was ready.  Lots of it, laid out on folding tables. Juices, fruit, eggs, french toast, pancakes, bacon, sausages.  We piled our plates.

I was amazed the rafts could carry enough food safely for a twelve day trip. George’s raft held the food cold below the water level.

Lunch was usually make your own deli-style sandwiches.  Salami and cheese and ham. Two or three kinds of bread.  Fruit.  Pasta salads.  Cold drinks.  Hearty cookies. My most memorable lunch was served on tables set in the middle of a shallow stream flowing into the Colorado River.  We stood in the scorching sun, up to our knees in cool water.

Dinner was salmon or chicken or steak or pork tenderloin.  Once the guides cooked upside-down cakes in cast iron skillets over the grills.

One night, after dinner ended with watermelon, and the guides had probably downed too many beers, they stuffed a watermelon with oily rags, set it on fire, and sent it down the Colorado river, a magnificent sight.

We ended the trip on the Havasupai Indian Reservation, We pulled the rafts out of the water and helped load them onto the trucks that would carry them away.  We were a mess.  The cotton tee shirts we wore on the trip were never clean again, dyed brown from the sand in the river.   Bedraggled though we were, we were presented with a feast of a brunch, fit for people far spiffier than us, brought down the canyon by other, cleaner rafting staff.  Salads. Fruit. Cold cuts.. Cheeses.  Pastries. Wine. All beautifully laid on tables with tablecloths and wonderfully free of sand.  We had never seen such a meal or enjoyed a meal as much, the pleasure tinged bittersweet. These were the last moments of a mind-boggling, life-changing, and, for most of us, once-in-a-lifetime trip.  We had come to feel intimately connected with our dirty fellow-adventurers.  And this lovely meal was the last time we would break bread together beside the river.  When we’d eaten our last fresh perfect strawberry, it would be time to climb into the four-wheeled vehicles and go back to motels in Flagstaff and then to our other lives.

In Flagstaff, Jay and I took our clothes to the laundromat, washed them several times, and threw most away, too stained ever to wear again.  We flew home happy with the trip and with each other. Jay’s leg healed. His cancer was successfully treated. And soon after, we married, confident that this would not be our last happy adventure together.