Featured art: Haverstraw Bay by Sanford Robinson Gifford
By Rebecca McClanahan
“Is that our car?” my mother asks. She has rolled her walker over to the window and is pointing to the Buick LeSabre parked outside their condo. I keep it there so that Dad can see it from his recliner, where he spends most of his days and evenings. He hasn’t driven for several years and never will again, but he likes knowing the car is there, likes sitting in the co-pilot seat when I take them for doctor appointments or Sunday drives. The Buick has rarely moved from the space in the three years since my husband and I relocated them from Indiana, to a condo twenty feet from our own. But each day is a new day for my mother; thus, the question, which she will keep asking until I answer.
“Yes, Mother. That’s your car.”
“Mine?” Her brown eyes light up, her eyebrows lift. “Yours and Dad’s.”
“Paul’s, I mean.” Lately I’ve been trying to break my lifelong habit of calling my dad “Dad.” “Dad” only encourages her confusion: that her husband is her father, or sometimes her grandfather. No matter that her father has been dead nearly thirty years and her grandfather, over seventy. She still sometimes sets a place for them at the table, and worries when they’re late for dinner.
“Do we have a key?” she asks.
I nod yes. “That’s how I start the car.” “Where is it?”
“The key? In a safe place, where I can get to it. Or Rick or Claudia or Lana, if we need to take you somewhere.” It’s clear that the names of her children aren’t ringing any bells today. Her mind is busy elsewhere, as are her hands, her tiny but still steady and capable hands; this ninety-one-year-old can thread a needle on the first try, pare and slice a dozen apples in the space of a few minutes. Now, leaning over her walker, she lifts the fold-down seat top and begins rummaging through the storage compartment beneath the seat. We call the compartment her “office” or her “donkey,” but in my mind it’s the Bermuda Triangle, where all manner of disappeared household objects eventually land, including, in the past months, eyeglasses, arthritis cream, ball caps, denture cases, socks, photos of dogs and children I don’t recognize, knitting needles, advertising fliers, lists of random numbers she claims she needs to keep track of, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. And, a few weeks ago, six or seven silver spoons, nested carefully and tied with yarn. “We’ll need them,” she told me. “When we get home to Indiana.”
Which is why I now worry about the key, and why I try to change the subject. “Hey, Dad,” I say, as he comes out of the bathroom. Damn, I did it again. “Paul. How about a walk? It’s pretty outside.” Walks are getting harder for him each week, even with the cane that he finally agreed to after months of family negotiations. He shakes his head no. He’s having another bad day, and probably will be no help soothing Mother. “She’s been asking about the Buick again,” I say, code for I need some backup here.
He shrugs. “It’s a nice car,” he says. Then, with much effort, he lowers himself into the recliner. He doesn’t recline, though. He never reclines, unless we remind him to, and show him again how to pull the lever that raises the footrest. Mother is still rummaging. Not much of a cache today: a paperback of Black Beauty, nail clippers, a pink headband, and a dozen or so used napkins folded neatly. She closes the lid and starts looking around the room. Her glance goes to the desk, where we keep the oversized monthly calendar and the giant Alzheimer’s clock, though we never call it that in her presence. She’s watched me, many times, take the car key and fob out of the top drawer, and lately I’ve worried the possibilities. My husband says that my fears are exaggerated, and he’s probably right. Donald is almost always right. I mean, what are the odds that Mother could remember where the key is, maneuver her way outside with the walker, click the correct button on the fob to unlock the trunk, lift the walker into the trunk, slam the heavy lid, click the button that opens the driver’s door, slide the front seat forward, put the key into the ignition, release the emergency brake, put the car into reverse, back out of the narrow space, put the car into drive, and screech out into the street, heading for Indiana.
Unless she had an accomplice. Her dad or grandfather, a.k.a. Paul, ex-fighter-pilot and wing commander of V-formation squadrons. “Muscle memory,” I suggested to Donald the last time we discussed it. “It might kick in. I mean, Dad is a good driver,” which made Donald’s face twist into a “you’ve got to be kidding” expression. He was remembering those five or six years, the white-knuckled years when we visited them in Indiana, Donald in the passenger seat, me in the back seat with Mother, both of us praying to survive a trip to the grocery, or, God forbid, one of Dad’s 70-miles-per-hour interstate tailgating sprees, squeezed between two semis—“I’m just catching his draft,” Dad would answer to my frantic pleas—until one day, when by some miracle my father had finally landed the Buick safely in their driveway, and Donald reached across the front seat to touch my father’s arm. “I’m sorry, Paul,” he said, calmly and without judgment, “but I just can’t drive with you anymore. It’s too scary.”
I never could have pulled that off. But then, I’m the daughter, not the son-in- law. And my father is still my father. Even when I have to help him out of his soiled trousers, or remind him of his birth date or the names of his siblings. Or fill in whole decades of his life’s history, usually by way of the list he wrote ten years ago, a list of all the cars he and Mother had owned since their marriage in 1945, many purchased for their six kids: 33 cars, not including the Buick. “You were a career marine,” I explained a few days ago, when he’d asked about the framed medals on the wall. “Three wars. You were an ace pilot. And after you retired, a teacher, math and physics.” He always seems amazed to hear the news of his life, this wisp of a man now dead asleep in his recliner, his mouth moving silently, one hand gesturing, lost in a dreamscape I cannot enter.
“Where is that key?” she asks again. “I can’t find it anywhere. But you know me. Things disappear. I’m just worthless. Worthless.”
I hate it when she says that. I’d rather that she scream at me, or stomp her foot, or slam the door in my face. Not that she’s ever done any of those things, ever. In my whole life. Such was the mother the universe gifted me. “Please don’t say that, Mother. It makes me sad. Let’s go somewhere, for a drive.”
She perks up, lifts one arm from the walker, and gestures dramatically, her arm sweeping the air. “I used to drive all over this town. All over. I knew every shortcut.” Actually, my mother drove in our city only a few times, nearly thirty years ago, when she came to take care of my sister when she was ill. “Dad?” she says. And a little louder, “Dad? You want to go for a drive?” When he is submerged this deeply, nothing wakes him. Often I am certain he is dead, and, yes, I have wished it so—that he will go out swiftly, painlessly, in a victorious midair dream. “Dad,” she calls out again, then shrugs. “I’ll just be a minute,” she says, turning to roll her walker toward the hall.
I collapse onto the desk chair and lay my head on the desk, beside the Alzheimer’s clock. Suddenly I am very tired. She’s rolled the walker down the hall and into the kitchen. I hear the clang of metal utensils. And here comes the squeak—that would be the lazy Susan corner cabinet where we keep the Tupperware bowls. The green one is her favorite, from the land of my child- hood. No matter how many times the Marine Corps moved us, I always knew the green Tupperware would arrive in the packing box marked “kitchen.” She used it for her famous potato salad, or sometimes coleslaw, or for the too-sweet ambrosia that was her father’s favorite, concocted from canned fruit cocktail and baby marshmallows. Until recently, you could still see the faint outline of her name on the Tupperware’s lid—she’d written it with a black marker decades ago, so she could retrieve it after church potlucks or family reunions.
The clock clicks, turns over a new minute. If I could just sleep, dream my way into the past, I would hand her the keys and let her save my life again—two times that I know of, but there may have been more. The first time, she was barefoot, her right foot pressed hard on the pedal as we tore down the country road, me turning blue and breathless beside her—a curious two-year-old who was always rummaging for something to stuff in my mouth, this time a shred of a balloon I’d found God knows where and that her fingers in my mouth could not dislodge, nor her hand pounding my back. So now we were barreling toward the hospital, over the wooden bridge, and now slamming over the railroad tracks, where we landed with such force that I coughed the balloon out onto the seat. “You know me,” she said when she told the story, “I hardly ever cry. But I cried that day, holding you and kissing the top of your head. Your sweaty little head with that stubborn cowlick.” The second time, twenty years later, I lay in the back seat of their yellow sedan, alive against my will, as she drove us away from the psychiatric ward, having coerced the discharge clerk to release her daughter’s records—“Every one of them!” she’d insisted—into her hands. She was driving us back the three hundred miles she had traveled, alone, to rescue me, broken once again by some man’s promise. I remember the trees blurring past, the rumble and swish of passing trucks, and the smell of the upholstery my father always kept in pristine condition, softened and polished with leather cream.
The clock clicks again: 2:17. I know how the next moments will unfold.
Soon she’ll be rolling toward me, packed and ready. I’ll take the key from the drawer. We’ll wave goodbye to the sleeping Paul and navigate our slow way out to the Buick. If I delay long enough, encouraging every minor distraction, by the time I click the trunk open, she will be pointing to the blooms on the crape myrtle, exclaiming at their redness. Indiana will be history, and that will be that. But in this moment, kitchen drawers are opening, closing, opening. If she can find the yarn, she will secure the silver spoons for the journey. And yes, the green bowl will take up most of the walker’s compartment, but if I know my mother, she’ll find a way.
Rebecca McClanahan’s eleventh book is In the Key of New York City: A Memoir in Essays (2020). Her work has appeared in Best American Essays, Best American Poetry, Georgia Review, Gettysburg Review, Kenyon Review, and in anthologies published by Simon & Schuster, Beacon, Norton, and Bedford/St. Martin, among others. Recipient of two Pushcart prizes and the Glasgow Award in Nonfiction, McClanahan teaches in the MFA programs of Rainier Writing Workshop and Queens University.
Originally published in NOR 22.