I walked to the 1999 Plymouth Breeze, which was parked in the lot across from my house in East Greenwich. The silver car – champagne, according to my mother – had a fresh dent in one of its rear doors and miles of memories in its odometer. I turned the key. The rapid click-click-click reported a dead battery.
“Gonna need a jump start, Mom,” I said. It was a recent practice of mine: talking to my departed mother when I was in her car. A year and a half had passed since she died, and the car, with my mom’s Frank Sinatra CDs still in the console, was a comforting presence.
Sitting there in the beached Breeze, I recalled the day my mother had lost her driver’s license – an inevitability she anticipated with dread. She was thoroughly independent and had lived alone, happily, for decades. Having to relinquish her license was the latest, and most painful, blow thrown at her by macular degeneration.
She didn’t concede without a fight, which was no surprise to anyone who knew her.
“I’m taking the vision test,” she declared as I drove her to the Division of Motor Vehicles in Wakefield. The morning brightness glinted off her sunglasses. It was a little less than a week before her 76th birthday, when her license was set to expire. Barring a miracle, these would be her last days as a legal driver.
“My odds are 1 in 26, right?” she said, referring to her chances at correctly guessing any given letter in the vision test. “Beats the lottery.”
My mother had a feisty sense of humor, which helped her contend with the setbacks of aging. Her love of mischief was even more pronounced and gave her an irrepressible youthfulness.
When her number was called at the DMV, she strode to the counter with an assurance that belied her near blindness. She was resplendent, as always, a paisley scarf setting off her sleek, camel hair car coat with swirling reds and browns.
After a couple of formalities, the moment of truth arrived.
“Please read the letters on the third line down,” the clerk said.
“N … C … W …” my mother said, peering into the viewfinder. I choked back a laugh – those were her initials.
“Try the line above, please.”
“U … S … A? …”
“How about the first letter in the top line?” the clerk asked.
My mother looked up.
“Honey,” she said, “my eyes are so bad, I can barely see you.”
On the way home, we laughed about the exchange with the clerk, but the ride was bittersweet.
Stripped of her license, my mother bequeathed me the Breeze and moved on, without so much as a glance in the rear-view mirror. I always marveled at how well she navigated milestone events – a divorce, the sale of houses, the closings of two retail stores on Federal Hill. “You have to move on,” she said.
The car was a godsend for my family. Our three teenage kids drove it almost every day for the next five years. Like my mother, the Breeze was unfailingly dependable.
But that was all changed now.
I got out of the marooned vehicle and sized up its scars: creases in the fenders, a missing hubcap, red rust creeping up the edges of the doors. My mother – so attentive to her appearance, so proud of her sense of style – would have been aghast.
I decided, quixotically, to try starting the car one more time. But climbing back in, I clipped my head on the doorframe. The whack felt familiar – like the “scoopalones” my mother used to give my brothers and me when we were doing something foolish as kids. A brisk slap to the back of my head was usually accompanied by a pointed rhetorical question, often this one: “What are you, numb?”
“I hear you, Mom,” I said with a laugh, rubbing my head.
Forget the jumper cables. It was time to let go of my mother’s beloved Breeze.
It was time, in her words, to move on.