End of the road for Mom’s car


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.

Crossword offers clues about my amazing in-laws



As published in the Providence Sunday Journal, March 15, 2015.

Fourteen inches of snow had fallen in northwest Connecticut overnight, which meant the drive back to Rhode Island might be dicey for my wife, Deb, and me. But my mother-in-law had more immediate concerns: was the Sunday newspaper outside?

“Sometimes they don’t deliver if the road’s not plowed,” she said.

Deb and I were sitting with Ellie in her living room, cozy in familiar chairs. Framed family photos stood on a bookcase, including one of Deb and me with our sons and daughter on a long-ago vacation, when I was still taller than the boys.

“Bill?” Ellie called out. “Will you see if the paper came?”

My father-in-law didn’t hear her. He was at his computer, plumbing for ancestors with the genealogy software Deb and I had given him. Last I heard, he had traced the family lineage to 14th-century royalty. Deb’s older brother said it was only a matter of time before Jesus turned up as a relative.

“I’ll get the paper,” I said. I knew my mother-in-law wanted to do the crossword puzzle.

“More coffee, Mom?” Deb asked.

“Thank you, honey.”

I pulled on my boots and trudged out to the mailbox on Pine Acres Drive. The Hartford Courant was there. With the paper under my arm, I walked back to the yellow ranch house where Deb’s folks have lived for nearly six decades.

In the living room, I found the crossword page and grabbed a pencil. Ellie sat across from me, fresh cup of coffee in hand. I gave her the first clue: “Banks or Kovacs – five letters.”

“Ernie,” she said.

“List-ending abbreviation – four letters.”

“Et al.”

“Skirt edge – ‘hem’ fits.”

“Sounds right.”

When answers were elusive, I did what I always do – jumped to the next clue. Ellie would have preferred to work longer on the tough ones, testing letters and words with deliberation, but she indulged my impatience.

I wasn’t surprised. Since we first met 30 years ago, my in-laws have shown an unwavering kindness toward me. Over lunch that day, as Deb’s new “friend,” I expected the Grand Inquisition. Instead, I found open arms. Soon, birthday cards arrived with “We love you!” sign-offs and smiley faces. And when I was a young and sometimes bewildered father, my mother-in-law’s words were reassuring: “You’re doing great.”

Bill walked into the living room and announced, “Debbie, you’re descended from Attila the Hun.”

“That explains a lot,” my wife said, chuckling.

“What about royalty?” Ellie asked.

“Apparently, we’re a mixed bag,” Bill said, “but you’ll always be the Lady of Pine Acres Drive to me.” With boyish playfulness, he made a flamboyant bow to his wife of 59 years and she laughed like a teen with her steady.

“I’m putting the Attila news on Facebook,” Deb said. “It’s going to blow up.”

Ellie and I returned to the crossword: “Throat-clearing sounds,” I said. “Five letters.”


“You’re good,” I said. My mother-in-law smiled, eyes sparkling.

When we had the puzzle three-quarters done, my phone buzzed. It was my son Evan, who lives in Los Angeles.

“I just woke up to Mom’s Attila post on Facebook,” he said. “I need verification.”

“You need Grandpa,” I said.

I looked across the room. Bill was helping Ellie get up from her chair. In a graceful duet, he grasped her forearm and leaned back as she rose slowly to her feet.

“Walking or riding?” he said to her quietly. It took a second for me to understand what he was asking: cane or wheelchair?

“Walking,” she said.

I told Evan that Grandpa would call him back and pressed a button to end the call. Bill handed Ellie her cane. She steadied herself and then started slowly, deliberately for the kitchen, her vigilant partner at her side. Six years ago, after the stroke, no one knew if she’d ever walk again.

“Be right back, John,” Ellie said. “We’ll finish that puzzle.”

“I need you for the tough ones,” I said.

She laughed, edging forward.

I wanted to call Evan back right then and tell him it didn’t matter about Attila the Hun or King Olaf of Norway or any other purported ancestor identified by a software algorithm.

He does descend from amazing people. They just happen to be his grandparents.

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