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Mother's Day

Driving Ms. Marjorie Add to ...

In the summer of 2006, I took my wife's mother Marjorie on a week-long car trip that tested the nerves of everyone in the car. The journey became part of family legend, and would never be repeated: Marjorie Beare died in October of 2007 after a household fall. This is the story of our drive from Halifax to Toronto, via New York City.

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Marjorie Beare and I have more than two decades of history behind us: There have been lobster suppers, family reunions, Thanksgivings, funerals and more than a few personality clashes -- including the Great Battle of 1983, which began as a disagreement over my wife's bridal bouquet but soon mushroomed into a months-long family stand-off.

As mothers-in-law go, Marjorie has had her moments. Yet it was my idea to include her in a grand adventure: A six-day road trip this past August that would take us from Halifax to Toronto via New York City, with stops wherever we pleased.

Peter Cheney drove from Halifax to Toronto via New York City with his wife, fourteen year old son... and his mother-in-law. Click here for a photo gallery of the tour

I invited Marjorie in a moment of effusive emotion. As usual, my wife, Marian, and I had spent our summer vacation at Marjorie's home in Halifax. Marjorie was 80 now, but was still up for a good time. (A year earlier, Marian had taken her out to sing karaoke into the wee hours.) But Marjorie's second husband had died two years earlier, and she was spending a lot of time sitting in her La-Z-Boy. Her arthritis seemed to be getting the upper hand. So I thought she could use a little adventure.

Predictably, my plan raised questions about my mental health. My brother-in-law, David, burst into laughter when he learned that I had invited his mom along for nearly a week on the road. "Are you nuts?" he asked.

Marian, who would be riding shotgun, was happy that I cared so much about Marjorie, but echoed David's view.

The trip involved some obvious points of potential friction. Marjorie's back-seat companion would be my son, Willie, 14, whose tastes run to Dave Chappelle and Kanye West. Marjorie was more Fred Astaire and Frank Sinatra.

Then there was the matter of luggage. Marjorie tends to travel with at least three large, hard-sided suitcases, like a passenger on a 19th-century Cunard liner. I informed her that each of us would be limited to a single, soft-sided duffel bag. "We're driving a Honda Accord," I reminded her. "Not a Greyhound."

She spent the evening before our departure editing down her belongings. The next morning, she was the first one up, ready for the drive to Yarmouth, on the southern tip of Nova Scotia, where we were booked on the high-speed ferry that would take us to Maine.

I calculated the trip time using my GPS unit, which said we would need just over three hours. Marjorie was certain it would take 4½. "That's how long it always took," she insisted. "Ask anyone."

Marjorie's old-fashioned knowledge was pitted against my little black box. (The box was right, and we arrived at the ferry within three minutes of the time it had predicted.) I resisted the urge to say, "Told you so," but she still looked ticked off. "You were speeding," she said.

The first signs of real tension in the back seat emerged as we drove along the Maine coast. Willie wanted the windows open. Marjorie wanted them shut. They were soon engaged in a running battle reminiscent of the days when my brother and I scrapped in the back of my father's 1963 Mercury. "Down!" said Willie, pressing the window button. "Up!" retorted Marjorie, adding, "You're ruining my hair."

The conflict didn't come as a surprise. Willie is a hockey player whose hair is styled by his helmet, his pillow and the unruly forces of nature. Marjorie's coif is decidedly old-school: She sees her hairdresser every week, and has never washed her own hair or immersed her head while swimming. If there is a cloud in the sky, or a breath of wind, she dons a plastic hood.

As the back-seat battle escalated, Marian shot me a stiletto glance. I rolled up the windows and turned off the master control switch. Willie stuck in his earphones and cranked up his iPod.

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