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I watch her in my rear-view mirror.
My car’s black leather upholstery dwarfs her four-and-a-half-foot, 75-pound frame. The seatbelt secures her in place. With the exuberance of a child, she finds amazement and newness in her surroundings. Her awe is contagious as she admires everything as if for the first time – the house that has stood there since the Depression, the grocery store that’s been there for ages and John, the neighbour who waves when we drive by.
Her remarks are always the same: “Where are we going?” “I’m hungry.” “I’m tired.” “I have to go to the bathroom.” The repetition saddens and irritates me at the same time. I want the clamour to stop. I want everything as it was prior to her car accident at the end of 2011.
I give her a cookie to distract her from nattering. I step on the gas so that we reach the doctor’s office before I hurl a frustrating retort that’s aching to spring from my lips.
My mother was the first among her friends and family to learn to drive. Before even passing the road test, she bought a brand new, 1973 gold-coloured Cutlass Supreme . Like people who put a picture of a skinny model on their fridge door to inspire them through their latest diet, mom used the shiny new car in the driveway as motivation for the permit that would secure her independence.
Once my mother got her licence there was no stopping her. Her brown curls held in place by an Hermès scarf, she looked for opportunities to drive: grocery shopping, coffee with girlfriends, picking us up from school, taking us to appointments, or driving my father to and from work.
My father never learned to drive. He had no desire to be as one with a two-ton vehicle. He was content to be chauffeured in the luxury of public transit or ride shotgun in the Cutlass. He didn’t have to worry about the clutch, finding parking, or listening to the cacophony of three kids in the back seat. My father’s lack of enthusiasm for a motor vehicle served as a foil to my mother’s romance with the Cutlass’s 170-horsepower engine.
She put up with everyone’s back-seat driving, yelling directions and requests to take us to a baseball game, shopping, and later, to parties. I sometimes went along for the ride to pick up my dad from work. He often had treats for us, but I wanted my share before my greedy brothers got their mitts on them.
She never complained. But I now know what irritation looks and feels like – ready to burst forth with irrevocable force.
Every summer, with mom at the wheel, we drove to Boston and then to Cape Cod. The trip to the city alone was about eight hours, but my five-foot-nothing mother drove us there for many summers. She made only the necessary pit stops. She drove along the highways and interstates toward our destination, often ignoring the din of omniscient passengers that she had the misfortune to be with. As back-seat drivers, we knew exactly how she should drive and which way to go. But she continued undeterred, ignoring our many complaints: “Where are we going?” “I’m hungry.” “I’m tired.” “I have to go to the bathroom.”
She loved the car so much that, one year when the family went to Greece for a short stay, she sent it ahead in a container so that she would have it with her. She drove that car along the narrow, winding European roads, outranking smaller cars that dared to impede her progress. She eased into the tight parking spots with the skill of a pilot. She was thrilled by the admiration of the locals as she drove down their cobble-stoned streets. At times, I felt that I was in the presence of royalty as her regal wave was at the ready for friends and strangers alike.
The Cutlass Supreme retired in Greece, never making the trip back home. But sure enough, a shiny new 1982 Oldsmobile was waiting at the dealership for my mother’s loving embrace.
I can still see my mother smiling back at me through the rear-view mirror.
Today, I’m taking my mother to see a specialist because, after the car accident, the doctor had her licence revoked. It wasn’t her fault, but the trauma to her head was cause for concern. The privilege that she had worked so hard for all those years ago was gone, as was her independence and the memories of the thousands of trips she made in cars that she no longer recalls. She doesn’t even remember the three-vehicle collision that caused her to forget even basic life skills, like cooking, dressing and sometimes, even eating.
But, somewhere in her mind, I know that she remembers the gold-coloured Cutlass Supreme.
Irene Fantopoulos lives in Toronto.