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Driving the Taconic With My Almost 97-Year-Old Mother, "Gammy"

July 08, 2016 Barbara Ballinger

You know you're aging when you begin to hate to drive at night because you tire more easily or you just don't trust your driving reflexes as much--particularly swerving to avoid deer. I'm experiencing the latter as I drive my 96 1/2-year-old mother--"Gammy" to my daughters and her great-grandson--between her apartment in New York City and my home in the country where I live fulltime.

When I first moved to my area almost six years ago, Gammy would take the train--even take the bus from her apartment to the train station, carry a small bag, climb aboard, get off, climb the stairs to the waiting room, and wait for me to fetch her--a half-hour drive. Then, it became harder to do the bus, impossible to carry anything with weight, even harder to climb the stairs up to the train. Her one reconstructed knee worked fine but the other that she didn't replace started to give her trouble. And the two hours between us became more arduous, both physically and emotionally.

We brainstormed and decided I'd drive her one way. Then, a year ago, we brainstormed again as she explained--hating to do so--that the trip was too difficult. "I'll just stay home. I hate for you to have to drive me," she said in a tone that indicated she really didn't want to stop coming. I said I'd drive her both ways. "This is what I want to do at this juncture," I explained for all the obvious reasons. But with heavier traffic, the five-hour-round-trip gradually became six hours. I preferred to do a turn-around--drive her, drop her, and head home without stopping.

When I left my home with her the other day on a Wednesday, it was already 4:30 p.m. because of my workload and interview calls I had to make. I knew I might end up in traffic, or drive home in pitch blackness, and the road I take has few lights, fewer rest stops along the way, and lots of deer. However, on a Wednesday, the traffic wasn't as terrible as it would be on a Friday afternoon or Monday morning. I've also learned where the bottlenecks usually occur and just wait them out. I packed my "dinner" for the trip home, so I wouldn't arrive late and be starving: two small peanut and jelly sandwiches--the second because the bread was so small, a bag full of carrots, a banana, and a second cup of coffee to keep me alert.

When we're alone, I like to remain fairly quiet, turn off the radio, and listen to my mom share stories of her life. She has fewer people to listen, or who care. Yesterday, she talked about how some people don't send thank-you notes promptly--horrors. I listened graciously and thought: “Thank you Lauren for sending yours within a week of receiving our collective family gift.” Gammy was impressed! Then, she shared how when she and my dad were a young couple without much money, she spent more on one couple because they were patients in my dad's medical practice. She never heard from them if they liked the gift, let alone received it. I realized that I write notes or email so quickly after receiving a gift is that my mother drilled the importance into me. And I, in turn, trained my daughters to do the same. 

I reached for one sandwich, and, of course, offered her a half. "No, it's your dinner," she said in her usual selfless way. "I have two, please eat one." And there we were eating our modest supper. By the time I arrived home at 10:15 p.m. I was exhausted, yet also wired, and stayed up another hour to read the newspaper. 

I know this drive is becoming tougher for me, and I must try to do it more often in daylight and maybe stay over with her to regain my grit. But I also know that I am lucky for this alone time--just the two of us in a car. And I'll be much sadder when I'm driving the Taconic alone.




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