My Mother and I drove through a summer thunderstorm in the mountains of West Virginia. The torrential downpour had forced us to pull off the highway under a bridge. We watched as semis roared past, oblivious of the elements. I was worried about my brother and my husband who had been in front of us, driving the U-haul. I squinted into the distance trying to make out shapes. Several other vehicles had pulled over to wait out the storm. I couldn’t tell if one was the U-haul. But it was companionable sitting in the car next to my mother, listening to the sounds of rain drumming on concrete and metal car roof. We decided to have ourselves a snack. I reached into the back seat and found, by feel, the shape of the Wise potato chip bag. I pulled it forth.
“There are some grapes back there too”, my mother said from the passenger side. I felt around again and found them. The potato chip bag had not been opened yet, showing my mother’s marvelous self-control. I ripped it open, starting with my teeth. The two things together made a delicious combination. The salty crunch followed by an explosion of green grape. We munched for a while, while the rain began to let up some.
We had left Pittsburgh at noon that day. My husband and my brother had packed the U-haul with all of mother’s possessions. Things accumulated for over seventy-four years. Neighbors had helped and we had all said our last, last, goodbyes, exchanged hugs and hopes for the future. My mother had lived in the city for most of her life. She had raised four children by herself after a divorce. She had owned and operated a small business, a dress shop, to support us. During this time she had been successful and capable and had a network of lifelong friends. She traveled. All over the US and Europe. She gave dinner parties, went to plays and concerts.
But in recent years, hints of an unraveling process had begun to reveal itself. First she broke her femur bone. That’s how she put it. Not her hip bone. She recuperated at home and it wasn’t that long before she resumed her aerobic classes. I didn’t live in Pittsburgh anymore. My second husband and I lived in Michigan. But we visited. Everyone else lived away too, but a neighbor man had become quite interested in her. He was in his nineties, a tiny Italian who just kept on going. They went to the movies together. It was kind of cute. She never would have married him but he was devoted to her. There was a supermarket within walking distance and mother shopped there using one of those small carts she kept next to her front steps. One day, on her way home, a guy swiped her purse right off her shoulder and ran off. She wasn’t hurt. She even laughed about it on the phone, later.
On one of my visits without my husband we drove downtown to this piano bar. My mother knew the singer. So we stayed and had a few drinks. We had her car so she drove. Pittsburgh is transected by many, many bridges. Three rivers meet, so almost anywhere you want to go you have to cross a bridge. We left the bar, mother driving, turned and got onto a bridge. Cars started honking. Headlights flashed and I realized that we were going right into on-coming traffic because we were going the wrong way. Cars were behind us and I suddenly wondered. Had this happened before? Was mother a capable driver? We finally got off the bridge and went another way home. Mother didn’t seem to be real concerned about it. So I wasn’t. But I was.
The townhouse she lived in faced an elegant courtyard. Everyone knew everyone else and the outside details of their lives. They looked after each other. If anyone got sick, soup was brought over. Old Mr. Whistler was in a wheel chair. Someone always volunteered to run errands for him now. But that was just it, all the neighbors were getting old, although a few young couples had moved in. The property itself was very much in demand. Four rows of townhouses facing each other with small yards but old trees forming arches to walk through. In spring, daffodils, dogwood trees, tulips, a hallelujah chorus of pastels. The buildings themselves made of brick buffed by time, casement windows of wavering glass, hardwood floors, fire places that worked. A small oasis in the city. Half were privately owned, the other rentals. My mother had rented for years, the price never changing. But one day a letter arrived announcing new management. Improvements were offered, but the rent was going to go up accordingly. As it was, mother was just making it. Supplementing her mutual funds with other endeavors. Even though she had only one spare bedroom, she occasionally rented it out to college students going to the nearby university.
For a while she ran ads in the newspaper offering to narrow gentleman’s ties. I was surprised that this could work, but the style of neckties had changed and apparently enough people had old wide ties, so instead of buying new ones, dropped them off. Mother took them apart and hand-stitched them back together, more narrow and right in style.
She walked to Fourth Presbyterian church every Sunday and this must have been where she heard about this retirement center located in southeastern Ohio. She made several trips, coming back, feeling more and more positive about it. Mother never told us anything until after the fact, so we were informed by phone that she was going to be moving there. She gave a brief description of the retirement village. It was possible to own your own home. There was a very attractive “activity center”. Offering weaving classes, quilting, woodworking, a drama group, art classes, exercise rooms, a swimming pool. Lots to get involved in and the people were her type of people.
It was barely affordable but my mother had always managed.
The rain was abating, so we swung back into traffic, heading west. We crossed a bridge and now we were in Ohio. Fields of corn and soybeans spread out to the horizon. We skirted the belly of southern Ohio, where small towns proclaimed their existences. Small green signs with names like Gnat Run and Green Up, Kentucky. Following the Ohio river. I could not imagine my mother living out here. She was used to culture and the quickness of the city.
I spotted the back of the U-haul ahead. “Life is loss.” I said out loud.
“No, life is change” my mother confirmed.
We passed a sign for Chillicothe. I didn’t know how to pronounce it. Blue hills began to rise in the distance and I felt more hopeful as I always do when I see hills off in the distance. Finally, a sign proclaimed our destination. Waverly Ohio. It didn’t take us long to find the village. It was the first left past Kmart, the town’s only department store. We pulled up to the “welcome house” and waited for the U-haul which had somehow gotten behind us. All the houses looked alike, little one story tract houses.
“I think I’ll go in and get the key,” Mother announced.
As I waited in the car, a memory came back to me. I felt the way I had felt when my mother had taken me to summer camp as a child. Except that now the roles were reversed.
My mother returned with the key and we slowly drove down the tree lined street to her “house”. Just like all the others. I wondered how she would find it again, although as I looked around me I could see small personal, distinguishing lawn decorations or other artifacts that marked each house.
The U-haul pulled up behind us and the rest of the afternoon was taken up with transferring the contents of the truck into the house. We soon had a mound of possessions piled up in the middle of the living room floor. Mother stood there as if she didn’t know where she was and looked around. The men did most of the lifting and setting down but they had to be directed.
“The couch would look good against that wall” I announced. “and that table next to it, the chair over there, is that the dining room? It’s only a space. The kitchen is nice and big. Oh! look our here! A sun porch! You could get some wicker furniture. It would look quite nice. You have two bedrooms. One could be made into the TV room. A desk right there, get one of those futons for when you have guests.”
As I listened to myself I realized that I was just repeating the same dialogue that my mother had said in so many houses that we had moved into.
I put all the dishes, pots and pans into the cupboard. I put towels in the bathroom closet, sheets on the bed, hung some paintings, mirrors and made a fairly good if only tentative arrangement with the furniture. Details would come later. Any changes mother could make. By sundown it was a livable house but not a home yet. Mother still looked like she didn’t know where she was. She just has to get used to it, I thought.
“Let’s try to find a good restaurant and have some dinner,” my husband suggested.
We drove back into town. Most of the buildings looked pre-civil war. Old worn brick testifying that there had been some kind of purpose that had been lost. We drove past an old hotel. “Is that a restaurant?” Yes. We parked and walked in. It was elegance concealed. The tables had while linen tablecloths. Candles burned at each table. We took the one next to the window and ordered wine. Surprisingly good red wine. A seed factory was across the street. The light, which was just right, if captured in this moment would make a good watercolor painting. Mother pronounced it “seedy.” After a very good dinner we walked around the old hotel part and looked at the photographs on the walls. “It used to be a canal town,” my brother observed. Sepia images of working men in overalls stared back at us. People never smiled back then, I thought. After the pictures there wasn’t a whole lot else to do, so we drove back to the village, which was called Bristol Village. The retirement area was bigger than the town, Waverly.
As we drove down her street, we noticed a small group of people grouped around something we couldn’t see. We pulled over to the curb and walked over to investigate.
“Look! There goes one now!” Someone said excitedly. I looked, and, as if pushed by an invisible button, a golden yellow blossom opened up. Then another. And then another. One by one, like speeded up photography, blossoms opened up in the deepening twilight. “What is it?” I asked.
“Evening primrose,” came the reply from an elderly gentleman.
”Every night at exactly nine o’clock, we come out here and watch the show.” “They grow wild around here.”
When the performance was over, we all applauded. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw an older man glide by on roller skates. The same kind I remembered as as kid.
“Maybe this place won’t be so bad” I mused out loud.
Before going back to our motel room for the night, we all four decided to take a walk around the perimeter of the village. We came to where a street ended and a field of wheat began. The twilight was deep blue. Fireflies danced above the heads of russet wheat. I had a feeling that once every painting had been hung in the right spot, all the books arranged in the right order and the curtains hung, mother would feel at peace here. Then I remembered the roller skater.