Driving the Taconic With My 97-Year-Old Mother

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You know you’re aging when you begin to hate driving at night. Perhaps it’s getting tired easier, or because you don’t trust your driving reflexes as much. Maybe you fear swerving to avoid deer, or the road is icy and dark, or known for very poor cell phone service.

I’ve experienced all these past few years as I drive my mother, now 97 ½ years old and known as “Gammy” to my daughters and my grandson, between her apartment in New York City and my home in the Hudson River Valley where I live full-time.

When I first moved to this area almost seven years ago, settling near Poughkeepsie, Gammy could take the train–catching the bus from her apartment to the train station, bringing with her a small overnight bag, climbing aboard the Amtrak, getting off the Amtrak, climbing up the stairs to the Poughkeepsie waiting room, and waiting for me to fetch her. Then, it became harder for her to take the bus or a cab, impossible to carry anything with weight, even harder to climb the stairs up to the train station or even negotiate the elevator, never mind the gap between the train car and the cement station, often bridged by a wobbly stepladder. Her reconstructed knee worked fine but the other that she didn’t replace began to give her trouble. The two hours between us became more arduous, both physically and emotionally.

We brainstormed and decided I’d drive her one way. Then, about a year ago, after even taking out one arduous train ride, the two of us sat down again. She explained–sadly, with no small amount of pride lost–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 and be alone. I quickly jumped in and said I’d drive her both ways.

“This is something I want to do for you,” I explained, for all the obvious reasons. I had also promised my late father I would be there for her emotionally. The five-hour-round-trip gradually became six hours, due to the heavier traffic along all the roads in between Rhinebeck and New York City. I preferred to do a turn-around–drive her, drop her, and head home without stopping. The trip was beginning to take a toll on me, especially in the dark, since the Taconic State Parkway Highway has few lights and many deer, and is considered by many one of the most dangerous highways in the state.

When I left my home with my mother recently, it was already 4:30 p.m. However, I had figured out a routine that has proven to work well and make the trip easier. I turn off the radio and listen to my mom share stories of her life. She has fewer people to listen, and even fewer who care. The other day she talked about how some people don’t send thank-you notes promptly–or, the horror!–even at all.! Then, she shared how when she and my dad were a young couple without much money to spare, she spent more on one couple and at a very fancy store because they were patients of my dad, a physician. She never heard from them if they liked the gift, let alone received it. I listened graciously and thought: “Thank you L, for sending yours within a week of receiving our collective family gift.” Gammy had been impressed. I realized that I write notes or emails so quickly after receiving a gift because my mother drilled the importance into me. I, in turn, trained my daughters to do the same. 

I reached for the one peanut butter sandwich I packed for my return trip, and of course offered my mother a half. “No, it’s your dinner,” she said in her usual selfless way.  I insisted; “I have two halves, please eat one.” And there we were eating our modest supper while my mother filled in more family history. By the time I arrived home at 10:15 p.m. that night, I was exhausted, but strangely wired, and stayed up another hour to read the newspaper.

I know this drive is becoming tougher for me as my years inch up, too. 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 on a bucolic highway that’s part of our New York state history and a metaphorical link between our lives and generations. And I know even more that I’ll be much sadder when I’m driving the Taconic alone.

About Barbara Ballinger

Barbara Ballinger is co-author with Margaret Crane of Suddenly Single after 50: The Girlfriends Guide to Navigating Loss, Restoring Hope, and Rebuilding your Life (Rowman & Littlefield) and the weekly blog, LifeLessonsat50plus.com. She now blogs regularly for Upstater.com.

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