by Julia Sneden
In 1907 or early ’08, my grandfather purchased a shiny new Reo, the third car sold in San Jose, California. It bore a greater resemblance to the buggy it replaced than to anything we might call an automobile, but it quickly displaced the horse, and the empty barn became a garage.
My mother, born in ’07, was a colicky baby, and my grandparents quickly discovered what has become common knowledge to ensuing generations: if the baby is screaming, a ride in the car brings almost instant peace. Little Mary Electa was swiftly lulled to sleep even on those chug-chug-chug, bumpy rides.
The neighbors, however, were scandalized. “You’re not taking that baby in that ... that ... machine!" they cried. Her parents could, and did, and I’m sure they smiled the while.
Perhaps it was those early drives that inculcated in her a passionate love of the automobile. Or perhaps it was her rascally Uncle Charlie, who let her drive his shiny new Buick when she was just 13. Whatever the cause, Mother grew to be an excellent driver.
My childhood was filled with spontaneous trips. All it took, in those days of 23¢ per gallon gasoline, was the merest whim and we were off. We piled into the car and headed for the beach, the City (San Francisco), the grocery store, the little green puddle we called a lake, the San Joaquin delta, the homes of friends and relatives all up and down the length of California, whenever and wherever our fancy took us.
There were no Driver Ed classes in my day, but Mother was every bit as good a teacher as she was a driver. She shepherded both my brother and me through the vagaries of a stick shift vehicle, teaching us to drive in the unpaved parking lot around the football stadium at Stanford University. There were long rows of gigantic eucalyptus trees between which people parked for football games, but of course there were no cars there when I had my first lesson. The only time I saw Mother blench was when I skidded the rear end of the car the first time I made a right turn around a tree.
“Uh,” she said quietly, “it’s probably not a good idea to accelerate in the middle of a turn.” Lesson learned.
When Mother was 91 years old, she was still driving, albeit only in the daytime. I was dreading the moment she would have to give it up, but a quadruple bypass followed by a stroke that destroyed a quarter of her right visual field (both eyes) took the difficult decision out of our hands. In one short day, she had to put away her car keys forever.
Oddly enough, she said: “I don’t mind it nearly as much as I thought I would.” Far harder on her was the loss of her ability to read. She had always had three or four books on her bedside table. We tried to talk her into recorded books, but she didn’t like them. “It’s not at all the same experience,” she said.
Life is pretty hard when you’re very old and your vision is poor and your hearing is poorer, and you no longer have the manual dexterity to knit. The one thing that brightened her spirits was our daily drive.
"I’m a child of the automotive age,” she said. “As long as the wheels are going around, I feel wonderful.” So I drove her somewhere different each day, around town, into the countryside, up a mountain, to the mall, along the highway, on the twisty back roads. Her wheelchair fit nicely into my trunk, and while I tried to get her out into the fresh air as much as I could, just sitting in the moving car was really what made her happy. Like the old Reo, the vibration of the motor and the hum of the wheels did their magic.
I think it will pay to post this little essay on my refrigerator, the next time my kids come to visit, just so they know in advance what they can do for me when I have to turn in my keys. I already know that won’t be a happy day.