Friday, June 13, 2014

The Long and Winding Road

I don’t remember why, but I was the only one visiting my parents at their cottage in Maine for the July 4th holiday weekend a couple of years ago. And, naturally, we were going to do what everyone always does on Frye Island on 4th of July weekend – go up to Long Beach and watch the fireworks show. We had been enjoying a streak of picture-perfect, Maine summer sunniness – so it was on.

The beach is about a mile down Leisure Lane, but we usually drive because my parents don’t really want to walk about a mile down Leisure Lane. Not when we have a golf cart. We acquired the golf cart several years earlier after we sold the Boston Whaler that came with the cottage. We tried to be boaters, we really did, but boating just wasn’t in us. So, off went the Whaler and in came the cart.

Now that was a vehicle that got some use. You could buzz down to the store for a paper, run up to the community center for a ceramics class or get rid of a couple of bags of garbage without so much as disturbing the dust on anyone’s car. My son Christopher spent two summers on the island as an Ice Cream Engineer (that means he scooped ice cream cones at the little store) and the golf cart was his preferred and constant mode of transportation. Even if he wasn’t exactly street legal. Once he got a real driver’s license though, the golf cart was as neglected as the Velveteen Rabbit. And as my parents got older, they preferred taking the car for quick trips; it had windows…and air-conditioning. But, every year when we opened the cottage, we hauled it out, cleaned it off and gassed it up. We had it registered it and ready for service only to be covered up in the fall and returned to its place in the shed with very little use in between.

So, it was a bit of a surprise that Saturday morning when my Dad drove it up to the front of the house and announced, “We’ll take it up to the fireworks.” He started futzing around with the lights, cleaning pine needles off the seat and testing the battery. My mother and I just looked at each other, thinking, I’m sure, 'who did he think was going to drive?' Over the years, due to complications of his diabetes, my dad’s eyesight had grown more and more compromised. One of the worst side effects – for him - had been that he had to give up driving. The man who had driven all of us from Maine to Florida, west to the Mississippi and up and down the Eastern Seaboard was now relegated to the passenger seat. But, there he was, getting the cart ready for Saturday night like a teenager anticipating his first date.

After the detailing, my dad came into the kitchen and announced to no one in particular, “I’m just going to take it down the road and back – see how it’s working” and he grabbed his sun visor off the rack and was off. I wondered how many hazards there could possibly be in the rutted, rock-strewn dirt road up to the corner and back, so after he left, I went to sit on the front porch. The better to hear any loud crashes or shrieks of terror that way.

About six hours later he returned. Or maybe it was six minutes. Either way, I let out my breath, not realizing I’d been holding it. “All set!”, he said, and he walked back into the back bedroom he used as his office, as if taking the cart for a spin was something he did every afternoon. He seemed so confident, more than he had been in a long time, for having gotten the cart ready, that I decided, if my dad wanted to take it up to the fireworks, then we would take it to the fireworks – and I assumed that I would be driving.

It wasn’t until I heard him shout from outside, “Everyone ready to go?” a couple of hours later that I realized that that wouldn’t be the case. There sat my dad, in the driveway, in the driver’s seat, waiting for us. Just like all those Sunday mornings when we were growing up and he would go out and start the car while my mom made sure we were all brushed and dressed for Sunday School before shepherding us out behind him. At the last minute, my mom stayed back. “Something at dinner didn’t agree with me”, she said with her hand on her belly. To this day, I don’t believe it was nerves at my dad’s being behind the wheel – I think she just didn’t want to sit on my lap all the way to Long Beach. In any case, she begged off, promising to come later if she felt better.

“Okay, I guess it’s just us”, I said, and I took my place on the passenger side. My dad turned the key, kicked off the brake and hit the gas. We were off. Down the driveway – great. Up to the corner – well he had already practiced that one, hadn’t he? Right onto Leisure Lane and the open road. Should I keep my eyes open or squeeze them shut? Leisure Lane is a narrow dirt mile of sharp turns, gallon-sized pot holes and gravel bordered by boulders of varying sizes, large and small recreational vehicles and occasionally, small children. I am suddenly reminded of Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. At first I tried to be a helpful navigator.

“Family of six up on the right”, I say.

“See it”, my Dad replied and easily veered left.

“Enormous truck bearing down on the left”, I warn—and I don’t think I scream at all.

“Got it”, he says and he scoots by it with room to spare.

And then, as we took each turn and steered past cars parked along side the road, I realized we were doing just fine. Compromised eyesight or not, the one thing my Dad has always been is responsible. He wouldn’t do anything he didn’t think he could do, especially if it meant that it might put me – or any one of us – in harm’s way. That’s why he took his test drive earlier. We wouldn’t be here if he didn’t think he could do it. And here we were…we did do it. Or rather,  he did it. We parked as close to the beach as we could possibly get. It didn’t occur to me to feel relieved, but I’ll be he was.

We unpacked our folding chairs, made the short walk to the beach and planted them into the sand right by the water. My mom showed up--by car--about 20 minutes later, gastrointestinal issues settled. But she had to park about a half mile away. On the return trip, I drove and Dad navigated. In the dark, with all the dust kicked up by departing fireworks-watchers, seeing was difficult enough for 50-something-year-old eyes, much less for nearly-80-year-old eyes dimmed by diabetes. But he was an able co-pilot and we not only made it home without incident, but we beat my Mom by three minutes.

I went down by the water as my parents fixed coffee and dessert in preparation for our next fun thing to do--watching a video together. I looked up into a sky plastered with stars--which made the fireworks display I had just attended pale in comparison. I stuck my feet in the water and about 10 feet in front of me, hovering in the low branches of a pine tree, a firefly twinkled. Sometimes, the little things are really the most impressive.

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