Whenever I had lunch with friends, I used to tell the following story in order to keep the conversation going:
The story is about my secretary, Patti, her mom, Eleanor, and her car accident. Patti’s mom was over ninety years old but she looked as if she was only seventy, with a slim and attractive figure. People passing by stopped walking to take a second look at her and many of them exclaimed, “wow”.
Her hair was colored to a very light brown and in the summer she wore one-piece dresses with flower patterns reaching almost to her ankles and tightened her waist with a wide black leather belt. In the winter, she usually wore black pants with different colored sweaters over a white blouse. Her clothes were not designer, but she was always fashionable.
Her smile was especially unique without making any sounds but spread on her face. She walked on her tiptoes, almost falling down to the ground, but in a sense it looked like she was dancing all the time. Her daily activities had slowed down over five years ago but she never missed 9:30 a.m. mass.
Patti’s mom reminded me of Rose Kennedy, who was a devout Catholic. She had a healthy life and never missed daily swimming in the pool and mass, despite several heartbreaking tragedies.
Her daily activities started after a light breakfast of coffee, orange juice, oatmeal and one piece of toast. Following mass and errands she carefully reviewed her afternoon schedule for grandchildren’s birthdays or their graduation parties. She did not miss even one of the great grandchildren’s events, even though she could not remember all their names. Religiously she returned phone calls from friends out of state and her youngest sister, Peggy, and her youngest brother, Bob. Peggy had a home in Michigan and Florida. Her husband had knee replacement surgery a couple of years ago and was still not completely recovered. She learned that Bob, her youngest brother, and his wife, Emily, planned to take a cruise on the Mediterranean for his 80th birthday.
If Patti’s mother was still alive she would not have been able to sleep after learning that her oldest son, Bill, has just been diagnosed with Leukemia. She would be visiting him every day instead of attending any birthday or graduation parties.
Her activities were not limited to family and relatives. She was very active in her senior circle, played with the bell ringers in the church choir, met monthly with the Pax Christi group from church, played the organ, sometimes went on calls weekly with a partner for St. Vincent de Paul. Until the last two years of her life she was a communion minister at church, taking communion to shut-ins at a local nursing home every week.
The most enjoyable thing for her was to play cards with her surviving brothers and sisters. After playing cards they all shared a potluck dinner with a glass of wine. Another rewarding experience for her was when she served as clerical help during her eldest daughter Jeanne’s campaign for mayor of Troy. She did not wipe away her tears over the late night news of her daughter’s election as mayor. Just let them run down her cheeks.
In the late afternoon her daughters stopped by her condo, checking her medicine, food and necessities. All of her seven living daughters took turns with this. What a fortunate woman she was! Patti made Impossible Pie, Chicken a la King, Shrimp Scampi, Beef Stew, Lasagna, and one of her mother’s favorites, Chicken stir-fry.
Before going to bed she would watch the 6:00 p.m. NBC news and work the crossword puzzle from that day’s newspaper. Sometimes she would write short notes about church and local news to out of state friends and her sons and daughters.
She loved to go to visit her daughter, Rita, in Indianapolis, Indiana. She enjoyed the changes of scenery on Highway 94 West and 69 South, passing by Coldwater, Fort Wayne and the G.M. Truck Plant. In the spring the corn was knee high and in the autumn it grew tall with brown color along with soybeans and Maple trees changing colors. Another thing that she enjoyed very much was having lunch with her daughter Jeanne at one of the local Chuck Muer restaurants.
As soon as they entered the restaurant’s heavy swinging doors with a carved crab on each door, Tom, their waiter, greeted them in his usual friendly fashion, “Hello, Grandma and Mayor Jeanne, and how are you ladies this afternoon?” They were almost regular customers on Sundays.
“Fine and you?” Jeanne answered politely.
“Fine, fine, fine”, Tom said in a rush in order to wait on his other tables. Tom anticipated their regular orders, “Two cups of tea with sugar, no milk and no lemon”. Then he left before getting a “yes” or “no” response from either of them. He was back rather quickly with their drinks and took out his order pad ready to take their orders.
“Just a minute, let me look at the menu today. Instead of ordering the same thing, grilled tuna steaks, I will look at the menu.” Grandma was in a demanding mood and expressed the following without saying a word, “Tom, do not rush us.”
Now Tom sensed that today Grandma and Jeanne had lots of time to enjoy their Sunday afternoon lunch and so he quickly said, “Take your time. I will be back.” He pretended he was not rushed, then he disappeared.
“Jeanne, what are you going to have?”
“Mom, I am thinking grilled white fish and soup instead of a chef salad.”
“And I will have grilled swordfish with Caesar salad,” her mother responded.
“Sounds good, Mom.” Jeanne just easily approved her mother’s choice. They enjoyed Chuck Muer’s bread, fish patties, crispy Jewish crackers, their main dishes, tea and spending a pleasant afternoon together.
Patti’s mother drove her 1986 Olds Cutlas Ciera just to church for morning mass and running small errands within a five-mile radius.
One weekend when Patti came into the office her face was almost as red as a fire engine and she was almost out of breath. I thought she was sick or something terrible had happened. For a minute I just stared at her.
Finally her first words came out, “My mom had a car accident” with stress and almost shivering with concern.
“So, what happened?” I almost screamed my question, but in a split second I knew that if Patti came in to work, rolling her eyes, then it wasn’t that serious.
“She is fine, but all shook up,” Patti continued.
“Of course, understandable,” I responded. “Is she in the hospital?”
“No, she did not get hurt at all.” Patti’s excitement did not decrease as she continued. “My mom hit a city tractor pulling into the grocery store parking lot. I guess that she did not see them as they were pulling out.”
“A city tractor?” I repeated. “What happened to your mom?” I was trying to calm myself. “Your mom was responsible?” I tried to lower my voice but almost burst out laughing and repeated, “a city tractor?” Then, one more time I repeated, “a city tractor?”
“Her car has a little damage in the back but everything is ok.” Patti was quiet for a minute.
“Then what’s the problem?” I filled the gap.
“My mother’s main concern is losing her driver’s license. That’s why she is all shook up.”
Ah, Ah, now I understood. I spoke again to myself.
“Patti, did the police come and give her a ticket?”
“No.” Patti’s answer was short.
“Was there a lot of damage to the city tractor?” I asked.
“No, and my mother’s car only has a scratch and a small dent on the back bumper,” she explained.
“Then there is no problem.” I tried to comfort and calm her.
“But she thinks that she might lose her license. She called my sister, Jeanne the mayor, and asked for her advice and help. Jeanne helped to have the car repaired because a good friend owned a collision shop.” Patti finished by saying that soon “everything would return to normal”.
Since her mother had eleven children and many grandchildren and great grandchildren, Patti has many nieces and nephews. It seems that almost every day Patti has more news about her family, going into the army, getting married, having babies, divorcing, starting a new business or getting a new job. The list is endless. It puts me in mind of one of our Korean proverbs, “The wind never died away at the tree that has many branches”. This is a perfect description for many relatives.
Patti’s mom was driving to church and attending mass every morning again. A couple of months later Patti was excited again and came into my office barely able to control herself. She was lucky that she did not fall in front of my desk. I waited until she started to talk.
“Patti, let’s have a cup of coffee,” I offered. “I’ll just get it.”
Patti started to talk. “Kook-Wha, my mother got her license renewed.” With an extremely unhappy expression she continued, “They shouldn’t give it to her.”
“Patti, she looks so young for her age. Everybody thinks she is only around 70 years old.” While I commented I pictured her face and figure from a few months earlier when she was in our office. At that time I praised her mother’s smile and beautiful summer dress that had a floral pattern.
“But they are wrong to renew her license again for a 90 year old lady. She got her license in 1946 just before her 40th birthday. My mother and my sister, Rita, both got their licenses that summer.” Patti was so agitated in her opinion that I could not interrupt her and she continued. “Our family might have a meeting and take her car keys away from her. Maybe the Secretary of State’s office missed looking at her date of birth and only looked at her personally and, luckily, her eyesight was good enough for driving. She was perfectly qualified to drive (renew her license) in the State of Michigan. She goes to mass every morning. That’s a problem. Somebody else will have to take her everywhere she goes.”
“Of course”, I interrupted her thinking that when my mother asked for a ride, her expression was almost ashamed because she thought that she should not have to ask for help.
“My mother does not know that we are having a family meeting about her car keys. If she knew she would think that her life will be ending soon.” Patti finished her talk about her family taking the keys away.
A couple of months later Patti told me her mother was grumpy and did not talk with her for a few days. Her mother stayed in bed doing crossword puzzles because the family took her car keys away from her.
Patti assured me that the family did the right thing for her mother and for other people. “The family does not want to see other people get hurt because of my mom.”
Sure, that is true, “but, but” my “but” could not make a conclusion. In my mind I saw Patti’s mother’s beautiful face covered by gray clouds and tears running down her cheeks.
Patti’s mother passed away at the age of 97, two years after she surrendered the privilege of holding her car keys, with many, varied, colorful and bittersweet memories left to her children.
* Much of this story is true, but not all of it.