Thursday, October 14, 2010

More Travels with Dad

July 2010

There are five of us in the van this time; we span the four generations of our family. In the driver's seat is my dad, who has lost the use of one arm and can't turn his head, which makes backing up and changing lanes an exercise of faith in our fellow men. I'm in the passenger seat so I can study the maps and shout directions at him, although of the five of us, including the baby, I have by far the poorest sense of direction. Every family has their own system. All of us but Dad are well aware that our system is lousy.

Every trip starts with the rest of us planning and plotting how to get the keys and beat Dad to the driver's seat. But he's just too doggone wily. For example, the morning of one of these trips, we couldn't find him anywhere, but he finally turned up in the driver's seat of the van. We think he may have stayed the night there. That was the time he backed and backed and kept backing until he missed the driveway completely, and went all the way down the hill through the shrubbery accompanied by horrible scratching and scraping sounds down the sides and roof of the van. His jaw was set, his teeth were clenched, and the rest of us stared straight ahead, wide-eyed and pale, pretending we didn't notice anything, and when we finally got to the bottom he'd have put us in the ditch if the van hadn't got stuck in the mud just short of it. My son Dave had to get out and direct his grandfather, which was salt in Dad's wounded pride.

Dave is married now and a father himself, and in the meantime his grandfather has lost more agility and gained more stubbornness. Dave and his little family are in the back seat. They are getting too warm back there, but we can't turn up the air any higher because there's no way to prevent the air from blowing on Dad's arthritic knee. The air always blows on his knee, so he knows in advance that it's going to blow on his knee, but like always, he's wearing shorts because he's on vacation, and people on vacation wear shorts. He and I discuss this with raised voices. We've been discussing this with raised voices for years now. It's another part of our system. This time I spot his ball cap between the seats and slap it over his knee. I tell him that if I had to wear a knee-cap, I think I'd forgo the shorts as would any reasonable person which he is not.

He also stubbornly refuses to understand how much is involved in getting a baby out of a carseat, removing the carseat to make room to change a diaper, changing and cleaning the baby, and then getting the carseat and the baby buckled back in again. I've tried and tried explaining this to him, but since he can't turn his head to watch all the flurry of activity behind us, he apparently imagines that they're leisurely buffing their nails or something back there. At any rate, almost as soon as we pull over he's calling out to the back seat, "Y'all ready?"

"We're workin' on it," Dave says in a cheery, upbeat voice. Dave was in several plays at school and considered acting as a career.

"Everybody in?"

"Not yet, Granddad."

"You ready now?"

"Still workin' on it." Dave's cheeriness is sounding strained.

"Now?"

So I challenge Dad to a game of Rock, Paper, Scissors to distract him, and he beats me every single time, so I get mad and accuse him of cheating. But we all know that he is not and never has been a cheater. No, he wins because he's outthinking me, which shows that we can't blame his defects of personality on the senility. I blame mine on him, of course, though whether they are due to heredity or long car trips with him, we have no way of knowing.

Our next argument occurs because I realize Dad is about to take the Conway exit. I told him twenty miles back to take the highway toward Conway, and now we're shouting about the difference between the words "to" and "toward" and which word I really said, while the van wavers back and forth across the white line.

Later on we get stuck in traffic, and Dad does his slam-on-the-accelerator-slam-on-the-brake routine until Dave's wife Liz feels sick, and finally he gives up the wheel. This doubly relieves us because it means that not only can a reasonable and safe person take the wheel, we can also, finally, turn off Frankie Lymon and The Teenagers. Part of our system is that the driver gets to choose what we listen to, and although Dad lugs around a box full of cassette tapes, he always chooses the same one. There's something about a seventy-seven-year-old man still listening to a group called "The Teenagers" that annoys me. But since by this time the tape is on its third time around, pretty much everything has started annoying me.

I take Dad's place in the driver's seat and put in my latest P.G. Wodehouse novel on tape. As always, Dad complains bitterly and starts mocking it, but when he wakes up from a doze and realizes that a character has gotten shot, he demands to know if it was Lady Wetherby who did it.

By this time Liz's equilibrium has returned, and she's eager to take her turn at the wheel. She changes the radio to classical music, which four out of five of us think is an excellent choice, but Dad asks incredulously, "Are you listening to that?" When Dave takes his turn at the wheel, we don't know what he's listening to because he has thoughtfully chosen to listen to it through the earphones he's wearing around the base of his neck, and Dad fills the silence by reading the billboards aloud with great inflection.

Some day it'll be Dave and Liz in the front seat, the current baby will be the oldest of their children, and when the children get too rowdy in the back, Liz will turn to Dave and say, "You know, this still isn't as bad as traveling with your mom and Granddad."

Brightening their outlook like that can be part of our family legacy.

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