Directing the Traffic: I'll Ride with You

They met us as we pulled into the driveway.  They’d already made their way down the two front steps and by the time we opened the car doors they were standing there all smiles with open arms..both wearing ‘construction orange’ shirts. “I should have left my sunglasses on!” I remarked.  My eighty-one year old dad was wearing khakis and his shirt was collared. Maybe you could call it Tennessee Vol orange, but my seventy-nine year old mom was wearing a neon- orange tee shirt (probably from my nieces’ swimming career at Auburn University) along with white pants and white shoes.  They looked like the cones and signs you meet when roads are under construction.   

And of course they didn’t plan it.   They have been living together sixty-one years, since they were eighteen and twenty years old.  You don’t have to plan, or talk that much for that matter, when you have been wheel and cog for that long.  When my daughter and I  pointed out to them how BRIGHTLY dressed and MATCHING they were, they just sort of laughed politely like it wasn’t that noticeable or unusual, like they really didn’t understand why we commented on it.

My dad immediately wanted to carry our bags and we walked through the front door of my childhood home to be enveloped in the smells of what would be family dinner in a few hours with my sister’s family also. Love is spelled a couple of ways here: T-A B-L-E and F-O-O-D. 

My parents were born on farms during the Depression.  My paternal grandmother considered it a point of pride that they never went hungry and my grandfather always had “room for two more feet” under his table.  My mother’s parents ate from the land my grandfather’s family had passed down several generations. The chickens, cows, vegetables and fruits all shared the same dirt.  We usually  left their house with carloads of food for the freezer. 

My mother had started cooking early in the day: strawberry pretzel salad for one grandchild, macaroni and cheese for another, homemade rolls for a third…everybody’s favorite is on the stove or in the fridge to be served when we all gather.  She’s ready; her kitchen cleaned up as she worked, so she can now sit down beside us in the living room and listen to my daughter and to me.  Her feast is the details of our lives. 

My daughter and I  take our places on the sofa and they sit across from us in their chairs.  My mom can hardly wait to hear about her granddaughter’s last semester of college, her boyfriend, her summer internship…and my dad immediately launches in about AT&T’s new offering of internet for a better price than Verizon….but he doesn’t want to change phones.  I try to explain that if he isn’t bundling he probably doesn't want to switch his home service to AT&T and leave the phones with Verizon.   My mother doesn’t have to say a word. I can feel her thoughts.  She wants to hear about my daughter’s life, not talk about the cell phone bill.  I try to tell my dad I’ll look at it for him later and help him determine the best option.  The next thing I know, his current Verizon bill and two previous ones are in my lap.  I give in.  He’s eighty-one and wearing construction orange and still carries my bags inside for me.  

“Mother, you move over here on the sofa,” I say. We switch seats.  I put her in close proximity to my daughter so she can ask every question of the young and adventurous one and I move nearer to my dad and start to decipher his cell phone data plan.  I think about needing to just put my name on his account so I can handle this from my home and my computer which are ninety miles away.  

A text comes in from my son who is practicing his instrument flying that afternoon and has decided to join us for dinner.  He will be landing his small plane at the airport in 45 minutes. Can someone pick him up?  This is the needed distraction from the cell phone conversation. My dad loves to get in the car, especially if it involves seeing a grandchild do something that makes him proud.  The only grandson of the father of two daughters, my daughter and my nieces call him “The Prince”.  

Dad offers to ride with me and tells me every turn to take between the home I grew up in and the airport five miles away.  I don’t even notice it anymore.  He knows I know how to get there and how to drive, but it’s just what he does.  He narrates the drive.  He has always been an excellent driver and navigator himself. He was a traveling salesman when I was very young, and for years drove the church bus across the Southeast and Midwest on choir tours.  He can get anywhere with a good Rand McNally Road Atlas.  He’d argue with Google Map should he ever open the app - which he would not. 

His excellence in driving extends to announcing his estimated time of arrival. He used to call it in, but once he learned to text, when he’s on the way to see you, you can expect the ‘ETA text’ and then the car to pull in the driveway within the five minute window.  I don’t know how he gets traffic and weather to accommodate him, but he rarely misses.  

The pleasure on his face when my son’s landing coincided  with the exact ETA his text had said it would…well, my father can die happy. He has passed on this skill to his only grandson and even extended the charm to the friendly skies.  Does my son know when it comes to ETA he stands on the shoulders of a giant? 

We drive back home and my sister’s family minus one daughter has arrived to join us for dinner. They immediately run to the back bedroom to turn on the television because a local girl, from this town of 12,000, is Miss Alabama and is competing in the Miss USA pageant.  Added to the excitement, the Auburn University Women’s Softball Team is competing in the World Series of women’s collegiate softball.    Dinner is a busy intersection; a mixture of conversations across the table,  up and down to refill plates, in and out of the bedroom to go back and forth between channels bringing us both the pageant girl and the softball team. 

Shortly after dessert, my son must be returned to the airport, and this time my sister beats my dad to the line, “I’ll ride with you.”  Graciously, she doesn’t narrate the drive. We hug him good bye on the tarmac and watch him taxi out to the runway. The sky is a mixture of clouds and a setting sun.   She turns to me. 

“Does this make you nervous at all or are you just so used to it?” she asked, breaking the momentary silence in which I was praying, I release him to You to be himself. HIs life is always in your hands. Help me to be grateful… to let my children be free to be themselves… 

“I was praying as you asked me that,”  I answer her.  “Not nervous, but never taking it for granted that his life is not in my control.  Statistically speaking he is more likely to be in a car accident between the airport and his apartment than to be in a plane crash.  But I brought him into the world, I can’t watch him do this, ever, without breathing a prayer of grace and protection over his life.” 

On the way back to my parents’ house, we made a quick detour because according to her I HAD to see how profusely her hydrangea bush, a transplant from our grandmother’s yard, was blooming this year since a tree was cut down.  We didn’t even get out of the car, just drove by and slowed down in front of her house to see the blue blossoms. It was a mirror moment for me, the enthusiasm over the least little thing and a relentless insistence on sharing it, whether the recipient thought they wanted it or not.  I love my sister because she keeps my crazy from being alone. 

The pageant girl was still in the running when we returned, from top 10 to top 5 and the AU Women’s Softball Team were in a tight game. By now the table is cleared, dishes are done and the whole crowd is gathered in my parents’ bedroom watching both events as my niece deftly switches the channels at commercial breaks.  I watch my mom watching us.  Her cup is full and I get that.   Now that my own children only live with me on occasional holiday breaks, I know that satiated feeling of having us all at the table, all gathered under one roof, all cheering for the same hometown girl and our school team.  

The next morning, though my daughter and I have to head back in time for her to get to work at 10:00 am, I rise early to take a walk with my sister.  It’s a ritual. Those sidewalks I traveled as a child on my bike, the graveyard I wandered through,  the view of the lake from the bluff, the downtown streets with the same storefronts, the fountain and the monuments in the middle of the intersections, the loop that takes me past the library, the Presbyterian, Episcopal, and Baptist churches, this is ground I have to cover.  Every time I go home. 

Just before bed, my dad had asked what time we wanted breakfast. Both food and time are important.  While we walked and Mother went to water aerobics, he cooked oatmeal.  I’d figured we be back from our walk and showered by 7:50 a.m. We needed to be on the road by 8:15, I told him.  Just like a text message with an ETA, the oatmeal was placed before me piping hot, seasoned with butter and brown sugar at precisely 7:50 a.m.

We eat our bowls of love and drink our coffee, gathered one more time at that table. At 8:15 we are walking out the door with frozen homemade macaroni and cheese and cinnamon rolls, pound cake for my husband who didn’t make the trip, a plant he’d dug up from his garden to share with me,  and the passwords to his Verizon account