“Gram, we're going too slow,” Sam said, looking over at his grandmother, Lillian, who was at the wheel of the old Pontiac.
“Hush and let me concentrate,” Lillian said, without taking her intense gaze from the two lane country blacktop.
“But it's dangerous to go too slow. Not so much here, but when you are in traffic with other people.”
“Shush, I said.”
Sam shook his head, frowning. In his mid-teens and still growing, he was stocky and already a foot taller than Lillian. Sam ran his fingers through his black, wavy hair. It felt annoyingly dry. He had run out of Wildroot Cream Oil days ago.
“I'll make a note of it as something for us to work on before your driving test,” Sam said, pulling a flip pad and a mechanical pencil out of his shirt pocket.
After a few miles of traveling along the empty country road, Lillian began to relax a little. She was a slight old woman, with short grey hair and horn-rimmed bifocals. She glanced briefly at Sam before returning her eyes to the road. “You are just like you father with that flip pad and fancy pencil.”
Sam nodded. “I guess so.”
“You're worried I won't pass the driving test, aren't you?” Lillian asked. “You think he would blame you.”
“He would blame me,” Sam said flatly. Lillian was right that he was feeling a lot of pressure to succeed. His father had sent him to stay with Gram and teach her, now that Sam was on summer break from high school. Sam thought his father should have been the one After all, Sam had only just gotten his own license to drive. And besides, Father was her son, not him. But Sam knew that if he failed, Father would be forced to come, and that would be a huge disappointment to him.
“Don't worry, Sammy. I have to pass that test. I've been depending on my friends to drive me to church and the grocery and the doctor and the hairdresser ever since your Grandpa passed away last winter. I'm determined to learn to drive myself places.”
Sam recalled his arrival from the city, when a friend of Gram's had driven her to pick him up at the Greyhound station. When they pulled up to her tidy frame house in the country, he had been surprised by the size of the old Pontiac parked in the drive. Beige and long, it had a visor over the windshield like a baseball cap and a hood ornament of an Indian chief's head. He didn't remember the car being that big. Right then he began to worry about whether Gram could learn to drive it. The Pontiac was a car built for a tall man, like Lillian's husband Elmer had been. Gram looked to him like a toddler standing beside that car.
“Why don't you trade it in for a Henry J or a Crosley, Gram?” Sam had suggested. “Get something more your size. It would be so much easier for you to drive.”
“Your grandfather bought this car and it's the car I have,” Lillian had said. The next day they had moved the seat all the way forward, and even then she could but barely reach the pedals with her petite brogan shoes. Her skinny arms seemed hopelessly inadequate for the big steering wheel.
But here she was, driving it, if too slowly. As the car approached an intersection, Sam said, “You're doing fine, Gram. Let's try a right turn up ahead.”
Approaching a crossroad, Lillian put on the right signal and swung the Pontiac slowly into the turn.
“Swell,” Sam said. “A little wide, but swell. What's the hand signal for a right turn?”
“It's elbow out the window and hand straight up,” Lillian answered.
“Correct. You learned most of the drivers handbook already.” But Sam did not say that, as he had feared, actually driving the big car was proving to be a formidable challenge for her.
Lillian smiled at the encouragement, without taking her eyes from the road.
“Maybe you will get a letter from your girlfriend today,” Lillian said, taking a quick look at Sam.
“I hope so,” Sam said. “We can stop at the mailbox when we get back.”
“So you can avoid walking all the way from the house to the mailbox?” Lillian asked.
“There are too many bugs here. And poison ivy. Stopping is good practice for you anyway,” Sam said.
“I worry about you, Sam. A boy your age should be outside until dark. But you almost never go out of the house except when we drive.”
“It is not like the city where there are fun things to do outside and friends to see. I'd rather stay inside and read,” Sam said. He loved his grandmother, but everything else he cared about was home in the city. She didn't even have a television yet; just a big old radio with a wooden cabinet and glowing tubes inside. He only wanted her to get her license so he could go back home.
“You could walk down to the river. Try fishing. Your Grandpa's tackle is still in the utility room.”
Sam recalled the antique looking fishing rods, and felt vaguely nauseated by the thought of using them. He thought, too, of the twisted old fashioned neckties hanging in the closet of the room where he slept, which also gave him that sick feeling. Sam had some good memories of his grandfather Elmer, whose death was Sam's first such loss. Sam didn't know how to talk about his feelings, especially with Gram, and here there were reminders everywhere. Grandpa's absence was with them even there, riding like a passenger in that Pontiac, with the car's headliner and upholstery still smelling of his cigar smoke. It was another reason Sam wanted only to return home, where no one was dead. And until that happy day arrived, he would escape into his reading whenever he could.
Sam looked at her. “Fishing? Nah, I still have some books. “
Lillian frowned. “I know you are tired of hearing me practice on the piano.”
“Well, it's not rock and roll, Gram. It' old timey music.”
“I just love those old church hymns. I don't understand why you don't appreciate them, unless my playing is that bad.”
Sam knew that what bothered her more than his lack of enthusiasm for her piano hymns was his refusal to go to church with her. “Father doesn't make me go to church anymore,” Sam had told her. “I'll drive you there and pick you up after the service. “ That had really annoyed her.
But all he answered was, “No, you play pretty well.”
Ahead, a curve to the right. She slowed down for it.
“When we are in traffic, people are going to honk at you for going so slow,” Sam said.
She ignored him and held tight to the wheel, rounding the curve.
A couple of miles past the curvewas another crossroads. “Try a left turn up ahead,” Sam told her. The car slowly glided into the turn, across both lanes. Suddenly Sam saw that a red pickup truck, which at first had seemed a long way off, was approaching quickly in the oncoming lane.
“Gram!!” he yelled. But she was still concentrating on guiding the car through the slow motion turn, and thought he meant she had forgotten to signal. She put on the left turn signal without averting her eyes from the turn.
“No!” he yelled, grabbing the wheel and pulling it down hard, turning the Pontiac sharply to the right just as the truck sped by, horn blaring. The Pontiac wallowed and lurched halfway into the ditch before Gram realized what was happening. Finally she braked it to a stop .
“Turn it off!” Sam yelled, pushing his door open and jumping out. “Get out ofthe car and let me drive! You almost killed us!” Sam yelled. He ran around the front of the car toward the driver's side. Lillian's bony hands were shaking and her eyes were blinking. As she watched Sam, reached up and pushed down the door lock. Sam yanked on the door, his face flushed. “Let me DRIVE!”
Lillian took a deep breath and put her hands on the wheel. “Calm down and get back in the car, please, Sam.” She looked around, gathering her composure. The road was empty again. There were cows in the lush green pasture, collecting in the shade of some trees. She looked at Sam. His face was red. He was still standing with his hand on the door handle. “It's a long walk back to my house,” Lillian said.
He walked back around to the passenger side. The door was still hanging open. He slid into the passenger seat, folding his legs into the cramped space allowed by the seat adjusted fully forward.
“Now you look here, Sam. I appreciate you coming to stay with me and everything you've tried to teach me. And I am sorry for what just happened. But I am learning, and if you don't have the patience to help me instead of yelling at me, you might as well go back to the city.”
Sam averted his eyes, shame faced. He remembered how impatient his Father had been when teaching him to drive, and how angry and humiliated he had felt. He did not want to be that kind of teacher with Gram, yet now he was. “I'm sorry Gram. I promise not to yell any more. But that was a close call.”
“It was,” Lillian agreed, “I'm sorry. I thought you were yelling about the signal. ” She looked at him. “Now I understand what you mean about going too slow.”
They sat for a moment, letting the incident fade a little before they continued.
Lillian looked over at Sam. “Let's go home now. I'll make us some iced tea and sandwiches. Then I need to bake some pies for the church picnic tomorrow.”
Sam looked at her. “Yes, swell. Let's go back.” He hesitated. “I…I'll help you with the pies,” he offered.
Her eyebrows shot up. “You'll help me? What do you know about making pies?”
Sam considered for a moment. “I can sift flour,” he said “And I can grease the pie pans and wash the bowls and spoons…”
Lillian smiled. “So you have been in a kitchen before.”
It was true that he had done hardly anything to help her in the kitchen or with the housework, he realized.
“Will you come to the church picnic with me tomorrow and help serve the pies?”
Sam shook his head, but he had to smile at the way the old woman was trying to corner him. “I…didn't bring any clothes for church.”
“It's a picnic! You don't have to wear a suit. Just wear one of Elmer's ties with that blue shirt you brought. They are hanging in your closet.”
Sam shuddered slightly and shook his head again. “Gram…”
“What, Sam? It bothers you to wear his necktie?”
“I…yes, everything about Grandpa bothers me now.”
“It bothers me too. I can't let go of all his things. Every one of them holds memories for me. But I guess I have learned to accept his passing more than you have.” She reached over to hold Sam's young hand in her old one. “He was so proud of his grandson Sam, you know. Now we just have to carry on somehow.”
Tears flowed down Sam's cheeks. “I miss him, Gram. But you must miss him so much more.” He squeezed her hand. “Yes, OK. I will wear one of Grandpa's ties to the picnic.”
“Thank you, Sammy. I would like that.” Gram smiled as she started the engine and Sam wiped his cheeks with his shirt sleeve. “Maybe you should make a note on your pad that we need to practice left turns.”
Sam reached for the pad. “Checking first for oncoming traffic,” he added.
“Yes,” Lillian agreed, “Checking first. And going a little faster.”
words: Steve Wing, Florida (about & more)
image: 'equilibrium' - Dorothee Lang, Germany (virtual notes)
another grandmother: Twelve Stories (#22)