It’s a cloudy July morning in Maine, and my sister and I rush to put on our shoes as our grandmother careens into the dooryard. She is driving the latest in a series of large cars that we call tanks, referring as much to the size of the vehicles as their seemingly indestructible qualities (although she has in fact destroyed a good number of them over the years). This one is bright orange, and while it has its aesthetic defects my father says of it, “At least with this one you can see her coming”. Nanny has a checkered driving history, and in fact has two speeds: fast and stopped. She never got the concept of using the brake to regulate speed, choosing instead to use it only as a mechanism to stop the car. As this was before seatbelts were routinely used, most family members had experienced the surprise of suddenly finding themselves on the floor of the car, having been dumped there by the laws of physics that govern going from 60 miles per hour to 0 within the span of one second. My mother once experienced this when she was eight months pregnant with me, and was surprised I didn’t bounce out of her right there and then.
But today my sister and I are embarking on our annual summer outing to the ocean with Nanny. This is against my parents’ better judgment, and they hug us goodbye with a fear in their eyes that says they fully expect to never see us alive again. They also worry about where Nan is actually going to take us, because crossing the U.S. border intoCanada has been mentioned more than once.
My sister and I love these trips. They can entail a number of things depending on Nanny’s whim and sense of direction. Sometimes we would drive up the coast to Bailey’sIsland to sit on the rocks and watch the ocean, stopping at the gift shop full of porcelain Hummel figurines and salt water taffy. Other years we would go to Portland Headlight for a picnic. One year we went to the state prison store in Thomaston, where they sold handcrafted items made by inmates. Once we bought our mother a very nice jewelry box there — which she liked until she found out where it came from. But regardless of the destination, we were assured of several things: first, there would be junk food; two, there would be regular stops to buy lottery tickets; three, something completely unpredictable would happen; and four, we would have at least one minor accident.
My sister and I pile into the back seat, because our father has forbidden us to ride in the front seat when Nanny is driving. She is a petite but fleshy redhead, her short hair permed on a religiously adhered to schedule, and her hair and eyeglasses are all you can see from the front of the car. She’s wearing a pair of bright purple slacks with a floral top, and her large white pocketbook leans up against her. We know without looking that it contains chewing gum and handkerchiefs, as well as a collection of vitamins that she regularly takes and an envelope full of lottery tickets. The car smells strongly of her perfume.
We stop at the grocery store where, in addition to her scratch tickets, Nanny buys us soda and candy, and we happily pile back into the car. She pauses to dig for a dime to scratch her tickets, letting us each have a turn, and then we prepare for take off as her foot hits the accelerator. We can’t imagine NASA astronauts have it any better.
We drive for a couple of hours heading east on Route 1. Nanny puts the radio on WPOR, a country and western station, and sings along with one hand on the steering wheel and the other tapping her thigh in time to the music. After lunch at a McDonald’s and a stop to redeem the morning’s lottery tickets, we pile back into the car and take off again. We soon find ourselves thrown into the side of the car as Nanny makes a sharp right turn. As it is overcast and not ideal ocean weather, she has on a whim decided that a field trip is in order, and we find ourselves heading down the road to the Maine Yankee nuclear power plant in Wiscasset. This is the 1980s, during the height of the Cold War, and I am slightly terrified at anything associated with the term “nuclear”. As it turns out, there is a visitor center as well as a tour, and we spend our afternoon being scared senseless over the prospect of a core meltdown.
Hours later, we get back in the car and stop for gas (and more lottery tickets). The gas attendant tells my grandmother she has a flat tire. She has no spare, and he doesn’t have a patch kit, so we have to find someplace else. Backing out of the garage, Nanny sideswipes a sign post but ignores it, shifts into drive and floors it into traffic, leaving us kids in the back seat with a bad case of temporary vertigo as we are propelled backwards, sideways and forward within the span of several seconds. A few stops later, the tire is patched and, replenished with lottery tickets and cookies, we begin heading west towards home.
It is now about 5 pm, but we’re at least two hours away from my parents’ house. Cell phones haven’t been invented yet, and as this is rural Maine there aren’t any pay phones either; not that it would occur to my grandmother to call my parents anyway. I fall asleep in the back seat, lulled by the sound of the windshield wipers swishing through the rain that is following us home. Back at our house, our parents have started the long process of wondering where we are, whether we’ve drowned, whether she’d crossed state or country borders, whether she’d been stopped for criminal speeding and thrown in jail, or whether she’d lost one of us. While my parents are in fact first-class worriers, the problem is that people don’t call my grandmother “Crazy Dolly” for nothing. She is the kindest, most big-hearted person who would do anything for anyone, especially her grandchildren, but the fact remains that the woman is extraordinarily accident prone. To us kids, she’s exciting and fun and different; to our parents, she is a frayed rope holding the lives of their children off the side of a cliff.
A little after 7 we hurtle into our driveway, and Nanny stops long enough for us to jump out before slamming the car into reverse and flying out of there. My parents are both standing in the bay window, brows furrowed and faces grimacing at our imagined fate. Slightly sick from the junk food, my sister and I make our way into the house and my parents begin the interrogation. We have learned by now to leave certain things out, such as the sideswiped sign post, because we know that too much information means that we will be forbidden to go with Nanny again. And what kid would pass up a day like this?
© Lori Allen 2009