Round Lessons From My Mother
Work mornings are not my favorite time of day. I rarely get in bed the night before at an hour early enough for a decent night’s sleep. After slapping the snooze button once, twice or maybe three times, I drag myself out of bed, shower, shave and dress – hopefully in enough time to beat the worst of the morning commute backup. A mere five minutes later departure from home can add an extra 15 minutes to the commute. And a lot of stress to a tired body.
On just such a recent morning, I left home heading for the freeway. Not far outside the neighborhood, just before the freeway entrance, there’s a traffic circle intersection, the kind where everyone takes a turn entering a round-about instead of having a stop sign or signal. Cars already in the circle have the right-of-way.
I was distracted by something as I approached the circle, the car’s radio tuned to the local NPR station as my typical morning sustenance. I had to wait for a green mini-van that was in the circle, apparently going three quarters around to achieve a left turn. Other vehicles had joined in behind the mini-van. But, whereas the other vehicles left the circle in short order, the mini-van continued around the circle to complete it.
This isn’t as unusual as it may sound. People in traffic circles often realize they’ve forgotten something at home and go back to get it. Others come off the freeway and want to turn left, but go out of their way through the traffic circle and back past their exit.
On this day, the flow of traffic into the circle was at a peak, causing brief delays for many commuters. When it became apparent the mini-van man was going to make another, second circumnavigation of the circle, a spark of irritation lit as I thought how inconsiderate he was being to everyone waiting for him. And, this fellow was traveling at a speed faster than many might think safe.
In the age of multi-tasking, when drivers are able to carry on conversations with distant relatives or colleagues around the world, able to send text messages or even to surf the internet from a hand held device, there are plenty of distractions available. No longer are you limited to an AM/FM radio to try and tune. You have CD players, satellite radios and GPS devices to master. And if that isn’t enough, I’ve actually seen young women applying makeup while using a battery powered curling iron while driving.
Was green mini-van man distracted in some way and just missing his exit from the circle? Was he merely trying to annoy everyone? Had some other driver gotten his dander up so he was now going to decompress his own anger at the expense of us? Or was he simply obtuse, or of diminished mental capacities. I guessed not, as presumably he had a driver’s license.
When it became apparent that the driver, a man in his 40’s, was beginning his third turn around the circle, I could feel gun powder about to be sprinkled atop that spark of irritation.
In the moments when my emotions were about to boil over, I noticed the driver was clearly laughing aloud, head tilted back in enormous belly laughs. In the millisecond after that observation, I saw through the window behind him a child’s arms raised above head, waving wildly and clapping.
Just as quickly as the spark of irritation grew, it was extinguished. Put out by enormous amusement. I was witnessing a father-child bonding moment. On a school morning. And it had only cost me about 30 seconds to share in one of those life-enriching moments. More than worth the price of admission, my face was graced with a contented smile the rest of the way to work.
The man in the traffic circle reminded me of a time years ago, after my parents had divorced and the family car became my mother’s. The car, a 1965 Chrysler Imperial Crown, was one of the last great land yachts. A true road sofa. Complete with rich, wine-colored upholstery patterned with fleur-de-lis, wide bench seats in the front and the back, and electric seats and windows. It was truly luxurious for its time.
y younger sister and our friends spent significant playtime in this car, pretending to drive on long trips to the candy store or the beach, duplicating drives taken with our mother on occasion. We took turns adjusting the mirrors, the seats, and locking and unlocking the electric locks to teasingly keep out friends when they returned from the imaginary candy store.
Despite owning a used luxury car, my single mother must have been careful with money to keep it operational, maintain a household, feed and clothe three teenagers, weave a social life and hold down a job as a secretary. Money was not abundant, but whatever she did to make it seem like it wasn’t lacking is surely a miracle.
We did, in fact, take this car to the beaches along Texas’ Gulf Coast, for picnics and other family outings. I remember one particular outing in summer when the sandy waves on the beach were warm like bath water. Our grandmother almost always went with us on such trips.
While mom and my older sister busied themselves with setting up the picnic, grandma, my younger sister and I plowed into the surf and enjoyed the rocking motion of the waves on and off the beach. Clutching the bottom of the ocean as waves sloshed towards the beach, we bobbed in the sun and frothy water.
I made the discovery first. The ocean is full of riches to find. You just have to look for them. My discovery made me feel like the richest kid in Texas. While scooping handfuls of sand from under the water, I noticed something disc shaped coming up with the silt. I let the water filter the sand away and lifted the disc above the waves. A sand dollar!
Sand dollars are a favored prize of beach combers in Texas. They wash up often in broken, bleached pieces. It’s a true prize when you find an unbroken sand dollar. Sea creatures related to sea urchins, live sand dollars vary in hues of purple and beige and are covered in fine, short hair-like spines. When the creature dies, the spines wash off and the exoskeleton bleaches in the sun. Highly prized sand dollars are ones as large as you can find, bleached a fine white, and bear an almost floral pattern of petals on them. Every home along the coast has sand dollars decorating bathroom counters and other areas of the house.
“A sand dollar,” I cried to my sister and grandmother. “And it has hair!”
“It’s alive,” my grandmother pointed out.
Within moments, we were all scooping up three or four sand dollars with each handful of sand. There were literally thousands. By some miracle or mistake, we’d camped alongside the beach where a colony of sand dollars was living.
“Lunch is ready!” mom called from the back of the Imperial, cavernous trunk open, picnic in it. We usually set up a beach umbrella, or a sheet propped up as an awning. A blanket on the sand served as our place to sit.
“Mom!” my sister cried as we ran up the beach from the surf. “We found live sand dollars!”
I’m not sure any of us had ever seen live sand dollars. My grandmother was sure to keep a few and let them dry out on her porch back home. The rest of us showed our delight by examining their unusualness and returning them to the sea.
The Imperial was in some sense our Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang. She was treated more like a comfortable member of the family than a luxury vehicle. Never abused, but certainly comfortably used. Both my sisters and I shared some of our first driving experiences in this vehicle as we grew into teen years. Built like a tank, you could hardly go wrong setting loose a newly licensed teenager in such a car.
When my cousin was once left to stay with us for a time, mom decided to take us all out to the oil patch for some driving lessons. A wide, open area cleared of brush, next to the pumping operations of a local Chevron lease, it was the perfect spot to allow untrained students of driving practice time without the distractions of other traffic.
Mom had to give an obligatory demonstration of technique and cautionary procedures. Before long, she was driving us in circles around the patch, kicking up billowy clouds of dust. Round and round we spun, passing through the dust clouds.
"Faster, faster,” we all coaxed her, while we laughed hysterically.
Conspiratorially, she floored the gas pedal and we sped till we all felt the effects of the g-forces. Despite a sudden stop when it seemed the big car might swerve out of control, side-splitting laughter continued for what seemed endless minutes.
We all got our turn at the wheel that afternoon, each of us getting the opportunity to drive the car around in crazy, dusty circles. Mom stood off to the side of the patch, watching. I wonder to this day what she may have been thinking. I hope she was as amused as was I at the man in the green mini-van. I hope she was able to release her mind of the worries a single mom faces and enjoy the moment.
I’m not sure she remembers that day. Life complicates life for us adults.
There are solid, round lessons to learn from our parents. My mother taught me to live within my means. She has never lived extravagantly, but has lived carefully and comfortably. She continues to teach life lessons in the way she has cared for her husband, in sickness and in health. She has never tried to buy love, rather giving gifts based on need or mere lack of it.
My mother and I speak several times a week on the phone these days. Usually, I’m multi-tasking, a blue-tooth device in my ear, and catching up on the cell phone while I commute home from work. A few days ago, she worried aloud whether she’d been a proper influence on her children. Worried if she’d made appropriate time to teach us the things we’d need to live and cope with life. Worried that she had not make the proper impression.
I think she made an appropriate impression, and it’s reflected in choices we make in later life. Having always fondly remembered experiences in the Imperial, I bought a used 1965 Chrysler Imperial Crown a few years ago, identical to the one my mother owned except in color. I had the body restored and original stock fabric of the wine-red color, satin with fleur-de-lis put in. I keep it garaged against the elements, taking it out when the sun is shining
The next time I take the Imperial out for a spin, I’ll orbit around the traffic circle three times, as fast as I can safely do it, laugh wildly and hope the other drivers smile in acknowledgement. And whether or not they know it, they’ll have received a round lesson from my mother, a life lesson passed along from love.