1981-82 Have you been driving long?
It all started with an ad that read something like this:
WANTED: A mature woman dedicated to helping student with a disability go to school and perform daily living activities.
This might sound like one of those “dummy” ads trying to entice innocent readers into joining a swinger’s relationship. And to be honest, I am sure that is why we received some interesting replies. However, my parents had something totally different in mind when they placed the ad in various newspapers around town and throughout multiple states. It was placed in several newspapers in metropolitan areas in Texas, Oklahoma, and California. We chose these states because we had family members and/or close friends there who helped with the laborious task of the first screening before we made the long trek to meet the interviewee. Since many of these lucky people had known me even before I was born, they had a pretty good idea of what I needed, and the type of person my parents were looking for. Some of you have undoubtedly heard the saying “it takes a whole village to raise a child.” Well, it took the input of several states to raise me! The beginning of my junior year in high school was drawing near and that meant it was time to panic.
My close friend Jewels, who had been a constant companion for several summers was about to leave for college, so the search for a new victim or, shall I say in more politically correct terms, “personal assistant” was at full speed. No one answered the ad for several consecutive weeks, so my mother did what she does best in these situations. She called all family members and anyone that she had ever met in the last twenty years to see if they would donate a year of their time or, recommend a friend who would perhaps make a suitable personal assistant for me. As the ad said, the job description included making sure that I attended all of my classes, helping me complete assignments, and functioning as my hands and feet. It was also my parents’ deep wish that the person keep me on the straight and narrow path of good behavior while also helping me do some crazy “age appropriate activities.” This task alone was quite a handful for even the most capable.
The picture of mom sitting behind her roll-top desk, phone propped on her shoulder, anxiously jotting down the names and numbers of possible candidates with one hand while anchoring the pad of paper with the other, will always be burned into my memory. Her platinum blond hair was almost always neatly pulled up in a bun to keep it out of her stoic green eyes, which would be staring intently at the list of potential “victims.” Sometimes it looked as if she was getting some kind of vibe or “insight” into a name by tapping her pencil over it. Thankfully my cousin came to the rescue with the “lucky connection” and stopped this mad hunt for an assistant.
Many of us have had the fascinating experience of being set up on a blind date. If it turns out well, we are grateful to the one who made it happen. But, if it turns out to be a disaster, we’re torn between feelings of disbelief and revenge. Our thoughts run amuck as we try to imagine how someone we thought knew us so well could fail us so badly as a matchmaker. When a blind date goes bad, we often wish that we had been "stood up" rather than "set up." When my cousin called and told us that a co- worker had a very nice niece who was interested in working with me, it felt as if I were being set up on a blind date; only worse. My mind immediately raced into third gear. Had I played any practical jokes on my cousin as we were growing up? Did I remember to send all the thank you notes my mother had nagged me about sending for years? I am an interesting combination of my parents. "Interesting" can be a good or bad word, depending on the circumstances. Volumes could be written about my mom’s uncompromising, tenacious spirit that helped mold me into the uncompromising, tenacious person I am today, but one event is clearly book-marked in my memory. It was the time mom was recuperating from a major surgery. I was worried about her recovery, so you would think that I would be totally focused on her needs at that time, but life rarely turns out the way I plan. It just so happened that on the same day mom came home from the hospital, my own personal crisis was brewing in the form of a stolen purse. My new assistant, Tricia had her purse stolen with my wallet inside while we were in the nurse’s restroom at school. We’d assumed Tricia’s purse was a safer place to keep my money than my book bag because I would lose my backside if it weren’t attached to my body. My mom has that very annoying gift that all mothers seem to be especially wired with. She took one look at my face knew something was amiss. Mom was better than a fortune teller. After several attempts to get me to spill the beans, I burst into tears and explained what had happened. Mom jumped on the case like an action figure jumps into action to solve “the mystery of the day.” She asked the usual investigative questions about the scene of the ‘crime’ as she struggled to prop herself up with overstuffed pillows in my parents’ king sized bed. If mom had one of those old-fashioned Smith-Corona typewriters in her lap, she could have passed for one of her favorite actresses, Jessica Lansbury in “Murder She Wrote.” A slightly less formal Jessica Lansbury, but one nonetheless!
Mom sternly asked for the phone book to find the school’s number even though Tricia and I both attempted to convince her to “forget about it” because we could handle it. I knew that it was futile and unwise to argue when she made up her mind to solve a problem. Secretly, I was glad that she wanted to come to our rescue because I was sure that she would either get the ball rolling or heads would soon be rolling. I was right. The next day, everyone from the principal to the janitorial staff had full knowledge of “our” purse and its contents.
Mysteriously, the purse magically reappeared at the scene of the ‘crime’ not long afterwards. All our pictures and other personal items were returned. The only thing missing was the money. I guess they forgot to return it along with everything else. Mom had always been known as ‘go-getter,’ the kind of woman that gets things done. But after this incident, she earned the reputation of “Tenacious Tornado Mom from Texas.” I wonder if that was why some people started calling me “The Twisted Twister?” Is it really possible that I was actually becoming more like my mother? or were they just talking about my driving again?
My sisters and I used to spend long, hot, lazy summers on my grandparents’ ranch in Texas as kid. Those sweet, summer moments were marked by a house full of family, friends, horseback riding, swimming, playhouses, incredible, starry nights, and lots of laughter. My grandmother raised Shetland ponies and spent many fulfilling years acquiring ponies of championship bloodlines, as well as a few old hags who managed to wrap their reigns around her heart. Naturally, after grandma passed away, some of her favorites endeared themselves to our hearts too. One old mare named Ruby bonded hard and fast to my sisters. Ruby was small in stature, even for a Shetland, but she seated a six and seven-year-old very nicely.
My grandparents built a wonderful two-story brick home that was perfect for hide-and-go-seek and ghost storytelling, but as in most houses that were built in the 1930’s, there was no ramp. The need to build one became very apparent soon after I got my first Everest & Jennings electric wheelchair. Jumping five concrete steps just to get in and out of the house seemed a bit outrageous even for an “Evil Kinevel wanna be.” Both of my parents have wonderfully dry senses of humor, but dad is infamously known for his spontaneous silliness. We had no clue that when my father had the “Rube Goldberg-blue light special” ramp complete with the rubber non-slick surface built for the back door, he would use it to do a reenactment of Noah's ark, with a twist.
On a leisurely July morning, mom was drinking coffee at the breakfast table with our “southern bell, Scarlet O’Hara” cousin, Ella Mae from Atlanta, who had striking red hair and gorgeous marble brown eyes. Dad always enjoyed shocking her, so he decided to pull one of his unique stunts to turn her visit into something she would never forget. He succeeded in accomplishing what he set out to do. Mom and Ella Mae were deep in riveting conversation when all of a sudden, they were interrupted by the sound of hooves on a hard surface. Christmas was more than six months away so the possibility of reindeer on the roof was quickly ruled out.
Even though my interpretation is a bit on the far side, in the same way Noah loaded the animals onto the ark two by two, my two little chipmunk-cheeked sisters entered the kitchen in similar fashion---except they were on a horse, (Remember Ruby, the Shetland pony?) and dad was the proverbial “Noah” boisterously singing his favorite Gene Autry song, “We’re back in the saddle again.” Mom, being the proper lady that she is never said a foul word, even though dad had turned her kitchen into a temporary horse stable. Audrey Hepburn had nothing on her. Instead of getting irate as most people would have about having a horse in the house, she simply looked at my dad and said something to the tune of, “Oh, my lord, James, what in the world do you think you’re doing? We‘ve discussed this before. This is not a ‘ride-in’ restaurant such as Sonic or Mr. Burger!”
After the initial shock of having a live horse in our kitchen, things somewhat quieted down enough for someone to grab for a camera to record the spectacle. The blockbuster movie, Grease had just become a number 1 hit and had quite an influence on my young personal assistant Jewels and I. Jewels was a wonderful source of entertainment for my sisters and I. The 5’2,” blue-eyed, drama queen was infamously known for her theatrical “breakouts.” It was not unusual for her to hit the floor on a bent knee and break out in a song or a Shakespearean soliloquy. True to form, when Jewels saw Ruby and the girls posing for the photo shoot, she took the toothbrush that was already in one hand and tickled Ruby’s nose with the other to make Ruby appear to be smiling. She exclaimed “Hey, Jonean, look!” and then sang the jingle from an old toothpaste commercial, “Brusha, brusha, brusha---” which also appeared in the movie Grease. After seeing it as many times as we did, it was no mystery that Jewels and I knew almost every line by heart. As you can imagine, that jingle made a lasting impression on everyone in the room that day, including an old run-down hag of a horse.
Ruby had been an extraordinarily gracious sport about this escapade until around the time when she decided that she’d had enough and proceeded to lead herself out of the kitchen door. One might say this is where the rubber hit the road, or more applicable, where the hooves hit the linoleum. Dad had no idea that poor old Ruby had zero traction on linoleum. It looked as if mom and Jewels were lining up for a giant balloon toss while dad was desperately trying to help Ruby by holding her back end up and gingerly guiding her out of the door. Both my sisters and Ruby were caught in mid-air. But don‘t worry, no children or animals were damaged during the production of this practical joke. Needless to say, it was an extremely memorable visit for our cousin.
I would be remiss if I did not at least mention the infamous “drive-thru crash”. As many young people do, I went through a “cruisin” stage in my life. Jewels and I eagerly awaited the times when my parents sent us to town on errands or just to get us out of their hair. Many times, the only car that was available for us to drive was my grandmother’s 1966 white Cadillac. It was in mint condition. The key word is, was. We were both so short that we looked like two, little old “low-rider ladies” dragging Main Street, but we felt as cool as hot chilies in an extra value burrito. After our usual order at the Sonic drive-in, we made our way to the Kodak picture hut to pick up some film for mom. When I say “hut,” that’s exactly what I mean. It was basically four pieces of plywood nailed together with a flimsy roof that had a “Kodak” sign on the top. “Tornado targets” such as these were made purely for customer convenience, not durability.
For you who are unfamiliar with the classic 1966 Cadillacs, they were beautiful but also nightmare to park horizontally. This is especially true for the vertically challenged people who have trouble seeing over the dashboard. Short legs and short arms go together, and Jewels fit that description to a tee. She drove up beside the hut as close as she could to reach the “drop off’ window. Everything was rolling along nicely until we started to pull away with more than we purchased. The back handle of the car somehow became attached to the front of the hut and we proceeded to uproot it from its original spot and take it with us. After the initial shock of surviving a “drive-by swipe” with no bodily harm, the poor clerk, was very understanding, considering the fact that we’d just endangered her life. She also had a great sense of humor, evidenced by what she said afterwards: “young ladies, can‘t you tell the difference between a drive-thru and a drive-in?” The short drive home became a long, hot, tortuous one as an even more dreaded arrival awaited us. No amount of rehearsing could prepare us for the disquieting task of telling my parents that the family heirloom car was no longer in mint condition. So, we did the only thing that made sense. We cried and begged for mercy! After breaking the news, we all filed out of the back door to access the damage. We walked to the car with our heads hung low, resembling a very short funeral procession on a hot, summer day. Jewels and I actually wondered if we were not indeed headed to our own burial plot. Those brief moments we watched my dad slowly inspect the car felt like hours of agony. Talk about two nervous ninnies who were ‘waiting to exhale.” Dad finally broke the deafening silence. “Jewels, been driving long? After those crazy, lazy days of summer were over, it was time once again to gear up for another school year. I was a bit hesitant when my cousin suddenly came up with a "perfect" assistant for me. I mentally ran through a checklist of all the pranks I pulled on her that she could have possibly. When I couldn’t come up with anything too dastardly, I assumed that her recommendation was not an act of retribution. In fact, it was an act of great kindness. My parents were still desperately seeking a “Mary Poppins” type of assistant with hopes of keeping me in line. Mom was beyond thrilled to find out Tricia came from a large, devout Catholic family. She had high hopes of finding someone like the character "Maria" in the Sound of Music. It makes me wonder if mom just secretly wanted Julie Andrews to be my personal assistant, since she had the leading role in both of those classic movies. Anyway, Tricia’s aspiration to be a nun had passed early on in her youth. Many times she jokingly said that her desire to live in a convent was quenched after living with us. Tricia was constantly amazed because our household was the only place she knew of where one could get in trouble for saying the words, "gee whiz." Our parents considered those words to be only a step from the big "jeez" word which might eventually lead to uttering "Jesus" in a not so reverent manner. Though the logic may have been a bit on the "far side," cussing or anything close to it was just not an option in our devout home.
The morning we finally met, I kept thinking that if this had been a date, at least we could have gone very separate ways after struggling through a few hours of boring chitchat. But, since Tricia was willing to fly across states from Oklahoma to California to make a trial run with me, I figured I needed to attempt more than just polite conversation. As I reluctantly wheeled into the living room, I saw that she was comfortably seated in front of the plate glass window, looking out over the Pacific Ocean with a calm but pensive look in her translucent hazel eyes. Her long brown hair was cascading off her shoulders and down the back of the overstuffed armchair. It was a relief when those first few hours of conversation came so easily and soon turned into long, late night rap sessions. Tricia’s personality was a magical combination of Annie Sullivan and Stevie Nicks. Her gentle nature made it easy to become close friends.
Tricia rarely got mad but when she did, she would simply leave for a while to cool off. At times this felt worse than being yelled at or slapped. Her eyes always reflected a peaceful look that reminded me of the saying, “still waters run deep.” When she was upset, those waters indicated a definite stirring underneath. One of my funniest memories of Tricia that exemplifies this was the night we babysat my sisters. Bedtime had come and, as usual, they exercised their right to protest. Tricia gazed at them with a look that said she had heard all the flack that she could handle about going to bed. She very calmly walked into the bathroom, locked the door behind her, and stayed in there for about an hour. After proving that beating on the door and screaming was not going to make her come out, both of my sisters began to worry. They sat very quietly by the door until she gingerly opened it. They took one look at her face, and made a run for their beds without another sound.
I admired the way Tricia handled tense situations, but I felt bad that she missed out on being at home when her first niece was born because she was attending to me. She came from a large, tight- knit family that enjoyed turning any event into a reason to get together. So you can imagine the remorse I felt watching her cry as she listened to her brother describe how awesome the birth was and how beautiful the baby was. I anxiously wheeled around the house trying to find a box of Kleenex. There was no doubt this was serious because not even a big piece of mom’s chocolate cake could console her this time. She went down to her room early that night without saying a word.
Does the cliche “paranoia will destroy ya” ring any bells for you? They sure were ringing loudly for me that night. What did Tricia mean by not saying good night? Would I still have a personal assistant, or would she make her great escape and disappear into the night? After an hour of entertaining these thoughts, I rode the elevator down to the first floor, racking my brain trying to think of something clever to say that would lighten her mood and somehow make it seem worth her while to stick around a little longer. My experience with different personal assistants up to this point had heightened my awareness of special people that I wanted to hang on to, and those who I wished would find somewhere else to hang. Tricia was definitely worth trying to hang on to.
As I apprehensively opened the heavy elevator door, it suddenly occurred to me to make this occasion a celebration rather than an interrogation to try and figure out her plans . After all, I had seen people open bottles of champagne or wine to celebrate a child’s birth. I was hoping this would make her niece’s birthday a very memorable date in more ways than one. Surely my parents wouldn’t miss one bottle from their wine collection if I got it from the back. At least that was what I was hoping. After successfully picking up a bottle without dropping it on the tile floor, which was quite a feat considering how shaky I was from both nervousness and spasticity, I made my way to Tricia’s room. Living with the type of cerebral palsy that I have makes simple movements such as extending an arm feel like a small battle of tug-of-war with both one’s self and gravity. I’m convinced God has a wonderful sense of humor because He answers bizarre prayer requests like, “Oh God, please let me get this bottle on my lap so that my parents won’t ask me what was spilled on the floor.” If caught, confessing to a missing bottle did not seem nearly as bad as confessing to an empty one and a big mess on the floor. My parents are very neat people and strongly disapprove of alcohol consumption under the age of 30. At this time I was 17, and getting caught would have led to punishment for the next eight years! Being suave was risky business but I was going to do it. As I looked into Tricia’s puffy eyes, I cheerfully asked if she would like a drink to celebrate her niece’s arrival. The conversation began with Tricia asking, “What ya doing“? I responded: “Thought that you might like a drink to celebrate Abby's birthday.” With a raised eyebrow, Tricia inquired further. “Where did that come from and how in the world did you get it?” “The grape fairy got it very carefully from mom and dad’s collection,” I sheepishly replied.
Now, Tricia’s voice along with both of her eyebrows were raised. “And do they know you have it“? ‘Not exactly, but they won’t mind. They’re so happy about Abby, you know.” “Are you sure about that? It doesn’t sound like your mom would find it quite kosher,” she said. “Oh, sure, they won’t care” I said, trying to sound cool and collected. After considerable coercion Tricia agreed a drink would be nice. She poured herself a glass, and a half glass for me. It tasted like a lemon wrapped in dirty socks, but I did everything I could not to make a face. She saw the tears in my eyes from the nasty taste in my mouth and said, “Please tell me you’ve drunk before.” “Of course,” I said, “Yes, oh yes, I’ve tasted some before. Isn't this good?”
That half glass was all it took to prove that this was indeed a first for me. Who knew that such a small glass of wine could loosen my lips so much? I would not shut up! Poor Tricia ended up being amazed instead of consoled that night. I asked her every question except for the one I really wanted to know: was she staying or going? The next morning, I woke up thinking, if she leaves, it won’t be to move closer to her niece. It’ll be to get away from me; the “suave” conversationalist in a wheelchair. As the night wrapped up, Tricia made a smart move and told me that she was tired and wanted to turn in. I was kind of tired, too, so I drove my wheelchair to the elevator just as I had done a hundred times before. Tricia opened the heavy elevator door for me to back into it. I turned around and started to back up. Boom! I hit the wall. I smiled and tried again.
Bang! I hit the side of the door. I was embarrassed but I said, “let’s try this again.” Crash! My chair hit the edge of the elevator so hard it spun sideways. “Oops! One more time.” Ten minutes and many tries later, we were both laughing hysterically. Tricia saw the hopelessness of the situation, took control and wheeled me safely into the elevator. When she could finally close the door with all my limbs inside, she grinned and asked, “so, how long have you been driving?” On the elevator ride back to my room, my laughter subsided as I came to the realization that I needed to get out quickly and quietly because my little sisters were already in bed. Furthermore, mom would have killed me twice over if she found out what I had been doing downstairs when I was supposed to be upstairs fast asleep. DING! The elevator stopped. I quietly pulled back the gate and tried to open the heavy door. The harder I pushed, the louder the elevator floor squeaked and rattled. My chair was doing the side-ways shuffle as I tried with all my might to escape what was starting to feel like a hell hole. Just as I backed up to make one more run for the door, I heard footsteps shuffling on the thick shag rug. The theme song from the movie "Jaws” quickly crescendoed in my head. I tried to be as quiet as a mouse in hopes that whoever it was would ignore the commotion and keep walking by, but the handle turned, and the heavy door jerked open. There was no doubt about it now. I had been found out. I felt like the Chesire Cat from Alice in Wonderland caught in a mousetrap. I took a few short breaths, anticipating the full weight of my parent’s wrath. What can one say in a moment such as this, except “hi,” followed by a megawatt smile. The door opened and I was face to face with dear ol’ dad standing there, trying to figure out the cause of all the ruckus. If there was anything he’d learned with three creative daughters, it was this: some things are better left unsaid, or in my case, unasked. He took one look at me, and said, in his deep, sarcastic voice, “you been driving long ?”