1000 Miles

My life is an amazing sequence of miracles separated by miles.  It was the summer after my Sr. year in high school and I had just turned eighteen and spent the last two years living with my grandmother after she rescued me from a juvenile shelter in Ames and took me into her home.  It had long been foretold by my grandfather that she would one day end up taking care of me.  He had long since passed, but there I was working through whatever it was that was next.

So, this is the story of two people from different generations who really needed one another more than they probably would ever admit at the time.  I needed a place to live, and she, at least in the most basic sense, needed the company.   Her husband, my grandfather, had passed away in the 70s and she had spent much of the last 10-15 years alone, except when my brother and I came to visit.  Once, when I got the Chicken Pox, she got Shingles and gracefully we nursed one another back to health.

It may be on a Sunday morning
It may be on a Tuesday afternoon
But no matter what the day is
I’m going to make it my business to get home soon

“A Thousand Miles Away”
-James Sheppard and William H. Miller, The Heartbeats

So, when the court placed me with a 67 year old woman and the only family that I had who would take me, I don’t think that it was under the premise that it would bring her new life.  I simply wanted to change my environment.  I was running from abuse and an environment where lies and deception were the norm.  I was running to sanctuary.  It was an oasis where at least as much as she could give it, love was the norm.  I responded to that in a way that anyone would, I think.  Yes, it was gradual.  Even today, I think that I have only begun to realize the full effect of that love through the molding and shaping of my own children.

The summer after my Sr. year my grandmother asked me to accompany her on her last road trip.  We decided to plan a trip, a drive, to see my aunt in Mobile.  This is the kind of thing that movies are made of.  So she scheduled the trip and we were to leave.  It was 23 years ago this last summer.

Now, in those days AAA had a service where you could send away for a map of our route when going on a road trip and they would reference possible stopping points or overnights.  I helped by sending away to AAA for a map of our route.  The packet that arrived was thrilling.  We were to travel the 1000 miles to my Aunt’s home along some of the back routes through Missouri.  We take these things for granted now a days, but that was the 1989 version of the Internet.  You made a phone call, or sent a letter.

It was this summer that I had been taking a literature course at DMACC.  It was just to get my feet wet, as I was going to go to U of Iowa in the fall.

We spent weeks planning this trip, but it had not occurred to me that I would miss my literature final.    So, ignored my literature final to take this trip with my grandmother.  Looking back, I bet that this was unnecessary.  I probably could have taken the final early or made other arrangements.  But I was an academic misfit, to some extent.  I didn’t really know how to make those types of arrangements.  I was good with maps, though.

So, we set off on the 1000 mile journey.

We were just north of Cairo, Missouri when the car, a 1986 or 88 Chrysler LeBaron sputtered a bit.  Soon we were alongside the road playing a waiting game, trying to determine what to do next.

It wasn’t long before someone pulled up alongside us and asked if they could lend us a hand.  Of course, we had AAA, so we were in pretty good shape as far as getting a tow truck.  But, these were the days before widespread cell service.  So I hopped a ride with a stranger into town and used the nearest payphone.  Grandmother stayed behind with the car, in case a truck happened by, I guess.  Also, there wasn’t much room in this person’s truck.  He had a couple of others with him.

I often have the brief thought on the occasional times I have gotten into cars with complete strangers, about whether or not I am actually going to be just taken somewhere and murdered.  How ironic, I thought.  Killed at the hands of my savior.  And then, my dear old grandmother would be sitting there, waiting for me.  She would be irritated, too.  That was the last thing that I wanted was for my grandmother to be irritated.

I made arrangements, and graciously accepted the ride back to the vehicle to wait out the arrival of the tow truck.

Before it came, however, my grandmother announced what I could only imagine would be the inevitable.  “Well, shoot”, she said.  “I have to pee.”  

“Surely you could hold it”.  I said.  I knew that she couldn’t.  However, there weren’t too many options.  We were along side a small rural highway in the middle of nowhere and only a barbed wire fence separated us from the fields stretched  out as far as either of us could see.  Only I didn’t realize that there was barbed wire.

I was a little shocked when she said, “I’m going over there.”

“What if the truck comes?”

“Well, if you know what is good for you, you won’t leave me.”

“I wouldn’t do that” I said.

And so she made her way through the knee high grass, assumingly to her destination.  I wasn’t sure at what point she was going to drop her drawers and let the sweet urine flow, and perhaps I had assumed that it was sooner than she did because I looked away.  I could hear the rustling of grass through the open window.

“Be careful”, I said.

More rustling.  Then the crackling of sticks.  I really didn’t want to think about my grandmother dropping a load next to a fairly busy highway.  

“Oh, for crying out loud.”  And then, “Oh!”  She had gotten hung up in the barbed wire while trying to climb over it.  I had never heard of a 70 year old woman attempting to scale a barbed wire fence, so I was both proud and a little concerned that I was going to have to go get her.  What if there were snakes?  What if I had to help her pull up her pants?

“Are you ok?”

Yea, I’m fine.  And then another, “For crying out loud.”  And then a sigh.  And then some more rustling.

And then, what emerged was a pathetic and somehow victorious display.  It was as if she had been attacked and sprayed by a rabid porcupine and wrestled it to the ground.  I still remember this as if it was yesterday.  She was covered in dirt and grass and urine.  I could barely bring myself to ask what had happened when I saw that her calves were covered in scratches and oozing the crimson blood that soaked neatly into the puffy top of her old lady socks.

“I’m fine.”, she repeated.  I pulled some napkins out of the back seat and we got her cleaned up as much as possible.

The truck came and towed us to Columbia, Missouri.  In the process of towing, the operator had torn up both of the CV boots and damaged the front axel.  We didn’t know this until the final diagnosis, though, that afternoon.

The repair was going to take several days.  The manager of the dealership brought us into his office to relay the bad news.  We were going to be there for a few days.

“We can’t do that.  We are on a vacation.  My grandson is driving me to Mobile.”  She explained.  “What about a rental.  There has to be something you can do for us.”

The man explained that he couldn’t rent a car and have it driven by an 18 year old.  “There is just too much liability.  We can’t let the car go out of state.”

And there it was.  My grandmother sitting in the chair across from this middle aged man who was telling her that there were very few options for her at this point.  The cuffs of her pants were stained with blood and every once in a while you could still catch a whiff of pee.  She had burrs in her shoelaces which I am certain must have been digging into the tops of her feet by now.  But she spoke calmly and surely.

“This is what you are going to do.  You are going to rent me a car today.  You will find a way to do it.  We can stay in town tonight, but I want that car ready to go in the morning.”

“Let me…”  he said.

“and, when we leave, you aren’t going to pay any attention to who is driving it.”

“Yes, mamm.  Let me see what I can do.”

Then he came back with the rental contract.  They took her information and worked out the fees and the other necessities.

“We should have your car repaired by the time you get back from Mobile”, he explained. ” Everything is on order.”  I sat stunned.

She thanked him and we moved our stuff over to the Dodge Spirit. 

“That is quite a grandmother you have there, son.”, He said.

I nodded.  “Full of piss and vinegar.” I thought.  I didn’t say it.  But she had used those words herself several times.  I don’t think she ever used them about herself though.

The next morning, we would continue the journey.  

That is the way it was with my grandmother.  When she faced different obstacles and her life encountered trials, she would move through it.  It was as if, when the rain came, instead of retreating indoors, she had simply put on a raincoat and grabbed an umbrella.

I got a ‘D’ in literature that summer.  I didn’t think that it would ever matter.  I was going to go on to the U of Iowa and would get a different degree, anyway.  But this last year when I decided to take some more classes at DMACC, that ‘D’ was still on my transcript.  What I had thought would never be a big deal, stood between me and a goal that I have to get my Master’s Degree.  The only way to replace that ‘D’ was to retake the course, and so, 23 years later I retook the course and achieved a 98% in the class.  The grade propelled me into honors territory that fall, and is just one more rung on a ladder I am climbing to my goal.

Sometimes, things do come full circle.  My Grandmother passed away 10 years ago.  She would be 102 today.  In many ways, because of the time we spent together she lives with me even today.

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