The Eternal Present: On the Road with Young and Old

I picked up Dad first, or Grandpa Jerry, as Carmen calls him. He’s 94 and can remember many poems by heart. But short term memory is going. He’s cheerful though. I wake him up and he smiles with minimal teeth. “We are going, Dad. Today is the day.” 

He’s all packed up. I did that the day before. We take extra Depends as he’s moved in that direction now.  He’s got teeth and hearing aids in and baseball cap.

“Jen, it’s complicated when you have to have all these gadgets just to get up and out.”

“I get it Dad!”

We turn the corner to pick up 3 1/2 year old Carmen, my granddaughter, a few blocks away.  Driving north is a familiar ritual at the end of the school year. Familiar is good. I drive Dad on streets around home that jog his memory. I watch him scan the trees and houses. It is comforting. We are going from Baltimore to Cape Cod where we will stay with family, several cool teenagers as well as my welcoming aunt and uncle. From there my brother Mike will take Dad up to Maine, and Carmen and I return home. We will go back to Maine in a few weeks.

This is my granddaughter Carmen’s first time away from Mom for a few days. Since she’s with me a lot, it’s no big deal. Mom prepared her and so have I. “We are going to the ocean,” I say looking right at her. 

“Yeah!” she yells. 

“And we will see the kids,” I add.

“Yeah!” She exclaims again.

As I set out on this trip, I flash for a moment to families who don’t have the luxury of a vacation. In fact, some are separated at our border after fleeing violence in their own countries. It’s painful to imagine. In my life at home, I brainstorm actions to take and things to do about it. Ghandi says, “Be the change you wish to see in the world. “ In this moment with my family, I savor the love and appreciate this opportunity.

I realize my good fortune and privilege in being able to take this trip, and I’m well prepared.  I have 4 boxes of bandaids, some plain, some with colors and faces. Carmen gets very focused unwrapping and putting on bandaids, good for almost 45 minutes sometimes. Then I have animal crackers, a tray to put them on, other dolls and snacks. We climb in and she buckles herself, mostly, into her seat. I help with the last click.

I have at least eight hours of driving before me. ”Oh my!” I say to myself. “What was I thinking?” I shrug and chuckle to myself. It will be an adventure in any case.  

We are about to take our first break, and I notice Dad is squirming a little in his seat.  As we get out he says, “Too late.” Good thing he wears Depends. Quick on my feet, I grab an extra one and look for a family bathroom. We are lucky—no one is in there. Even better, there is a regular toilet and a “tiny potty.” Carmen is entranced. Luckily, she can handle herself and is focused while I help Dad. He looks up at me and says, “Well Jen, I did it for you and now you get to help me!” “Right,” I say, grateful for his good humor. We all wash our hands, get a snack and head back to the car.

I set my seat so that in a single swoop I can hand Carmen things in her car seat. Next are animal crackers on a tray. She plays and sings to herself about the animals while Dad sits quietly beside me. We zoom over the Delaware Memorial Bridge and onto the Jersey Turnpike.  On the next stop there is a dog walk area under some trees, a great place to run around. Grandpa Jerry sits at a picnic table talking to a guy with a dog while I chase Carmen. She runs and laughs and then chases me. 

Back in the car I can see her nodding off. Yes! She’s asleep. Now I can focus totally for 2 hours and get as far as possible past New York City. Dad nods off too.  I savor the quiet with both of them sleeping. It reminds me how much I love solo car trips. There is space to reflect. I think things through and muse. Ideas bubble up, and when I get a split second, I dash down a word to remind me later.

Dad does well in familiar places where he can tell stories and access his memory. I want Carmen to know her extended family and to appreciate the connection we have to beautiful places. My focus on this trip is mostly on them. When I first realized how my vacation this summer would shape up, I sighed inwardly about no free time. Then I turned it around. When will I have such an opportunity again?

When we are half an hour from our destination, Dad gazes out the window at the scrubby trees near Cape Cod. He looks at me and says, “You know, I never get tired of riding in a car. I don’t even care if we ever get there.” I smile as I feel the tiredness around my eyes and stiff legs. That comment makes it all worthwhile. We see the bridge up ahead and a glimpse of water. Carmen sits up in her seat, “Look, Grandma! Look, Grandpa Jerry! Boats!”

The last mile or so, I’m tired but excited. We drive into the little town of Woods Hole and see boats and shops. I’ve come here since I was a baby myself, to visit grandparents. Carmen is awake and looks out at the town, “Oh we are here.  We made it,” she says. What is it about dogs and children that let’s them sense when arrival is imminent?  

The teenage grandchildren in Woods Hole are fascinated with Carmen. Once she gets over her shyness, she can’t get enough of them. And they have plenty of energy to run her around. 

Later in Maine, we are outdoors almost the whole time. We have 4 cabins. One is a living room/kitchen with a deck overlooking a cove. Now it has a flush toilet. For years, it was a camp with outhouse that my family built starting in the ’70's.  Three cabins are for sleeping. Then there is a shed. All the buildings have fresh mulch paths between them.  

My brother Mike is doing a project in one of the sleeping cabins, adding a venting window that can be shut—with a screen to keep out bugs. He has to walk back and forth between the shed and the cabin. Carmen follows him like a duckling. I call after him from the deck overlooking the cove as they trot by, 

“Hey Mike, do you want me to get Carmen?”
“No,” he yells over his shoulder, “She’s helping me.”
“Great!” I think to myself.

Then I watch her run by. “You OK, Carmen?” 

“Yes, Grandma! I’m helping Mike!”

When it’s time for her to take a bath, we get out a large galvanized wash tub. I fill it with warm water and bubble bath on the deck overlooking the cove. She climbs right in. We laugh and talk. She splashes and plays with her toys, completely engrossed. Dad smiles and chuckles as he watches her. 

“Grandpa Jerry, I’m taking a bath!” She throws up her arms and lifts up a handful of soap suds. 

“Oh yes you are!” he says.

I love driving south at the end of the trip along the West Side Highway past New York City. I recall my grandparents, my Mom and our family going to New York to visit. Carmen wakes up right when the Hudson River slips into view with the George Washington Bridge behind. Her eyes pop open and she squeals with delight. “It’s the bridge, Grandma, and the water.” And then she goes on, “I am so happy, Grandma. Mommy is happy, Grandma is happy, Grandpa Jerry is happy….” She names a few more people. “And the cars are happy. The people are happy.” Her big brown eyes gleam. 

Old people and children live in an eternal present.  Sometimes adults can catch a ride with them.  These two were a good pair for a road trip.  I was fortunate in that.

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