My New World Without a Car

by Mary Elizabeth McClellan

It’s a Ruby Red 2003 Subaru Legacy station wagon with 53,000 miles on it, NH Moose Plates for conservation, and scrapes on the front and rear fenders, hopefully not caused by me.

At eighty-seven, with two years to go on my driver’s license, I’m losing my driving edge. I don’t drive enough, only locally and never at night. Older, less “with it” colleagues still don’t want to lose their independence, but I feel like an event waiting to happen. In an accident, I’d be blamed because of my age, even if I collided with a reckless driver on a mission. Besides I can’t think that fast any more. A college friend had a heart attack in her car, not a preferred way to leave. Finally, I can’t open my gas tank at the gas pump, and I have to ask a male customer to rescue me.

It’s time to move on. Decision in hand, I find the best of all worlds: my son needs a newer car. Money changes hands. Siblings benefit. Mom and Dad’s last car now sports a Maine Lobster plate.

I live in RiverMead, a Continuing Care Retirement Community, in the Monadnock Region. During last winter’s snow days, I checked out how the van transportation schedule could work for me. The van does medical appointments on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday; shopping loops as far afield as Rindge, for Hannaford’s, Walmart, and Market Basket; to Jaffrey, for a dentist and Coll’s Farm Market, and to Peterborough, for food, drugs, and sundries. The van holds fourteen passengers and is wheelchair accessible.

My first foray is Friday, Labor Day weekend. There are six of us, three in their nineties and three in our eighties, doing “the loop” in Peterborough. We cover the full range from picking up mending, banking, checking out the Toadstool for books, to shopping for stationery supplies, food, drugs, and wine, to advice on mailing family pearls. One woman is really only along for the ride, a chance to see who’s who and what’s what in the world outside in this two hour excursion. The river is low. Will Hurricane Earl bring us good rain? I hope so.

Seven errands are on my list. First, an ATM stop at the bank. “No mon. No fun,” my mother used to say. My roll of pennies will buy a copy of Monadnock Ledger-Transcript with the Steve Pelkey story. (Impresario of the Atlas Fireworks extravaganza held each summer, Steve grew up in Jaffrey with a friend of mine, now retired to Virginia, who will love the details.)

The next bank stop is heralded by Priscilla: “I’ll be a while,” which gives us pause. Is she teasing, or serious? Teasing, thank goodness. On around to Rite Aid for two flavors of Altoids (of British origin), Ginger and Liquorice. Copies & More for possibility of laminating dried pansies into bookmarks. (Presents from grandmother for an upcoming family reunion.) Three of us get out at Rite Aid. No one notices that only two of us come back…

The van proceeds to Ocean State Job Lot, a kind of discount department store of odds and ends of all sorts. Our only gentleman shopper, a joker, goes inside. His name is Cornwall. Call me “Cornball,” he says. This sets the tone. Idling, we read the come-ons in the windows: “Men and Women’s Dorm Pants.” A former dean of a women’s college wonders out loud what dorm pants might be. I offer to run in and ask and also check on “Cornball.” Dorm pants turn out to pajama bottoms.

Back in the van we laugh at the marketing ploy. Probably they are just sweat pants. Or maybe in coed dorms these days there really is a fashion parade showcasing the best-dressed in dorm pants.

Heading out for Roy’s Market, an upscale corner grocery downtown, Richard, the driver, wonders if we have left someone at Rite Aid. Doesn’t he have a list of us? We begin to joke and tease, “You’ll find out soon when your beeper goes off.” But, lo and behold, Priscilla, the teaser at the bank, spies Penny, sitting on a stone bench outside of Rite Aid. Richard pledges us not to tell her we forgot her, but then, he, himself, blurts out the truth, and she doesn’t know whether we did or didn’t. We are bonded now.

On to Roy’s: Irish oatmeal, Seriously Sharp Grated Cheese for cheese biscuits that I make for cocktail time, a half a dozen eggs, two kinds of ice cream, and…I realize I have left the freezer packs in the van. And finally a six pack of Coke. Moving the Coke from cart to counter, the plastic slips, a can escapes, and not only that, explodes right there on the counter, spurting all over everything—the cashier, me, the magazines and the windows across the way, an incredible mess. It will be sticky, too. How did she stop it? An immediate fistful of paper towels for mopping up. A fistful for her, a fistful for me, and red-coated clerks on the run to deal with the damage to the merchandise. The cashier is apologizing, and I’m apologizing, and neither of us quite knows what happened. But we complete our business sanely. She charges me for only five. I write a check.

Senses of humor are alive and well, and I am being dubbed a Teeny Bopper because I am bopping in and out of all these stores, still moving on my own, quite agile as it goes for eighty-seven. When I stopped at the bank at the beginning of this adventure, Richard tossed out the idea of picking up a lollypop. At the jeweler’s, there is a candy dish and one lone lollypop. Yes, it had Richard’s name on it. At Toadstool, I pick up Frederick Buechner’s Yellow Leaves: A Miscellany. In his eighties, too, he is sharing a lifetime of memorable moments and persons. One is his last drive with his mother.

As we make the final turn off Route 202, Richard says, “Mrs. E. always calls out wheeeee as we come around that turn.” He’s a zippy driver of this lumbering bus. We joke some more and are getting the feeling we might be regulars for the Friday loop. Perhaps we will come up with a chant, like a cheering section coming home from a field trip at school.  Or try: “Home again, home again, jiggety-jog.” Laughing is good, and coming home with the satisfaction of missions accomplished feels great!

“It’s the surprises in life that keep you going,” preached Pop Wicks, in the 1950s, with the image of Fibber Magee and Molly’s opening the front hall closet and a lifetime of everything tumbling out. Surprises abound! Seventy years of driving have memories galore, from life before car seats and seatbelts to my own share of warnings for being a zippy driver in apparently sleepy towns. However, life in your eighties has its own surprises and it turns out to have the full range, from the silly to the sublime. This is My Brave New World.

I know the decision to give up the car is a wise one. Now I know how good: the physical relief of not being the one behind the wheel, or the owner expected to monitor tires, batteries, and such. I won’t miss the gas bills or insurance outlay, either. I also know another kind of freedom. The freedom of choice, choice to show up for the loop, and the possibility of new adventures in the dailiness and magic of it all. One door closes, another opens, yet again.


This essay was previously published in the Northern New England Review, Volume 33, 2011, Franklin Pierce University, New Hampshire.