Sunday, August 13, 2006

No Left Turns

Edit: Please note, I did not write this, and it is not about my family. I received this as email, and thought you might enjoy the story.

~~~~~~~~~~~By Michael Gartner ~~~~~~~~~

Michael Gartner has been editor of newspapers large and small and president of NBC News. In 1997, he won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing.


My father never drove a car. Well, that's not quite right. I should say I never saw him drive a car. He quit driving in 1927, when he was 25 years old, and the last car he drove was a 1926 Whippet. "In those days," he told me when he was in his 90s, "to drive a car you had to do things with your hands, and do things with your feet, and look every which way, and I decided you could walk through life and enjoy it or drive through life and miss it." At which point my mother, a sometimes salty Irishwoman, chimed in: "Oh, bull----!" she said. "He hit a horse." "Well," my father said, "there was that, too."

So my brother and I grew up in a household without a car. The neighbors all had cars -- the Kollingses next door had a green 1941 Dodge, the VanLaninghams across the street a gray 1936 Plymouth, the Hopsons two doors down a black 1941 Ford -- but we had none. My father, a newspaperman in Des Moines, would take the streetcar to work and, often as not, walk the 3 miles home. If he took the streetcar home, my mother and brother and I would walk the three blocks to the streetcar stop, meet him and walk home together.

My brother, David, was born in 1935, and I was born in 1938, and sometimes, at dinner, we'd ask how come all the neighbors had cars but we had none. "No one in the family drives," my mother would explain, and that was that. But, sometimes, my father would say, "But as soon as one of you boys turns 16, we'll get one."

It was as if he wasn't sure which one of us would turn 16 first.

But, sure enough, my brother turned 16 before I did, so in 1951 my parents bought a used 1950 Chevrolet from a friend who ran the parts department at a Chevy dealership downtown. It was a four- door, white model, stick shift, fender skirts, loaded with everything, and, since my parents didn't drive, it more or less became my brother's car.

Having a car but not being able to drive didn't bother my father, but it didn't make sense to my mother. So in 1952, when she was 43 years old, she asked a friend to teach her to drive. She learned in a nearby cemetery, the place where I learned to drive the following year and where, a generation later, I took my two sons to practice driving. The cemetery probably was my father's idea. "Who can your mother hurt in the cemetery?" I remember him saying once.

For the next 45 years or so, until she was 90, my mother was the driver in the family. Neither she nor my father had any sense of direction, but he loaded up on maps -- though they seldom left the city limits -- and appointed himself navigator. It seemed to work.

Still, they both continued to walk a lot. My mother was a devout Catholic, and my father an equally devout agnostic, an arrangement that didn't seem to bother either of them through their 75 years of marriage (Yes, 75 years, and they were deeply in love the entire time.) He retired when he was 70, and nearly every morning for the next 20 years or so, he would walk with her the mile to St. Augustin's Church. She would walk down and sit in the front pew, and he would wait in the back until he saw which of the parish's two priests was on duty that morning.

If it was the pastor, my father then would go out and take a 2-mile walk, meeting my mother at the end of the service and walking her home. If it was the assistant pastor, he'd take just a 1-mile walk and then head back to the church He called the priests "Father Fast" and "Father Slow."

After he retired, my father almost always accompanied my mother whenever she drove anywhere, even if he had no reason to go along. If she were going to the beauty parlor, he'd sit in the car and read, or go take a stroll or, if it was summer, have her keep the engine running so he could listen to the Cubs game on the radio.
(In the evening, then, when I'd stop by, he'd explain: "The Cubs lost again. The millionaire on second base made a bad throw to the millionaire on first base, so the multimillionaire on third base scored.") If she were going to the grocery store, he would go along to carry the bags out -- and to make sure she loaded up on ice cream.

As I said, he was always the navigator, and once, when he was 95 and she was 88 and still driving, he said to me, "Do you want to know the secret of a long life?" "I guess so," I said, knowing it probably would be something bizarre.

"No left turns," he said.

"What?" I asked.

"No left turns," he repeated. "Several years ago, your mother and I read an article that said most accidents that old people are in happen when they turn left in front of oncoming traffic. As you get older, your eyesight worsens, and you can lose your depth perception, it said. So your mother and I decided never again to make a left turn."

"What?" I said again. "No left turns," he said. "Think about it. Three rights are the same as a left, and that's a lot safer. So we always make three rights."

"You're kidding!" I said, and I turned to my mother for support. "No," she said, "your father is right. We make three rights. It works." But then she added: "Except when your father loses count." I was driving at the time, and I almost drove off the road as I started laughing. "Loses count?" I asked. "Yes," my father admitted, "that sometimes happens. But it's not a problem. You just make seven rights, and you're okay again."

I couldn't resist. "Do you ever go for 11?" I asked.

"No," he said. "If we miss it at seven, we just come home and call it a bad day. Besides, nothing in life is so important it can't be put off another day or another week."

My mother was never in an accident, but one evening she handed me her car keys and said she had decided to quit driving. That was in
1999, when she was 90. She lived four more years, until 2003. My father died the next year, at 102. They both died in the bungalow they had moved into in 1937 and bought a few years later for $3,000. (Sixty years later, my brother and I paid $8,000 to have a shower put in the tiny bathroom -- the house had never had one. My father would have died then and there if he knew the shower cost nearly three times what he paid for the house.) He continued to walk daily -- he had me get him a treadmill when he was 101 because he was afraid he'd fall on the icy sidewalks but wanted to keep exercising -- and he was of sound mind and sound body until the moment he died.

One September afternoon in 2004, he and my son went with me when I had to give a talk in a neighboring town, and it was clear to all three of us that he was wearing out, though we had the usual wide- ranging conversation about politics and newspapers and things in the news. A few weeks earlier, he had told my son, "You know, Mike, the first hundred years are a lot easier than the second hundred." At one point in our drive that Saturday, he said, "You know, I'm probably not going to live much longer."

"You're probably right," I said.

"Why would you say that?" He countered, somewhat irritated. "Because you're 102 years old," I said. "Yes," he said, "you're right." He stayed in bed all the next day.

That night, I suggested to my son and daughter that we sit up with him through the night. He appreciated it, he said, though at one point, apparently seeing us look gloomy, he said: "I would like to make an announcement. No one in this room is dead yet."

An hour or so later, he spoke his last words: "I want you to know," he said, clearly and lucidly, "that I am in no pain. I am very comfortable. And I have had as happy a life as anyone on this earth could ever have." A short time later, he died.

I miss him a lot, and I think about him a lot. I've wondered now and then how it was that my family and I were so lucky that he lived so long. I can't figure out if it was because he walked through life.... or because he took no left turns ...

Be sure to scroll down to see the photo below!

30 comments:

panthergirl said...

What a WONDERFUL post!!! Your family is the polar opposite of mine in that regard. My parents were car-crazy. My mother was the first girl in her neighborhood to learn to drive AND own a car.

Regarding the left turns, they were right (har har). The accident I posted about this week, with my son's school bus and the drunk driver? The bus was making a left turn across oncoming traffic...

Here by way of michele!

Joan said...

What a lovely story about your parents. I especially loved how your family would meet your dad on the way home. How he must have looked forward to see you walking towards him every day! Oh, that every father should be loved that way.

bluesphee said...

Here from Michele...

Nice story!

OldOldLady Of The Hills said...

What a truly wonderful story that is. I LOVE the three right turns and I must say, I have never liked left turns, though I make them. Always felt they were, indeed. a dangerous proposition. To have good health that long...WOW! Thanks, Judy...it is wonderful to read something like this....
LOVE that picture of those BEAUTIFUL tigers, too....!

Jean-Luc Picard said...

That's a classic post; one of the best! Well done.

Michele sent me here.

Sparkling Diamond said...

What a great post! And I love the tigers in the tub! tooo cute! My trip to NYC was awesome, I hope this cool weather remains for your trip there!

panthergirl said...

DOH!!! How did I miss the "written by Michael Gartner" part??

Maverick said...

Oh man, at first I looked and was like...it's a long post to read...but I started and then devoured it all the way until the end. What a great read! Thanks for posting that.

And the picture of the tigers in the bathtub is tooo funny.

Here again from Michele's, I'm adding you to my blogroll cuz I love reading everything here!

moon said...

What a lovely story...makes u think doesn't it..
Kenju, I am one of your regs, love your blog but today I am here from Michele's...have a great day!!

metten said...

Hi kenju.

poopie said...

That was awesome. My mother has totalled three cars making left turns ;) No more driving for Memaw.

Inanna said...

Wonderful post and something to make you think. No left turns...

Great pic of the tigers... LOL!

Last Girl On Earth said...

This is a beautiful and touching story. Makes me nervous about my Dad driving. As far as I know, he's still making lots of left turns!

Michele sent me. Hope you had a great weekend.

Bonnie said...

That was a great essay.
I have an aunt who will be 106 in September. She gave up driving at age 100. She said if three drunk drivers hit her at an intersection, they would blame her because her reflexes were too slow.

Beverly said...

A very touching story. Living in Florida we have many, many elderly driving. I lost my husband to an old driver who made a left turn right in front of him...

scrappintwinmom said...

That's a great story. Here via Michele.

utenzi said...

Michele sent me this time, Judy. I went down to the blonde joke you posted earlier and it's funny. I suspect she had a great time with the chimps and didn't want to say goodbye. :-)

Nice story here also and I certainly agree about the left turns. They're inheriently more dangerous--and the poorer depth perception of old age makes left turns even more treacherous! As for the meeting the Dad at the trolley stop---I was wondering how they knew if he was walking that day or taking the trolley. I guess he could have called but I don't know if phones in the home were common in Des Moines in the late 30s and 40s...I wasn't born until 1961 and even then we only had party lines available to us.

Peter said...

That's a great story Judy, what a wonderful outlook on life, (even though he was prepared to ignore hitting the horse until mum dobbed him in).

Catherine said...

Great post1 In New Zealand, of course, it would be three left turns, no right turns (I avoid right turns into busy streets & have been known to do three lefts on occasion)

Catherine said...

Oh, and Michele sent me

colleen said...

I thouroughly enjoyed reading this! You know, my dad's death was the result of waht happned in the hospitial after a car accident in which he took a left turn when he shouldn't have. I didn't know this was as common a mistake in the elderly as it is.

Your comment on my blog prompted me to list where each photo was taken. Thanks for asking!

Jay said...

That's awesome. I'm a walker/non-driver myself, but gosh, I can't imagine living into my second century!

DEBRA said...

Lovely essay. I really enjoyed reading it. Here's to hoping we all enjoy a long and happy life.

Chancy said...

Judy
I had mised this post earlier for some reason. It is a lovely story and is a keeper.

I also hate left turns. I avoid them if I can.

Shephard said...

three right turns... writing it down.
Great story.
~S

Wendy said...

Shephard sent me here .... and I'm glad he did. Great story - thanks for sharing that!

Carmi said...

I am at a loss for words after reading such beauty.

Thank you for bringing this to us, Judy.

Stew Magoo said...

wow

Anonymous said...

I assume you drive on the right in your country?

kenju said...

You assume correctly.