Monday, March 19, 2012

She Left Her Mark

She Left Her Mark
By Jane-Ann Heitmueller

“It’s time, Bob,” declared his wife Ludie in the troughs of labor. “Hurry up, the baby is almost here!” Obediently, Mr. Knight grabbed his hat and coat and rushed out headlong into the raging storm that frigid winter night, tripping over fallen brush and stumbling through icy streams to fetch Mrs. Howard, the local mid-wife who lived a mile away through the woods.

“Mrs. Knight,” said the midwife holding back tears, “I don’t know if your tiny mite of a baby will live through the night. She’s terribly small. We’ll just have to wait and see how she is in the morning.” And so it was with that proclamation little Ruth Knight was ushered into the world on Dec. 9, 1919.

Tenderly, Mrs. Howard wrapped the fragile, whimpering baby in a clean flour sack and tucked her snugly into a shoebox. “There now, I’ll just put her in this chair near the warm cook stove and she should be plenty comfortable the rest of the night. You try to get some sleep, Mrs. Knight, and don’t worry, I’ll stay right here to look after your baby girl.”

And live she did! Little did anyone realize at her birth what feistiness dwelt within the core of that frail little soul, but for the next eighty-nine years she proved her strength and determination to all who knew and loved her.

One example of her uniqueness showed in her driving ability…or lack thereof. Mom was simply a terrible driver. A fact known to everyone but herself. She relished her independence and at an advanced age continued to insist on driving, even against the wishes of family members, friends and her doctor. Mom used no rational argument in her insistence to keep her car keys, and although I dreaded doing so, for her own safety and the safety of others on the road, I finally brought them home with me. Until she passed away in the summer of 2008 she never forgave me for taking those precious keys.

From her dubious beginning Mom remained a small person in both weight and height. She was barely five feet tall and constantly struggled to weigh a hundred pounds. One can picture her behind the wheel of a car with her seat thrust forward as far as possible and her head only slightly visible above the steering wheel. This diminutive stature never lessened her control behind the wheel as she revved up the engine and shot headlong toward her destination, looking neither right nor left! It was ‘Casey, bar the door’ when Mom took control of that vehicle.

She was so proud of her shiny maroon 1979 Chevrolet Caprice and kept it maintained in perfect condition. Mom took great pleasure in washing, waxing and servicing her “chariot”, yet seemed oblivious to the numerous dings, scratches, dents and markings she had created by her erratic driving. There was the long, deep scratch on the trunk from the night she backed into a barbed wire fence, ugly black streaks on the whitewall tires from turning too close to the curb, the dangling antennae, created by pulling under the low drive through entrance at the local bank. Of course, none of these accidents were her fault and she had absolutely no idea how any of them had happened!

Mom lived about two miles from a local shopping center she often frequented. One day, returning from a shopping trip, she noticed that a police car pulled into her driveway behind her. She couldn’t imagine why he had followed an eighty year old woman the entire way home.

“Mam,” he politely addressed her, “did you know that you were not suppose to enter the northbound lane at that crossing?”

“But officer, with her hands planted firmly on her hips, I always turn that way to come home. I’ve done it for forty years!”

“Yes, mam,” he replied, concealing his amusement at her response, “ I suppose you just didn’t notice the red no turn arrow on the sign. Please watch for it next time.”

Then there was the time she came home with a smashed right fender and front grill.

“Mom, what in the world happened?” we asked in horror.

“Oh, my brakes wouldn’t work when I went to get gas, so I just drove around the block and crashed into the brick wall at Week’s Service Station to stop the car.”

When I rode with Mom I nearly pushed a hole through the passenger floorboard putting on the brakes. I dared not take my eyes off the road for a moment. “Stop, watch out, there’s a red light, that fellow is going to stop in front of you!”

I was a nervous wreck being a ‘backseat driver’. Mom never took offense to any of my criticisms, taking them all in stride and with good cheer. “That’s alright,” she’d sweetly smile and say, “ I need all the help I can get.” However, she never changed any of her driving habits.

Mom’s fearlessness under the wheel was demonstrated the year we went on vacation to the beach. She insisted that she and Dad, who had long ago given up his keys voluntarily, would follow in their own car. My husband, two sons and I would lead the way there and back. We were returning from our trip, when suddenly, fifty miles from home, the skies grew black and torrents of rain slashed down on the highway. The windshield wipers did absolutely nothing to help us see more than five feet ahead and we felt safer to crawl forward than attempt to pull over into the unknown roadside. All I could see of Mom’s car were slits of her headlights steadily creeping along behind us and I can’t recall ever having prayed more fervently for our safety on the road.

Drained, both physically and mentally from miles of tension, we thankfully reached home safe and sound. I was in awe of Mom’s control and calmness on the road that day. She was a cool as a cucumber and showed no signs of concern while dealing with such a frightening situation. That afternoon I came to the realization that there must certainly be a special angel in Heaven assigned to ride along on Mom’s shoulder when she was behind the wheel of a car. That was one brave angel!

Our last episode related to Mom’s driving ability came only a few months before she came to live with us that final year of her life. One Friday afternoon when I pulled up at her home, I noticed a huge dent in the door frame of the garage. The aluminum siding was twisted and the wooden boards underneath were splintered and broken. I was shocked and puzzled, immediately suspecting that she had hit the front left fender when pulling the car inside the garage. Sure enough, when I checked, there was white paint on the left headlight and fender and a wide, white scratch down the length of both doors on the driver’s side. When I showed Mom what I had discovered she was terribly insulted that I should suggest any of the damage was her fault. After all, hadn’t she driven her car inside those garage walls hundreds of times without incident during the past fifty years? Apparently, she wasn’t willing to admit it or actually did not recall having smashed into the garage.

One afternoon, shortly after that disturbing encounter, I gathered enough courage to ease her car keys from the hook in the entrance to her kitchen and slip them into my coat pocket. I wasn’t brave enough to tell her just then, deciding I would put that chore off as long as possible, knowing the day would soon arrive when she would discover what I had done and I would have to face the music. Turns out, it was a complete and never ending symphony!

Mom’s been gone nearly four years, yet we have not had the heart to repair that garage door damage. Perhaps it is because it always gives us a smile when we drive up and see it there as a tangible, visual tribute to the life of the spunky little lady who definitely left her mark on life. We miss you, Mom.