My Mother’s Keys

My mother was destined for better things. She had a “head for numbers.” That’s how she put it. Unlike her sisters, she had graduated from high school, and she wanted to be in business like her brothers. But the closest she came to her goal was to become a secretary in their blanket distribution business in the Empire State Building.

It may not be what she had envisioned for herself, but she was proud of her job just the same. Every day she took the subway from her family home in Brooklyn to the big city. She liked to meet with friends after work and have a Manhattan served in a fancy glass. She told my sister and me about the days when she could “hold the room” with quips and one-liners. “I was a regular Dorothy Parker,” she would say. Having a drink and not going straight home, though, was risky. As long as she lived in her parents’ house, she lived by “Pappa’s rules,” which included no smoking, drinking, or staying out late.

She lived at home until she married my father.

My mother knew the balance of power between women and men was out of whack, and she rebelled in her way. After they moved to Miami, she took the bus to a job she had found after reading about it in the paper. My father didn’t approve of her working. She smoked in the house, something else he didn’t like, and if there was an opportunity to socialize with friends, she always ordered a Manhattan, whether he approved or not. But for all that, she was a traditional wife and mother, just not a suburban one.

She didn’t drive, a distinct disadvantage once she was away from her beloved city.

But there were always surprises where my mother was concerned. One day, when my father, my sister, and I were seated around the table waiting for dinner, she put down our plates and took her seat. She looked oddly proud. The meatloaf and mashed potatoes before us didn’t appear all that special, so I wondered what was up.

“Guess what I did today?” she said. When we all just stared at her blankly, she put her clasped hands on the table and opened them like a flower, revealing a little paper card.

“I got my driver’s license,” she said.

In addition to this revelation, she announced that she had secretly been taking driving lessons.

We were happy for her, but quickly began thinking what it meant to us. “You can take me to my modeling classes,” my sister said. “Looks like you can do the grocery shopping alone,” my father added. And I figured I wouldn’t have to ride to ballet with Judith and her mean mom. There was something in this for everyone.

That driver’s license meant the world to my mother. She renewed it proudly over the years, and when my father died, the car was hers. After the sadness, once she had begun to settle into living alone, she confided in me.

“I never thought I’d have my own car. In my day, women just didn’t.” There was a thrill in her voice I had never heard before.

But this milestone came late, and she wasn’t able to enjoy it for long.

My mother started showing signs of forgetfulness about the time she turned eighty. Then came “the incidents”—with the car: getting lost going to the grocery store next to her apartment complex, forgetting where she had parked.

One day at work, I received a call from the police. “Can you come get your mother?” the officer asked. She didn’t remember how she had ended up on the highway, she told me, obviously shaken.

Soon after, a medical diagnosis confirmed what I had already suspected, dementia, most likely Alzheimer’s.

Then the arguments between us began. I firmly told her I would have to take her keys away.

Without much thought, my husband and I put the car up for sale. She pleaded with me not to. She said I had no right. “It’s my car,” she cried. I ignored these pleas. She had dementia, I was doing the right thing, I told myself.

Now that I am older, with adult children of my own, I think about my future. Will my children one day decide for me, doing what they think is best, where I will live, how, and whether or not to take away my keys?

I still hear my mother’s words, “It’s my car.” Only recently have I come to understand what she was trying to tell me. I wish I had taken more time listening to her—and comforting her. I want to tell her I understand. I know that car held the key to who she always wanted to be. An independent woman, with a cigarette in one hand, a Manhattan in the other, laughing and telling jokes to a room full of friends.

Jean P. Moore grew up in Miami, Florida. She began her professional career as a high school English teacher and worked for a number of years as executive director of workforce development. Jean has since returned to her first loves: the study of literature and writing. Her novel Water on the Moon was published in June 2014 and is the winner of the 2015 Independent Publisher Book Award for contemporary fiction. Her poetry chapbook, Time’s Tyranny, was published in the fall of 2017 by Finishing Line Press. Her latest novel, Tilda’s Promise, publishes on Sept 25, 2018 by She Writes

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