Essay by Jo Barney
I’m turning left onto l9th when an ancient red station wagon, fake wooden
sides, edges into the intersection, aiming, it seems, for my front fender. A little
old lady, both hands at the twelve o’clock position on her steering wheel, peers
first to her right, then swings her gaze to the left and me. No sign of recognition.
Only a startle reflex. Where did you come from? her wide eyes signal. I roll
down my window.
“Mom,” I yell. “It’s me.” My words don’t compute during the time it takes
her to lower her own window.
Then, “Joie!” She grins at me, says something to the man next to her who
has not heard a word, can’t see much either. My father.
I ask where they’re going. My mother calls the street number of a large
one-stop store four miles away. She knows I’ll know what she means. “Sixty-
seventh. We are going to get some of those big . . . marigolds. Our store
doesn’t have them.”
Again she knows I’ll understand. Lately, we speak a code in which
familiar words vanish into thin air, hands and conglomerations of you-knows and
what-do-you-call-’ems filling in spaces.
She nods and my father asks, “Who you talking to?” He uh-huhs and she
turns back to me.
“You’re coming to see us? Isn’t it weird? I thought you were going to hit
“Turn around, Mom. I’ll drive.”
“I have time,” I add when she hesitates. “Really.”
I watch my mother raise her chin, hands in position, move the wheel to
circle the block. Then I drive up the street to the house they still keep and wait
for their thirty-year-old car to bring them back home. How awful, I think, if
they have an accident because I made them turn around. Moments later,
the red Plymouth crawls up their driveway and they get out and make their ways
toward my car. As usual, they fuss about who sits where.
My father pulls one leg into the seat next to me, then pulls in the second.
“Hi, Daddy,” I say. He doesn’t answer for a moment. Then, fumbling for his
seat belt, he says, “Hi.” Perhaps he heard me this time.
We drive towards the unfamiliar Freddie’s on 67th with the huge marigolds.
When I miss a turn, another twinge of anxiety tightens my chest. I circle a block,
recover. Wouldn’t it be terrible, I think, that instead of a safe trip, I do
something dumb and we have an accident? My mother has never had an
accident. I have. A couple of them. My hands are damp and I am relieved
when the store’s sign rises on the left. We curl through the parking lot to the
gardening section. Unbelted, we open doors.
Every Friday I take my mother to our local grocery to shop. Once we step
out onto the asphalt parking lot, I offer my elbow and she takes it until she can
find a cart. Then she’s on her own. Today, I extend two elbows. My mother
extends one of hers. My father refuses all three. “I can do this,” he grunts, and
my mother shakes her head at him. She doesn’t accept my help either, instead
walks beside her husband with a hand out toward his belt. I move ahead,
announce the curb, point at the gate, wait as they inch towards the shopping
carts just inside the fence.
A young woman is watering the rows of plants with a long wand. I realize
that I will be the point guard in my parents’ wandering search for the giant
marigolds. My job is to lift the front of their carts over the hoses that criss-cross
Mother is getting annoyed. I see her teeth meet over a silent “shit,” her
only curse word, at the fifth barrier. Dad has given up and stands caressing a
fern frond as if his fingers can tell him things his eyes cannot.
Then I spy the marigolds. Even as babies, their frilly leaves are huge,
beckoning above the impatiens. We push our way to them, and Mother lifts the
plastic packs one by one to inspect their contents. I glance back at my father,
but he is no longer in the ferns.
“What do you think, Joie? We decided we need five packs. These look
pretty good.” My mother loads her cart without waiting for my reply. I am still
looking for my father.
“Where’s Dad?” she asks, unzipping her wallet.
“You go pay,” I answer. “He’s somewhere.”
“I shouldn’t take him shopping. He wanders. Drives me crazy.” My
mother heads for the check stand.
He’s not at the gate. He’s not in the wet aisles, standing or lying in them.
He’s not anywhere. But an empty cart is, at the door to the main part of the
store. His cart. I can tell by the smushed plastic bag at the bottom of the
basket, the same bag I thought of getting rid of before I realized that nothing
else would be occupying that space on this trip. As I approach the cart,
automatic double doors swoosh open, and I understand. My father has
stepped inside and has been swallowed by a sixteen-thousand-square-foot maze.
A similar lostness happened a year ago. I had set Mother loose with her
cart in our usual store, and at some point in my own shopping I became
mesmerized by the display of Best Sellers paperbacks, l, 2, 3, so on. How can
one writer have three or four books at a time on that list? She must be a
conglomerate, a roomful of people with the same name, all spewing out words,
I guessed. I paged through several books looking for clues, talking to myself.
“No way could. . . .” A voice interrupted me. “Joanne, your mother is waiting
for you at the customer service station. Please meet her there.”
“I’ve already checked out,” she explained. “I thought you were lost.”
Have I mentioned that while my mother is a bright ninety, I am an okay seventy?
Besides each other, we had also lost sixty-five years for a couple of minutes,
became mother and child again.
This time, though, the missing person can’t hear a loudspeaker. I have to
find him on my own. How ironic, I think, that instead of helping my parents,
I have caused a major trauma to at least one of them. Lost in Freddie’s.
Then I see him in the Miller Paint aisle. He is stroking a gallon paint can, a
look of disbelief creasing his forehead.
“Dad,” I shout into his better ear.
“I can’t believe Millers is selling paint here. Off the shelf. Don’t they mix
colors anymore?” He looks as if he’s seen it all now. Seen, of course, as
defined by the edge-vision of his macular degeneration, as he rubs the logo of
a paint company he has trusted for forty years.
“Times change, Dad,” I say.
“Let’s go home,” he says.
And we do. The marigolds are really tall. Bright yellow. Nothing ironic
about them at all.
Jo Barney has written three novels and a number of essays and short stories
which have appeared online and in journals since her retirement as a licensed
counselor of parents and children ten years ago. She is so thankful to have this
time now to write, a dream she’s held since she was twelve.
I am about seventy. My parents are in their nineties. We are a part of the
growing phenomenon of the almost-aged taking care of the truly aged.
We children are blessed with long-lived parents and their genes, but never
in our lives did we imagine that we’d have both grandchildren and
parents in diapers at the same time. We are enriched, exhausted, and
bemused. When, in the next twenty years that separate my parents and
me, should I expect to be lost in Freddie’s? And who will be looking for me?
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Apple Valley Review:
A Journal of Contemporary
Volume 2, Number 2
Copyright © 2007
by Leah Browning, Editor.
All future rights to material
published in the Apple
Valley Review are retained
by the individual authors