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Laurel DiGangi’s fiction and creative nonfiction has been published in The Chicago Reader, Denver Quarterly, Fourth Genre, Asylum, Atlanta Quarterly, Cottonwood, Two Hawks Quarterly, and Under the Gum Tree, among others. Her essay “Pretty Fingers” recently received honorable mention and was published in Tulip Tree’s Stories That Need to Be Told 2022.
Dumbo, Toaster, and Yo’ Mama’s Volvo
From WTP Vol. XI #5
One day I was chauffeuring my mother around town in Dumbo, her pachyderm grey van, on our way home from one of her doctors. Perhaps the podiatrist who ground dead skin off her neuropathic, numb-yet-ticklish feet while she giggled like a little girl. Or maybe the eye doctor who said she wasn’t a good candidate for cataract surgery after she freaked out over a single eyedrop. “You do know that post-surgery she’ll need eyedrops four times a day,” he told me while “Maa”—that’s what I called her in my rhinal Chicago twang—rubbed her doomed eyeball and demanded a Kleenex. Then there was that old GP she was hot for, who reminded her of Abraham Lincoln and kept her flush with Alzheimer’s meds and pain pills. (This was back in the early aughts, before the dangers of prescription opioids made front page news.) “Doctor, are you married?” she once asked him, and he chortled knowingly before answering yes.
Maa’s meticulous beauty routine was one of the few skills she hadn’t lost. That afternoon, as she sat next to me in Dumbo’s passenger seat, her poofy blonde hair dipped in a wave over deftly arched brows and her green eyes focused lustfully on the dashboard.
Then she said, “Do you think, maybe, I could try driving again? Just in an empty parking lot somewhere? I want to see if I remember how.”
And what if she forgets?
Her coral lips pressed together in determination. “Just for a little bit, please? I wanna call my friends back home and tell them that I drove in California!”
Then you could tell them how you mowed down a dozen pedestrians before crashing into a nail salon.
Which was quite likely. Maa had stopped driving three years earlier, back in Chicago when her doctors had told her not to drive, and I’d realized it was time to put my aging-mother plan into action. I helped Maa clear out her hoarder’s paradise, sell her home, and move in with me and my husband. Dumbo followed, making the 2,000 mile trip in a double-decker car carrier. Maa needed to cling to the delusion that one day she’d be driving again—despite her difficulties seeing clearly, paying attention, feeling her foot on the gas pedal, and thinking logically, even when she wasn’t high on oxy.
“No Maa, sorry. I can’t let you drive.”
“Why not?!” she twanged loudly.
I said nothing. I had so many answers, I didn’t know which to choose.
A silent minute passed before she changed tack. “So Laurie, tell me again why you won’t let me drive.” This time sweetly, innocently, like Steinbeck’s Lenny begging George to tell him again about the rabbits.
“Would you like me to make you a list?”
I felt bad as soon as I said it. But then she laughed, her mouth wide open, snorting and cackling. I joined the merriment and laughed along. After all, we’d collected decades of memories that set us off on laughing jags: some innocent, like Peanuts comic strips and Daffy Duck cartoons; others obscene, like a Polish folksong parody she taught me, “Stara Baba Jak Cholera,” about an old woman seeking two men to simultaneously satisfy her boundless sexual needs.
For Maa, laughing was like a good cup of coffee, a rich dessert, perhaps even an orgasm. After she calmed down from convulsive chuckles, she’d say, “Oh, I needed that!” Yet she rarely created her own humor unless unintentional. Like the time I took her to a “special needs” clinic at a university dental school after I’d witnessed her former dentist’s rude and impatient behavior. Relaxing in a dental chair, Maa took a gulp of icy cold water and proclaimed, “My God! I felt that all the way down to my vagina!” And when the dental students surrounding us snickered, my mother turned red with shame. “I’m sorry,” she said in all sincerity, “I meant twat.”
The laughter among those students increased exponentially.
One day I asked Maa why she named her beloved van “Dumbo.”
“Like that cartoon elephant, Dumbo,” she said. “I thought you knew that.”
“But wasn’t Dumbo a nickname the other animals gave him? You know, Dumbo like dumb, stupid. Are you calling your van stupid?”
“Elephants aren’t stupid!” she said. “They’re smart! They remember everything. That’s why the Democrats—the good people, like us—are the elephants and the Republicans are the donkeys, the jackasses, right?”
When I told her that she’d mixed up her animals, she refused to believe me, but was relieved when I confirmed that her beloved Franklin Delano Roosevelt, that comforting radio voice of her World War II childhood, had indeed been a Democrat.
The day Dumbo’s engine began smoking on the 210 freeway and a firetruck with a blaring siren pulled me over, Maa wasn’t riding with me, thank God. She would’ve panicked, maybe even had a heart attack. Later the mechanic told me that Dumbo had experienced a massive oil leak and his engine was kaput. But Maa wasn’t ready to say goodbye. She insisted on paying for a pricey engine transplant, which extended his life another two years. Only after his transmission failed was I finally able to convince Maa that we should lay him to rest in the elephant graveyard where his parts might be used to extend the life of other dying vehicles.
I had a brief crush on PT Cruisers until they were typecast as official soccer-mom car and nicknamed “PT Losers.” But the day I first set eyes on a Scion XB, I knew it was the real thing. I liked its tall boxy shape, like a top hat, my favorite Monopoly piece, a car I’d never lose in a parking lot. (I have a bad visual memory for automobiles.) I even liked the put-down assigned them by car snobs—“Toasters”—because to me, toasters were gleaming, iconic appliances that rarely broke down. Scion XBs were also marketed to a young hip audience and ironically the perfect vehicle for a 54-year-old woman and her 75-year-old mother.
Perfect because after years of driving Maa’s gas-guzzling pachyderm with its weather-beaten grey hide, I needed something shiny and new. Perfect because Toasters were cheap and fuel efficient. And perfect because their seats were “the perfect buttocks height” for older women. Maa’s arthritic joints had made getting in and out of high vans and low sedans challenging. But the Toaster’s seats gently grazed the bottom curve of her derriere as she effortlessly slid in and out.
Not that my Toaster was 100% flawless. During Santa Ana windstorms, its flat sides became sails, and I struggled to stay afloat in my lane. Its engine was loud and its ride rough, but that only bothered me on our family jaunts, when Tom drove, Maa sat alongside him, and I experienced firsthand how the Toaster’s backseat amplified these faults. Trying to converse with anyone up front was like talking over a coffee grinder while riding a mechanical bull, so I shut up and gazed at distant transformers to avoid getting carsick.
One day Maa felt “funny” but couldn’t describe the sensation. I called Dr. Lincoln’s office who said they’d only be open for another twenty minutes so hurry over, but Maa—who had a lifetime struggle with procrastination—insisted on changing clothes, spraying her hair, and smearing on her coral lipstick, despite my efforts to gently hurry her along. “He’ll wait for me,” she said, but a half-hour later I knew better and told her we were going to urgent care.
We never got there. On our way to the car, Maa fell in the driveway. An ambulance took her to a nearby emergency room where the on-call doctor said she suffered a hairline fracture in her kneecap. I never found out what had made her feel “funny,” but the fall began her decline. Maa now needed a walker and not that long afterwards, a wheelchair. I eventually had to move her to a “board and care,” a private home licensed to provide assisted-living services to seniors. She was happy there until Lewy Body dementia moved in with her. One day she was joyfully telling me about a telegraphic message from a new friend who wanted her to join a special singing group. Soon she was throwing food and screaming at her invisible, dead friend Stella for stealing Dr. Abraham Lincoln away from her. To calm her violent outbursts, Lincoln prescribed antipsychotics, which made her quasi-catatonic.
I used to take Maa for joyrides in Toaster—when I was a child she loved driving for its own sake—but all I could do now was push her around the block in a wheelchair. My once loquacious mother now rarely spoke, except for an occasional, muttered snippet, a reaction to a strange world locked inside her head. One afternoon I was rolling her down the sidewalk when a tiger swallowtail alighted on her thigh, spreading its wings. I said, “Hey Maa, look!” not expecting a response. A few seconds passed. Then she said, “I feel good, Laurie.” It had been months since I’d heard her say my name. It would be the last time I ever did.
Yo’ Mama’s Volvo
Summer 2021. My mother-in-law, who I’ll call “Mil,” offered to give us her 2006 Volvo S60 with only 50,000 miles on its odometer. We immediately said yes, though secretly I had my qualms. I still loved my Toaster, even after 15 years, 147,000 miles, a finicky driver’s side window, a broken phone charger, and three rear-end collisions. Now older, I appreciated the ideal buttocks-height of my Toaster’s seats, and like my mother before me, I’d bonded with my automobile. My other objection to owning a Volvo was, I admit, trivial. I’d always thought that “Volvo” sounded too much like “vulva,” that is, a woman’s external genital region that includes the inner and outer labia, clitoris, and vaginal and urethral openings. Talking about my Volvo seemed more appropriate with doctors than mechanics.
When Maa was alive, she and Mil were my yin and yang. When I had too much of Maa’s eccentricities, I looked forward to Mil’s calm pragmatism. She’s a wholesome, frugal woman and the diametric opposite of my bawdy, goofy, spendthrift mother. She’s also a Republican who was born knowing her party was the elephant, a history buff with an IQ of 150 who can tell you everything you never wanted to know about the Federalists, Whigs, and former presidents nobody remembers. Instead of weighing her life down with knickknacks and an extensive wardrobe like Maa, Mil guarded every penny and splurged only on large, worthwhile expenditures, like a trip to China and an automobile with leather upholstery and an excellent safety rating. A Volvo was high-end luxury, but it was practical luxury.
I was certain that Mil’s mind, unlike my mother’s, would never shut down. There was too much brain-power and stubbornness packed behind those silvery white curls. Unfortunately macular degeneration was slowly damaging her eyes, causing centralized blind spots. And despite Mil’s logical nature, she continued to drive. She claimed she had no problems driving because she only traveled to the same three places where she knew the route. Because she always made three right turns instead of a left. Besides, her plan was to stop driving when she turned ninety, and at eighty-nine, she still had another year to go.
Then Mil failed her driving test, twice. She botched her first attempt by driving too slowly—the bane of old ladies and stoners. The second time she ran a stop sign—and blamed the stop sign, claiming it was higher now than last time, an excuse I’d more easily imagine coming from Maa. Mil was determined to try a third time. But she soon had a scare—perhaps a lucky one—when she became lost in a parking lot and couldn’t find her doctor’s office. Was it her eyes? Or her mind? She wasn’t sure. But we knew it was a little of both.
The incident caused Mil to revert to her default, pragmatic mode. She decided to forgo a third driving test, quickly sold her home, and moved into an assisted-living community where she’d reserved a room over a decade earlier.
I hadn’t seen Mil since before the pandemic. Now everything about her seemed thinner: her already slim frame, her voice, her silver-grey curls. When she signed the Volvo’s title over to Tom, she needed a magnifying glass to ensure her shaky handwriting stayed within the lines.
But she was in good spirits and we made the best of our time together. The staff was friendly and accommodating—and not once, thank God, did anyone mistake us for residents.
I liked Mil’s car the moment I saw it. It was silver with a hint of green, a hue that the Volvo corporation called “willow.” After hearing how one of Mil’s male friends teased her about her ugly “puke green,” car, I wasn’t expecting a hue so calm and appealing.
We took that willow Volvo to a local zoo. Mil rode alongside Tom, directing his every turn. But he ignored her driving directions, opting for a longer yet simpler route he remembered, rather than a shorter one his mother probably didn’t.
“Thomas! I don’t know why you’re not following my directions,” Mil said.
“This way is easier for me,” Tom said.
I checked my phone and he was right. The shortest route required multiple zig-zagging turns, was confusing as hell, and saved approximately three minutes.
“You’re adding unnecessary wear and tear on the car!” she blurted out before settling into a pout.
I thought, no wonder there’s only 50,000 miles on that odometer. But I also wondered how Mil felt knowing that soon she’d relinquish control over anything we might put her Volvo through in the future: speeding, hard braking, second-rate repair jobs, fender benders, infrequent oil changes, and spreading donut crumbs all over its lush leather interior.
On our road trip back to California, I talked Tom into keeping all three cars. We’d simply scrap whichever of our old beaters broke down first. Since my job required a much longer commute, we agreed that eventually the Volvo would be mine.
The plan seemed logical, but frankly, I was stalling. I wasn’t ready to relinquish my Toaster. I was taller and heavier than Mil, and spoiled by the ideal buttocks-height of my Toaster’s car seats. Crawling out of the low-framed Volvo took greater effort than I was used to, and lowering myself in was even a greater challenge: I’d bumped my head twice on the frame before we’d even hit Omaha, Nebraska.
That second bump inspired me.
“Hey, Tom, you know what?”
He looked tired, and I knew this would wake him up.
“Yo’ mama’s volvo is so low to the ground, I keep smacking my head trying to get inside of it.”
He guffawed, then snapped back, “Oh yeah, well that’s because you don’t know the right way to get into my mama’s volvo.”
I knew our jokes were not anatomically correct, but that only made them funnier. Our routine followed us through the visual splendor of the Rockies, Bryce Canyon, Zion, and Vegas.
“Yo’ mama’s volvo’s so big, you can fit five people inside!”
“Yo mama’s volvo is a funny shade of green, like mold!”
Not long after we arrived home, we received a recall notice from Volvo. The 2006 S60 Model had serious air bag issues, or to quote from the Consumer Reports website: “… the airbag’s inflator could rupture when the airbag deploys, spraying metal pieces of the inflator at the vehicle’s occupants with such force that they can cause injury or death.”
Or, to put it succinctly, if yo’ don’t watch out, yo’ mama’s volvo gonna spear you to death with shards of metal.
At nearby Volvo repair shops, replacement parts were on back order, causing the Volvo to sit idle in our front driveway. Meanwhile 2,000 miles away, Mil was having second thoughts. She wished she hadn’t given up her car. She missed her independence. She felt trapped.
I’d know that feeling all too soon. Setting off one afternoon for a neighborhood nature hike, I tripped on our front walkway, fracturing my ankle. Now I was stuck working from home, upstairs in my tower like Rapunzel, depending on Tom to bring me coffee and nourishment. I yearned for my hikes to the dry riverbed where I’d visit with the bluebirds, goldfinches, and occasional hawks. I felt trapped.
Six months later, the Volvo was repaired, my orthopedic boot was off, and the doctor said I could drive again. Yet I insisted on taking Toaster to work. Meanwhile, Tom kept reminding me that the Volvo would be much safer for my long commute.
“It’s got a strong, solid frame,” he said.
“Yo’ mama’s volvo can withstand serious impact!”
“You’re gonna love those heated seats when winter comes along.”
“Yo’ mama’s volvo can keep a butt nice and warm.”
I appreciated Tom’s concern for my derriere’s safety and comfort. But Toaster was a part of me, my familiar freeway cocoon for the last 15 years. “I just started driving again,” I told Tom. “My ankle still hurts. I feel safer in something I’m used to.” Yet secretly I wondered, why was I so hesitant to move on?
Then Toaster needed its back wheel bearings replaced and a few other things that would total over a thousand bucks. Either that or risk losing a wheel on the freeway. It was time to give yo mama’s volvo a chance. After all, it did have an elegant Swedish design.
But first, I needed to take a baby step. Or a baby drive.
I told Tom, “Why don’t we take the Volvo out for a bit? I can do a few circles in a parking lot somewhere and see if I like it.”
After driving one circle, I felt foolish. Was I really expecting to experience the advantages of driving a six-cylinder car in a Ralph’s parking lot? I pulled out into the street.
“Where are we going now?” Tom asked.
“The freeway,” I said.
I got onto the ramp. Put the hammer down and whoosh, I was up to freeway speed in a second. I still felt a bit low to the ground, even after I boosted the driver’s seat up to its highest setting. But I sure enjoyed that whoosh. I unnecessarily changed lanes, passing a chunky concrete mixer, just to feel it again. I wondered if Mil ever changed lanes just to feel that zip. Probably never. Her Volvo’s speedometer went up to 160. Had she ever even driven over 55?
And now, her eyes are so damaged that she can barely read thick novels, her passion. I remember my uncle’s gnarled, arthritic hands, no longer able to play piano. An aunt who lost her ability to knit elaborate, “ugly” Christmas sweaters. My father getting kicked out of the YMCA pool because of the diabetic sores on his legs. My father-in-law, suddenly paralyzed from the waist down, unable to golf or use the bathroom by himself.
I wondered, how long would it be before I can no longer do or enjoy the simple things I take for granted? One day, perhaps sooner than I think, I’ll lose my ability to drive safely—or worse. If all I have to let go of now is my familiar old Toaster, I’m lucky.
Back home, I called our mechanic of ten years. Was he interested in buying my Scion? My first shot at trying to sell Toaster, and I actually succeeded.
The following Monday I told Tom, “I can’t wait to go to work and show everyone my new volvo.” The sentiment was as intentional as my humor.
The morning of my Volvo’s first California oil change, the mechanic made a unique discovery. A large glob of what looked like dryer lint was attached to my cabin filter, and the compartment where it resided was lined with fur, lint, and dead leaves.
I asked the mechanic: “Rats?”
“Sure looks like it,” he said.
I wasn’t upset. Rats nesting inside warm air filters is common in Southern California—especially when they lay fallow for months. I watched as the mechanic vacuumed out the debris and replaced my air filter.
Suddenly, it hit me.
Rats had built a fuzzy nest inside my volvo!
No way could I explain my giggle fits to the mechanic. Nor could I share the strange phenomena I’d been experiencing over the last few weeks with a straight face.
Sometimes my volvo smelled a little like rotting meat.
Sometimes my volvo made a funny, high-pitched squealing sound.
My secret fear had been assuaged. Those smells and squeals had been real. I wasn’t delusional like my mother. Oh, Maa. If only you survived and stayed healthy enough to hear my Volvo jokes. You’d probably say, “Laurie, stop! Please! Before I piss myself!”
Dumbo and Toaster had been good cars, but they couldn’t be half as entertaining as my new Volvo.
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