Travels with Mom Larry Massett
Journies in time more than distance.
Travels with Mom
by Larry Massett
HOST: Us baby boomers have reached that age where our parents are either gone or sinking into their debilitating older years. It's hard witnessing the aging process when it comes to our own parents. Body parts failing, the mind weakening. Each month, my mom's memory fades back another degree, as Alzheimer's takes its toll. But there's a tenderness to old age, too. We sit sweetly and quietly together, holding hands as we never did in previous years, smiling at the simplest things, such as the shape of a strawberry. And, as Larry Massett discovered on this trip with his eldery mom, after all these years, we can still be surprised by the people we thought we knew best.
Trax: My Mom is close to 90 but she still likes to travel. She likes to think about travel, anyway. When I’m going down to Savannah for a visit we usually plan a trip: we talk on the phone about driving to Florida- Jacksonville maybe, or Sea World, maybe even the Keys. Yeah, she says, that would be fun. On the phone it sounds like her bags are packed. But when I walk in her front door it’s a different story: there are no suitcases in sight. Just a styrofoam cooler. That’s the clue. It means where we’re really going is the local beach- Tybee Island, half an hour away. This is where we go.
1) Larry: So we’re not gonna go to Florida, huh?
L: Don’t want to go?
M: No, I don’t travel very well. You don’t have the energy- you know , the waiting, the- I guess you get to the point where you go for comfort more than anything else, and you’re better off to stay in your own environment.
Trax: Her “environment” these days is a cottage in a retirement community. Lots of pine trees and mockingbirds and air conditioners. And a whiff of disinfectant in the air.
2) M They call it “Savannah Square Luxury Retirement Community. ” I don’t know where they got the “luxury” from, it isn’t particularly luxurious.
T: She lives alone since my father died but she seems to have plenty of friends- especially friends who play bridge.
3)M: I went two years in January to the Cloisters down at Sea Island, to the bridge festival. And that was fun, we were there for a week and played bridge till it was boring. This year though, I couldn’t make it.
T: She couldn’t make it, she says, because of the pills.
4) M: Take a look in the kitchen. There are 13 bottles that I would have to cart along-
L: Oh, I see them-
M: -and some you take before meals, some you take after, and it just makes traveling difficult.
L: I would think it makes staying home difficult too.
M: It does.
L But you still drive, you have your car?
L: So where would you go to on an ordinary day, around town, where would you travel?
M: As far as from here to the Piggly-Wiggly. (laughs) That’s about it.
L: So the grocery store and the drug store...
M And the doctor’s office very often. (laughs)The older you get the more doctors. I go see my regular internist every 3 months, and then there’s the gastroenterologist, and there’s the endocrinologist - so all together it adds up to a lot of pills
T: If you look out the living room window you can almost see- but you can’t quite see- the big building where they put you when you can’t take care of yourself anymore. If you can’t sit up they strap you to your wheelchair. You can’t see that from here but you can feel it, like an undertow....
M: I don’t get lonely, I don’t get bored. For the past two years all of my spare time has been spent helping my niece take care of my sister. She’s had two strokes. And she’s recovered physically but mentally she still has problems, and I don’t think it will ever be any better. The only thing I can do with her is to reminisce; she wants to talk about when we were growing up. And we’ve covered that (laughs) over and over. So there are a lot of things I would probably still be doing except for my sister’s illness. That has changed my life more than anything....
(rustling sounds) L: We’re going to go to the beach now, tell me what we’re packing, what’s in here?
M: Just some drinks.
L: (opening the cooler) Hm, just what you said: there’s a beer, a water, and a Coca-Cola. That’s your three food groups right there.
M: Wait a minute put that down-
L: You’ve got this other bag here, what’s in this?
M. Let’s don’t get into that. That’s just fruit- some strawberries and some pears.
L: Are we going to take these along?
M: Mn-hm. I thought we’d go up on the Pavilion and have a picnic.
L: That’s great, we’re going to travel
M: Yeah, we’re gonna travel
L: We’re going to go to the beach
(music) (car sounds)
T: My mother travels in a semi-retired Oldsmobile stuffed to the brim with Kleenex. It would prefer to head for the nearest shopping mall and park but it can eventually be coaxed on to the road to Tybee.
M: At one time this palm-lined drive drive went all the way from Savannah to the ocean. Gradually over the years the palms have died down and they haven’t replaced them but it was all the way-
L: -that’s twenty miles
M: Uh-huh....and you just see water water everywhere as we’re going out here...marshland-
L: it’s real swamp, real low-
T: The road keeps bridging creeks and inlets- a lot a bridges out here, a lot of islands
9) M: There’s so many I don’t know the names of them. And the railroad used to come- that’s the railroad bed there, where you see all the trees. When I was I child we came to the beach by railroad.
L: How long did that take?
M: I don’t remember... When you come to this bend up here you can see the water. Now you’re looking at the ocean. We’re almost in the ocean, if you go straight you’d be right in it:
(sfx: waves and music)
T: Tybee is a few miles long, a mile wide or so. Along the beach condos are sprouting up but it’s still mostly bungalows. In my mother’s time people came here for the air. On Saturday nights they came to dance at the Pavilion. They say they had big-name bands like Guy Lombardo. This is where we’re headed. First, though, Mom wants me to turn off the the main drag onto a side road. We wind up in a place I don’t know. There are big old wooden buildings, one after the other in a line, like army barracks.
M: We’re at Fort Scriven, where I worked in l935. In this building. I did some court reporting in the main building..don’t know where that is now. I worked as a secretary in there. And this is where I was working when your Dad and I were married. We had to get married, cause he was going broke running down here from Atlanta every weekend (laughs). He was working for the Forest Service in Atlanta and I was War Department here. And at that time husband and wife were not allowed to work for the government. So we were married secretly in September- because I wanted to continue my job for the rest of year, cause (laughs) we needed the money.
L: I hope the government doesn’t hear this-
M: Yeah, if they ever catch up with us-
L: Was this the first job you had?
M: No, when I came out of business college I went to work for the Allnut Music Company for 11 dollars per week. That’s how hard times were. And this job came along and paid 105 a month! I thought I had really struck gold.....
T: Imagine that: My Mom with a secret husband. My mom with no money. Mom at age twenty. What else has she never thought to mention? Well, for one thing the house she lived in when she worked here. We drive around in circles looking for, but no luck, so we drive to a house we can find- the one where we all lived when I was four or five.
M: Here we are. There’s our mansion.... Well, Larry, they’ve kept it up.
T: It’s a beach cottage, set ten feet off the ground on pilings. I remember it was pretty big; but today, strangely enough, it has shrunk to the size of a doghouse: four tiny rooms where my mother and her sister lived with the husbands and relatives and kids and dogs and all when I was four or five. A porch runs around three sides.
M: And the pilings were palmetto. And my father removed all the palmetto and put in those cinder block supports. But he did all that work all the way around the house-
L: I remember-
M: -and had a hernia after he finished it-
L: - I remember he must have been working on it cause I dropped one of those cinder blocks on my foot and my toenail fell off...
M: (cheerfully) mn-hm. ...... So Dad put in that bathroom on the corner there. That was porch all the way-
L. Everyone pretty much spent the whole evening on the porch as I remember-
M: Oh yeah the porch went all the way around the house and we sometimes would sleep out there at night, we didn’t have any air conditioning and we relied on the ocean breezes.
T: Yeah, I remember. My aunt Grace- the one who’s had a stroke...I remember her on the porch at night, when the women played canasta. She had a deep tan and long, really long legs; and manicured fingernails and red lipstick and she laughed at lot and smoked cigarettes that were spelled “Pell Mell” but pronounced “Pall Mall,” or the other way around. And when she said “ I wonder if someone could freshen my drink?” every man in the room jumped. But the porch is empty now, so I say ‘Hey- isn’t it time to get to the Pavilion?”
M: Okay...(sounds of car doors opening, crowded sidewalk ambience....)
T: Okay. Finally we’re getting out of the car. Downtown Tybee is surfboards and motorcycles and beer joints. And sex. Everybody looks to be l8 years old and stark naked. Apparently there’s a fad for flesh-colored bikinis.
The Pavilion is just a fishing pier, but the front part of it is made into a wide circle with a roof over it. This is where the big bands used to play. Actually the old Pavilion burned down years ago; this is a new one, and for some reason they’ve put in a cement floor, which turns it into an echo chamber. It’s jam full of picnic tables and screaming kids and vending machines. It smells like beer and suntan lotion; it doesn’t feel like Guy Lombardo at all.
Nonetheless my Mom sits down peacefully with her bottled water and her pear. She’s having a picnic. Doesn’t she hear this racket? Doesn’t she see these naked people, all these flesh-colored girls? What’s she doing, is she turning her clock back to l935--- is that where she’s going?
(big band music. Pavilion ambience gradually crossfades to backyard ambience, but music remains.)
M: That was something never we missed, was going to the Pavilion to dance on Saturday night. My friend’s mother would go and chaperone us (laughs). See, I was dating your father at that time and he was living in Atlanta so it wasn’t proper for me to go without a date and without a chaperone.
T: We’re back from the beach now and we’re sitting around eating shrimp in Aunt Grace’s back yard
M: Grace was a great dancer. She liked dancing much more than I did, and she could dance from the first dance till they played “Good Night Ladies.” She never missed a dance, she was a beautiful dancer.
Grace, do you remember dancing at Tybee?
Grace: Of course I remember those happy days. Oh.. we used to have name bands, Guy Lombardo was there at one time-
Grace: Yeah we’d put on our best “bib and tucker”- evening dress, that was- and dance all night, as long as the orchestra would stay with us. Whatever the music, wherever it went we went too. But the waltz was so pretty when it was moonlight, you know, and the ocean-
M: Remember Wayne King and “The Waltz You Saved For Me?”
G: Yeah, he was there...
M: And then after the dance you’d go wading in the ocean with your beautiful evening dress...
G: I did (laughs). I was a bad girl.
T: And it occurs to me we’re traveling right now, here in the back yard. Not travel in space- which requires too much Kleenex after a certain age, too many pill bottles- but in time. That’s a road that’s always open, isn’t it? You can call it “memory lane,” as though it were a little footpath; but it’s not, it’s big, it’s the interstate. The older you get the farther it goes; it’s fast, it’s free, and - the funny thing is- the road through time always seems to go exactly where you want it to go.
M: She was fun-loving girl. A fun-lover. You had fun.
G: Yes, I had fun. I had a wonderful time , I never forget those days...
(music and out)