Sunday, August 21, 2011

Sundays with Steve - Driving Miss Daisy

These Sunday's segments are written by my husband, Mr. Jenny. Here's what he has to say about his posts:

I’ve been writing these weekly stories about life in Northern Idaho, as a youngster and as growing into a young man, primarily for our family. And I'm delighted to share them with you. Just between us, I’m anticipating being cranky when some whipper-snapper who may not even be born yet harasses me in 30 years or so with 'Grandpa, tell me about when you were a boy.' That will probably be after the mad cow disease has set in and erased whatever memory is left. So these are the not-so-dramatic adventures of a Baby Boomer in the 1950s, 60s and 70s.


One of the rights of passage, one of the summer jobs each one of us brothers were expected to do, was to drive Miss Daisy the 450 miles to the ocean beach each summer.

Miss Daisy, in this case, was my grandmother Alice Alford. That year, she, her daughter Eugenia, and her granddaughter Connie, were packed into the 1958 Cadillac for the 12 hour drive, with me at the wheel .

I was 15 years old, I had been driving a year, and I was nervous about driving the relatives to the Coast. It was a long drive with a car full of female relatives, and I wasn’t real confident as where I fit into the pecking order, other than being on the bottom.

It was early June when the car was packed. Aunt Eugenia had been packing for weeks, as she always did, and shipped most of the family’s summer beach clothes and effects ahead using a commercial trucking line. These were the days before UPS or FedEx. I would be sent to the truck line offices in Seaside, Oregon, the next day to retrieve the piles of trunks and suitcases.

Granby and her late husband had been making this summer trip to the Coast since the 1910s, to escape the summer heat of the inland Northwest. For many decades they took a paddle-wheeled steamer down the Snake River from their hometown of Lewiston, Idaho, to the Columbia River and then on to Portland, and finally to Astoria, Oregon, where the river met the sea. The last steamer blew up and burned in the 1930s, forcing the annual journey to the primitive highways of the region.

I was nervous about being the chauffer that year, but also excited. I had never driven a long distance, and the change from being a passenger crammed in the back for numerous trips over the years, to the steersman guiding the ship of state, was exciting.

The ship of state was a 1958 Cadillac, one of either the ugliest automobiles of the era, or one of the most classic, depending on your point view. It was a 5,000 pound monster that was crammed to the roof and fully overloaded for the long journey.

Granby was a kind woman: gentle, intelligent, thoughtful, decisive, and forceful when needed. I was close to her growing-up; we lived a mile away from her which became comfortable bicycle range when we were in grade school. I spent hours at her house whenever I could, knowing that there was always a bottle of Coca-Cola in the refrigerator and a peanut butter sandwich for the asking. Years later when I came home on college breaks, her house was always my first stop, and always, there was a Coke in the fridge waiting for me, and hours of discussion that followed.

That year I drove the family to the Coast, she was 81 of the 97 years she would live.

Aunt Eugenia -- known as Genie to most and my mother’s sister -- was not quite so kind and gentle. She was a bit more critical and controlling, shall we say. She had a sharp tongue, and she knew how to use it.

Her daughter Connie, the third in the car that day, and my cousin, was about 30 years old, and had suffered a stroke years earlier when attending college. She had never fully recovered, and it became Aunt Genie’s burden to care for her for years to come. Connie had always referred to my brothers and me as “brats”, and she still did that year. There was no love lost between us.

The day was warm, and my mother delivered me to Granby’s house early for the long drive. We were on the road by eight, with Granby in back-seat passenger side, a position she had occupied for years. Genie was in the passenger’s seat front, while Connie was behind me in the back seat.

I had seen or read jokes for years about “back seat drivers”, and I learned that day what that term meant: My aunt was a dictator in the front seat. “You can go faster, you are going too fast, you should be a bit closer to the truck up ahead, you are too close to that car, be careful passing here.... “ It was going to be a long, long day, not for the distance, but for my Aunt’s propensity to control, my Aunt who had never learned to drive.

These were two lane roads most of the 350 miles to Portland, then the last 100 miles to the Coast. There was very little traffic for the first 120 miles, until we came to the Columbia River highway. There the traffic was heavy with trucks and cars, but traveling at pretty good speeds of about 50 mph. We finally hit a four-lane “super highway” at The Dalles, then roared into Portland at a high speed of 60 (Genie wouldn’t let me drive any faster than that).

Aunt Genie and Cousin Connie had to stop about every 30 or 40 miles to use the facilities at a cafe or gasoline station. There were a couple of lunch breaks during the day, and a nice diner near Portland. It was tedious, I thought we would never get to the Coast.

Granby was kind and sweet the entire drive, even though I could tell she had tired of Genie’s banter and non-stop talking. Granby napped a bit through the day, but mostly she watched the river pass by and occasionally told stories of her and her husband taking the steamboats to the Coast, with my mother as a child along with the rest of the siblings, in tow.

Driving down the western slope of the Coast Range, I could smell the salt in the air 20 miles before we came to the Pacific Ocean. It revived me, it woke me up, it gave me new energy . We finally arrived near sunset, and found the condo they had rented for the summer ready for occupancy.

They put me in a motel across the street from their condo, and I assured them I would be fine and would see them the next morning. I took a long walk that night along the sandy beach of the Pacific, hours and miles up to Fort Stevens, then back. I decided then I that I loved the ocean, which I already knew, and that I loved long-distance driving but that I hated driving the family for that long distance.

The next day I drove Granby to some of her favorite places, places she had been visiting for 50 and 60 years, while Genie and Connie stayed in the condo to rest from the long journey.

Granby found her favorite clam chowder for lunch, the giant Haystack Rock at Cannon Beach still standing, and the fishing wharf at Astoria busy as usual. The Naval mothball fleet was still upriver from Astoria, the Crab Broiler was still serving fancy meals out on Highway 101, the Bell Boy market was still pushing local sea food, Leonard’s was still pulling salt water taffy, and the “turn-around” at the end of the main street, where the highway met the sand, was still there and operating.

All was good in Granby’s world that day, all was as it was suppose to be.

Several days later I boarded a Greyhound bus that would take me to the Portland airport to catch a West Coast Airlines flight home, a flight that was almost as long as the drive to the beach had been. Granby would do the driving around the beach town for the summer -- slowly, oh, so slowly -- but she did not enjoy highway driving and would not drive far. So I would be back in early September to drive the family home again, after they spent another summer at the beach. And I would make the long summer drive once more the following year in my passage to adulthood, passing the true test of long distance driving: Enduring Aunt Eugenia for endless hours in a closed automobile.

(c) 2010 Stephen J. Matlock
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LuLu Kellogg said...

I love hearing stories from other's childhoods....your Aunt Genie reminds me a lot of my Aunt Berta!

Jeanie said...

I also had an aunt that never drove but was always ready to tell other people how to drive. I felt your pain.
That Cadillac was a classic...

Pondside said...

Astoria is one of my favorite towns - something about the hillside location, the history of Scandinavian settlement and the wonderful old buildings. We've spent many hours on the dunes around Fort Stevens and in the water of the shallow beaches. While I don't envy the young Steve that drive, I certainly enjoyed it myself, imagining the non-stop direction from your aunt and the quiet approval of your Granby.

Ames said...

Sounds more like Driving Miss Crazy! This would make a very good book or movie. I enjoyed this little story Steve!~Ames

Ms. A said...

Just think, 450 miles wouldn't take nearly that long today. I remember making the trips to Carolina, back in the day and it took 2 days. My Dad was too cheap to stop and rent a place to rest and recuperate, so we just drove and drove and drove. I couldn't do it like that now.