My aunt, who died several months ago, was the closest thing I ever had to any kind of a mother. We shared many things in common, including each of us having 5 kids, suffering through abusive relationships, and having no sense of direction whatsoever.
Years ago I used to take her out to dinner every couple of months, and boy was that an ordeal! Armed with the best of intentions, I’d set out for her home across town with the stubborn belief that this time I wouldn’t get lost.
Oh, it always started out okay. That is to say, I’d point my car in the right direction, even manage to make it to the right freeway on-ramp. About 5 minutes into my little jaunt, I’d be feeling pretty confident, a tad bit smug, even. This is easy, I’d tell myself. A piece of cake! And yet at some point in my journey something inevitably went wrong. I’d turn left when I should have turned right, and waste a good 20 minutes trying to figure out how to get pointed back in the right direction. What should have been a 15 minute trip normally turned into an hour long nightmare.
Panic overtook me each time I realized, with sinking heart, that once again I’d blown it. And I was doing so well! I never understood how or where I went wrong. If the sky began to darken as I drove around in a frenzy of frazzled nerves, it deepened my fear. What if I never find her house, what if I drive around in circles until I run out of gas, then what? How will I get home?
The fact that I’d always managed to find my way before was never any comfort, for that always seemed a fluke to me, something I certainly couldn’t count on to happen again. But I would, eventually, find her neighborhood and then her street. And there was Auntie, patiently waiting for me on the porch every time.
“OK,” I’d tell her as she climbed into the car, “this time we have to remember the street names so we can find our way back. You read them off while I drive.” The problem with this method was that I couldn’t really pay attention to the names she reeled off, and concentrate on my driving at the same time. For now I’d be faced with another dilemma: how to find my way to our favorite restaurant. Never mind that we’d eaten there many times before, it was always as if I were searching for it for the first time. Maybe I have early Alzheimer’s, I thought on more than one occasion.
Auntie would obediently read me the street names, all the while digging around in her purse for something to write them down with. You’d think we’d have this whole thing down pat, by now. That she would come armed with pen and paper, ready to scribble down the names which sounded foreign to me no matter how many times I heard them.
“Hmmm,” I’d murmur at the first stop light, clearly stalling, not wanting quite yet to admit that I had to idea where to go from here. “Do we go straight, do you remember, or what.”
“Oh no,” she’d say, with full conviction. “I’m sure that last time we took a right.”
“Well, seems to me we turned left, didn’t we?”
“No, it was a right. I remember because my right hand was sore that day.”
“Okay, so we hang a right. Then what?”
“I think . . .” and she’d pause, her face scrunched up in concentration. “Well, when my church group had lunch there last year, I know that we took a right and then kept going until we got to that one main street.”
“But which one?” The light had turned green and reluctantly I stepped on the gas, forgetting until I was past the intersection that I had meant to turn.
Auntie didn’t notice. She was too caught up in trying to recreate the route her church group had taken a whole year ago.
“Foster?” I’d say, listing all the main streets I could remember, “Glisan, Stark, Division? Was it Division?”
“Could be,” she’d say, and when I cut her a dubious look she’d start to laugh. “I have no idea!” she’d confess. “I didn’t want to admit that because of my pride. I don’t know what street we turned on! It was dark and I wasn’t paying attention!” By this time she’d be laughing so hard that she’d be in danger of having a little accident there in the front seat of my car. I couldn’t really be angry with her–after all, she had never learned to drive, so had never had reason to memorize streets and routes. “I need a bathroom!” she’d roar, and that was it, I’d lose it too, laughing so hard that I could barely see to drive.
We did always manage to find . . . a restaurant. Not the one we’d been aiming for, usually it was whichever one we stumbled upon first after her slightly hysterical announcement about needing a restroom fast. And having found one at last, we weren’t about to rush through our meal. No way, Jose. We lingered, spending 2-3 hours gabbing away about any and everything. Taking our sweet time because, though neither of us ever said as much, we both dreaded the moment when we’d get back in the car and have to go through the whole rigmarole in reverse. It was even worse on the way back, for now I had to try to find our way back to her house in the dark, and me with my poor night vision.
“Do you remember that street?” I’d ask, as a street sign (barely discernable in the dark) loomed before us.
“Uhmm,” she’d murmur, suddenly overtaken with the urge to scramble around in her pockets for a breath mint. “Maybe,” she’d say, considering.
“Well I’ve never heard of it before in my life.”
“You’re right, neither have I.”
“But we must have passed it on the way here,” I reasoned. We’d exchange blank looks before screwing up our faces for the next sign.
What a huge relief to finally arrive at her house, though it was little consolation for now I had to fumble my way home across town in the dark. But first, I needed to use her bathroom before setting out on my perilous journey home. Inevitably, her daughter’s hubby would chastise us for getting lost once again.
“I drew you a map!” he’d cry with indignation. This brought on another spurt of hysterical laughter from the two of us—as if we could read a map!
“It’s not five minutes from here,” he’d continue, clearly not understanding the extent of our handicap. “There’s no way you could miss it, it’s a straight shot.”
“Well, we missed it,” Auntie would say, and we’d both howl while his face creased with consternation. You numb-skulls, I imagined him thinking. How could anyone be so stupid?
“So…” I’d begin slowly, not really wanting to give him more reason to question my IQ, “how do I get back to the freeway?” Poor man, I really do believe he wanted to tear his hair out by the clumpfuls.
“Just go back the way you came,” he’d practically yell at me. A throbbing vein in his neck seemed perilously close to exploding.
“Oh, right.” Well I couldn’t do it, couldn’t bring myself to tell him how many times I’d gotten turned around in the wrong direction on the way over, and therefore couldn’t recreate my route if I wanted to.
“It’s simple,” he’d say, and I nodded my head in agreement. Nothing in the universe could impel me, at this point, to admit that I had no clue as to how to get myself home. “Here,” he’d say, snatching up a napkin and pen. “You’re here,” and he drew a long crooked line to illustrate here, “and over here’s where you live. Now to get there, you simply follow this road here,” scribble scribble, “and turn south when you reach this point,” more scribble scribble. Behind his back Auntie and I exchanged amused looks. South indeed! I had no knowledge of south, it meant nothing to me. Right and left I could handle, but south! That was no help at all.
“So there you go,” he’d conclude, handing me the crumpled napkin with its crude map.
“Okay, thanks.” And I left, always, with a heavy sense of doom, wondering if anyone would ever hear from me again.
When I was a teenager my dad used to say that he could drop me off at the corner and I’d get lost going around the block. It was truer than he realized, for I truly had so sense of direction, having lost, during my early childhood, any sense of myself in relation to the world around me. To those who are not directionally-challenged like myself, there is no way to express the depth of my lack of direction, of the feeling of lostness I’ve carried around with me for most of my life. But it’s one quirk I shared in common with my aunt, and I long every now and then to be back behind the wheel, laughing with her over our inability to navigate ourselves across town.