Christmas 1987. My Aunt Mary insists that her MIL Edith attend Christmas dinner with the rest of the family, since Edith has no family other than Mary and her children.
Unfortunately Edith is 92 years old, wheelchair bound, mostly blind and deaf and hasn’t left her home in Maryland for anything other than doctor’s visits since she fell out of bed and broke her arm a few years earlier.
Aunt Mary dispatches her son (my cousin) Bill to drive the 120 or so miles from NJ to MD to pick-up Edith. The plan is to get Edith early Christmas Eve morning and have her stay with Aunt Mary for two days and drive her back the afternoon on the 26th.
Bill elects me as navigator/helper/co-driver as payment in helping me replace the starter in my car a few months earlier.
We set out early morning 06:30 in Mary’s Pontiac Parisienne wagon (think Chevy Caprice wagon with a fancy grille) we gas up, grab a couple of McMuffins and start off.
First snag in our plans - The Delaware Memorial Bridge is four solid lines of traffic from the Jersey side and as far down I-95 as they eye can see. We crawl over the bridge, creep our way down I-95 for a few miles. What should have been a 15 minute ride has taken over an hour.
We decide to bypass the interstates and make our way to Aunt Edith’s cozy little two-story house near Harper’s Ferry around 11 am, just about 45 minutes late.
I take note that Aunt Edith’s bathroom still has the toilet tank high on the wall and WWII era Victory Lamps in the fixtures in the hall,
Aunt Edith’s live-in helper has her ready to go and bags packed, so twenty minutes later we’re ready to get back on the road.
We make Aunt Edith as comfortable as possible in the Pontiac, load her wheelchair in the back of the wagon and have a mostly uneventful trip back to NJ.
Christmas dinner goes off without a hitch. Aunt Edith is enjoying herself, loves being around the young children and even indulges in a glass of wine. She entertains the family with stories of her first car ride, meeting Calvin Coolidge and working as a bookkeeper in a slaughterhouse during the depression to keep the family fed.
Then the stories turn to how she lost eldest son in WWII, just three month after her husband died of a heart attack at age 48, and how her daughter died in a car accident on her 21st birthday a few years later.
Once the conversation turns to Jake, Edith’s youngest child and Mary’s late husband, the mood in the house turns somber. Mary stars getting misty and most of the relatives start cleaning up and every one leaves for home early.
I leave around 7pm as Aunt Mary gets Edith ready for bed.
I get home about 8:00 pm and find a message on my machine from my cousin Bill. Apparently Edith has decided she does not want to spend another night at Mary’s house and wants to go home. NOW.
I’m tired and the buzz from all the food and drink earlier in the day has worn off, and all i want to do is go to sleep.
I call Bill, and apparently there is no reasoning with Edith. Mary asks me and Bill to take Edith back home. On Christmas Day night. Ugh!
By the time we get Edith into the car it is nearly 9:30pm. The radio is reporting bad traffic all over NJ/PA/DE and Maryland.
We start driving and and get off the interstate as soon as we’re in Southern PA. We navigate by map and memory and a lot of luck. Edith drifts in and out of sleep, awaking on occasion to ask when will she back home. At some point we hear her praying to God and asking why He could punish her by making her outlive all of her children.
Then, it happens...
Bill’s attention lapses and he takes a curve too fast on a two-lane road somewhere on the PA/MD border. He hits the brakes, the Pontiac gets loose and winds up tail-first in someone’s front yard.
It is silent for a moment. I feel my heart racing then Christmas dinner making its way back up my esophagus. i manage to open the door in time of blow most of it onto this family’s lawn.
I look over at Bill and he has a death grip on the wheel. Somehow he remembers to turn on the four-way flashers.
Then we hear Edith scream.
Bill and I both jump out of the car and try to see if she’s hurt. Meanwhile, we have woken up the family whose lawn I just fertilized and they flip on their lights. Edith (remember, mostly blind and deaf) is disoriented and completely terrified and shreiking her head off. Bill and I try to calm her down, but she is too freaked out to understand.
The man of the house comes over and asks if we need help, but Bill and i are still trying to calm Edith down and see if she’s injured. She continues to scream, holding her right arm against her side, when she looses control of her bowels.
The smell was... indescribable.
I start dry-heaving, most of my stomach contents already in a two-foot wide puddle at my feet.
A county sheriff’s car shows up to the scene, followed by another, and then an ambulance and a couple of fire trucks.
We have managed to wake-up two dozen people in this little village from their post Christmas slumber.
Bill passes the breathalyzer and a quick assessment of the car reveals no major damage. Except the extremely soiled rear seat.
Edith goes to the hospital in the ambulance and we follow. Bill gets the pleasure of calling his mother to tell her about the accident while i clean up and manage to borrow a clean t-shirt from the hospital’s lost and found.
Edith is examined, treated for a fractured right radius and given sedation to help her rest. Bill and I sit in the ER the rest of the night, and after being examined are released.
By now it’s dawn and Bill and i find a self-service car wash, pull out the rear seat and hose it down in just above freezing weather. A closer examination reveals a crumpled bumper and sheet metal at the right rear of the car, but nothing serious.
We toss the still wet rear seat into the wagon’s rear cargo compartment and go back to the hospital to await The Wrath of Mary.
We get back to the hospital and both talk to the sheriff so he can fill out his report. Bill is given a ticket and an order to appear in court in three weeks.
Mary arrives as the hospital with my other cousin, Andrew, and begins to tell both of us off in the middle of the ER. Bill argues back that it was Mary’s idea to bring Edith all the way to NJ and drive her back in the middle of the night. i’m too sore and tired to care and let Mary yell at me for a few minutes before she goes off to Edith’s room.
Edith spends two days in the hospital, Andrew drives me and bill home in Mary’s sullied Pontiac and Mary is left at the hospital at Edith’s bedside with Andrew’s Ford Granada.
Bill and I split the cost to have the Pontiac’s interior cleaned and bumper straightened. Bill gets a fine for the accident and ordered to pay the homeowner of the lawn we damaged for repairs (Bill never received a bill from the homeowner) and Mary spent months haggling with the state of Maryland over Edith’s medical bills.
Edith lived to the age of 96 and for the most part did not have any recollection of the accident. Supposedly her last words were to ask her live-in helper for a sip of Sherry.