By Barbara Jean Heller
Behind the heavy double wooden doors, in its dark chamber resides a Volvo, a four-door sedan, circa 1992, locked. The garage is connected to the brick Tudor at 84 Jeff Street, Garden City. Behind its double doors—storm door and house door, both locked—resides Fran Smith, circa 1924.
On a cold 2016 January morning at 7:45 AM, Fran called Horace Palmer to let him know she was ready. Horace had set up the drivers’ training program for the Knights of Columbus at St Anne’s Church, and had agreed to pick her up.
Her ex daughter-in-law spoke to her a week or so after the course on a routine call in. “You went where?” she asked. “How did you ever come to hear of it?”
“Well, Pat (the neighbor who shops for her) was reading St. Anne’s bulletin to me. She doesn’t usually read me anything she’s not interested in, but I just happened to ask if there was any news about a course and yes, there was. ‘Well’, I said, ‘write down that number for me. I believe I’m due,’ and I immediately called Horace Palmer to register.”
“So, how did it go? Don’t you have to do some reading and some writing?”
“Oh, it was no problem. A very nice young gentleman who sat next to me read what I needed to know and filled in my workbook.”
“And that was it? Was it kosher?” she asked.
“Well, it isn’t a problem, Dearie. I just need the certificate for my insurance. It’ll reduce my rate for the next three years—and then we shall see.”
One may think that Fran, going to a safe-driving course at the age of 92, is something of note, but what is more noteworthy is that Fran has never been behind the wheel of the Volvo, or any other vehicle for the past twenty-four years.
Olveria Frances Smith, a proud graduate of Smith College, class of ‘46, has always seen herself as a competent person. Through her years, she has prided herself in being thorough and thoughtful—not in a boastful way, but woe to any contractor who would dare to add an unexplained administration fee or charge for a part that had not been identified and initially approved.
Yet with all her competency and self-assurance, in 1992, Fran hung up her car keys for good. She hadn’t had a dramatic accident in the family Ford, but it was enough to permanently end her driving career. Within the month, a Volvo, in its luminous forest green skin became part of the Smith family’s daily life. And though she has never driven it, she’s always seen it as a symbol of her independence—whether driven by someone else or safely locked in the garage.
Not-driving never inhibited her from attending to the myriad of activities that have occupied her complicated life: shopping, Mass, medical appointments for the family, her two children, her mother-in-law, and her mother. Through it all, her husband Alan and the Volvo were there, steady and ready, ’till a few years ago.
Alan’s death prompted serious considerations. Transportation was high among them. Her children live out of town; she didn’t depend upon them.
Fran went into action. She called the church to get a weekly ride to Mass. She applied to Able Ride to get to the Garden City Pool, and she elicited the good offices of a bachelor friend and neighbor to assist her in her errands—in the Volvo, of course.
Good old Bob became a familiar figure around 84 Jeff, and her children began to wonder if there might be something more than a friendly connection developing. There was not. The two recognized each others’ idiosyncrasies and left it at that: Bob would drive Fran to appointments and help her with her financial reports while Fran would make him lunch and on occasion, treat him out to dinner after a late afternoon medical visit.
If you’d ask the family, they would tell you that Fran has never stopped driving. She just does it from the other side of the front seat: “We can take the short cut so make a left in two blocks at the stop sign….” “You have to turn off the blinker lights by hand, Dearie….” “You’d be better off just going down New Hyde Park Road at this time of day….” “We need to go to the post office first but then we’ll be on the right side of the street to use Rain Dew’s parking lot—and then we can stop at the bank.”
Bob was not the only one to drive the Volvo. Her daughter, who recently moved to Brooklyn and no longer has a car, has often taken the train to Garden City to pick up the Volvo in order to drive to Massachusetts and collect her children and grandchildren and bring them down to visit their Grammy. Her son visits twice a year from a remote town in the state of Washington and uses the Volvo to get his morning bagel and coffee, or go to the beach, run household errands, and at least once during each visit head to the local mechanic to look at some system of the car that required attention.
When Bob moved away, Fran found others to drive her. Her son’s ex has often taken her on comparative shopping trips—once for toilets and another time for roof shingles, sometimes for a shore dinner and soft serve—and always in the Volvo.
Lately, the car has been getting less use. The air conditioner hasn’t worked for several years; with the heat of the summer, taking the Volvo has been unbearable. Highway driving seems to put a strain on the engine. There is a persistent dashboard light that’s defied diagnosis. The doors are stiff and heavy. The upholstery is faded and cracked. But, like a pet boarder collie, the Volvo stays around.
Fran hasn’t been doing too well either. She has little energy to go out. Her shoulders are painfully stiff all the time and the severe arthritis in her knees makes the nightly climb up the stairs excruciating. The accident that caused her to stop driving was due to early onset of Macular Degeneration, which now is quite advanced.
Regardless of these limitations, Fran has never considered getting rid of the car. There have been conversations about who gets the Volvo once Fran has passed, but for now her tenacity, and the car’s, keeps them running. As Fran says, “My driver’s license is up to date—three more years and then we’ll see.”
Barbara Jean Heller