On Saturdays when I was nine my mother would get home at five, exhausted and hungry from her job as receptionist at Schultzes Beauty Salon. My job was to have a snack ready for her for our Brookside Boulevard (the ritzy street) ritual. We would drive down the avenue and pull over at all the bus stops and pick up the black cleaning ladies, exhausted and probably hungry as well. They were waiting and holding their heavy bundles of the hand-me-downs from their generous lady bosses. We’d pile them into our old junk of a 1951 baby blue Buick until we were squashed and laughing. My mother had lived in the north end of Hartford, in one of those neighborhoods that went from poor Jewish to even poorer black, so she knew the shortcuts, the roads to avoid, the corners to quickly navigate. The woman knew the secrets of the streets. There was a collective sigh of relief to finally sit after having worked all day on their feet coupled with a humble gratitude that permeated the car. And it must have planted a seed. Because now all these years later here I am doing a similar thing. I am one of many volunteer chauffeurs for an organization called Vineyard Village. The list comes up every Monday of who needs what and where they need to go and at what time.
Last Tuesday morning I had to pick up Betty in Aquinnah and Rhoda in Chilmark. They were both going to the same meeting at Howes House in West Tisbury. I got to Betty’s early and as she walked gracefully down her wooden, uneven stairs wearing a magenta wool hat and colorful purple mittens, she said with a twinkle in her smiling blue eyes, I didn’t know if anyone was coming. I’m so happy you’re here. She got into the front seat without my help and buckled up.
Betty asks me the ages of the people who take my writing workshops. I tell her the last one had a 13-year-old and an 81-year-old. She said, Really? What do they write about? I said, well my prompts are easy because they’re about your own life experience. Like what, she asks. Like, write about a time you weren’t invited, I say. Betty is laughing. Oh, I certainly can’t remember when I wasn’t invited and I wouldn’t care about it now anyway. I am thinking, what a great a teacher I just picked up. Why does it take us so long to not take things personally? What a liberation it is to not care about stupid invitations to so and so’s brunch or what’s her name’s New Year’s Eve party. But I know I hold those little darts in my heart for longer than necessary. I say that’s true, Bet. When you reach our age it’s a waste of space in the brain to carry this garbage around. What do you mean, she says, our age? You’re young.
There’s another reason I love driving these ladies.
When I pick up Rhoda Wednesday, I go to her door because her ground is so dangerously bumpy and even though she uses a cane, I worry. I look at her gorgeous silver hair and I say Rhoda, you look beautiful. She stops in her tracks, looks up at me in shock and says you think so? I say I know so. She says I haven’t heard that in years. Then she pauses again and says that makes me feel good.
Yesterday I saw Rhoda at the post office being helped into a big SUV by another Vineyard Village volunteer and I yelled,“Rhoda, you’re cheating on me!” And all three of us cracked up.
It never would have occurred to me to ask my mother what she got out of her self-designed Saturday afternoon gig. I was a kid. But I think if I had, she would have used Rhoda’s words: It makes me feel good.
And now I know exactly what that means.
Nancy Slonim Aronie is the author of Writing from the Heart: Tapping the Power of Your Inner Voice (Hyperion/Little Brown) and teaches the Chilmark Writing Workshop. She is a commentator for NPR.