Mama Drives to Scranton

by Ruth Z Deming

For years, roly-poly Mrs. Beatrice Bernstein had begged her children to drive her to Scranton, Pennsylvania, to visit Zion Cemetery where her great-grandmother Bernice was buried.

"Ma, are you kidding," said her oldest son, Zvi. "No disrespect meant, but I, for one, have more important things to do."

"Yeah," said his mother. "Like going to the race track and betting on the horses. That's why you're still living at home with me. A seventy-year-old man living at home with 'Mommy.'"

Zvi grabbed a Toll House chocolate chip cookie from the cooling rack and ran upstairs to his room. Posters from his late father's shop in New Hope were tacked up in his room. Jimi Hendrix with guitar singing The National Anthem, The Red Hot Chili Peppers standing naked with arms crossed and wearing socks on their genitalia, and a close-up of black-haired beauty Linda Ronstadt, with full red lips and hair up in a chignon.

He reached under his mattress and found his Ziplock bag of pot was missing. That damn mother of his didn't miss a trick.

When Mama wanted something she hung onto her desire like a dog with a tennis ball in his mouth.

"Becky, darling," said Mama over the phone.

"I can tell, Ma, you're gonna pester me about driving you to Scranton. This is my busy season at the salon."

"What? Chanukah season? What kind of daughter are you anyway?"

"Ma, call Charlotte. She'll do anything for you."

Click went the phone.

"Char, darling?"

"What's up Mamela?"

"Just a small favor I want."

"No can do. Bobby and I are planning on going cross country skiing."

"What the hell are you talking about? There's no snow in Willow Grove."

"We're driving to Vermont," said Charlotte.

"Oh, in that new Subaru I co-signed for?"

Mama hung up on her, sat down at the Ikea blond-wood kitchen table, and put her head in her hands. It was already dark outside at five in the afternoon. She looked up at the calendar of classic cars from O'Riley Auto. Clifford O'Riley was her age. Ninety-four to her ninety-six.

"Why not?" she thought. He's a good driver, having driven her home after getting her inspection done on her metallic blue Nissan.

"Cliff," she said. "Hope I haven't woken you."

"Not at all Mrs. Bernstein. I was just sitting here watching "Dogs" on Netflix. Nodding off of course."

She pleaded her case to drive to Scranton in her car.

"Eight a.m. too early for you?" she asked.

"I'm an early riser. I'll be ready, Mrs. B."

"Call me Bea. I'll have some food for the trip. You like chicken?"

She removed the thighs and legs from the freezer and put them in the sink to defrost. The pretzels were on top of the fridge, along with Tasty Cake Krimpets. She knew Tasty Cake was once anti-semitic, but figured the new generation had probably changed.

She took the snacks into bed with her, placing them on a bed tray. It didn't exactly replace her husband Harold but it would do.

Zvi was playing his loud music again. But sleep wafted in like a comfortable pillow.

She left him a message in the morning, over his loud snores.

Clifford O'Riley lived in an enormous house where he and his late wife had raised their family. Stone lions greeted guests, as Beatrice drove up the long driveway, marveling at what looked to be an apple orchard.

Clifford sat on a glider on the front porch, wearing farmer's overalls and a Phillies' cap.

"Clifford, you dirty ole man, get inside," she yelled out her window.

"Beatrice! What's gotten into you?" After sliding into the car, he put his hand on her huge thigh, ensconced in a silky pair of yellow slacks. She wore tiny jade earrings with matching bracelets on each wrist.

"You're a goddamn babe!" he said, feeling a slight rise in his pants. He adjusted his green Phillies' cap that covered his shoulder-length white hair.

"Your job," she said, as she did a U-Turn and drove down the drive, "is to be the navigator with that what-cha-ma-call-it that talks to ya," - "GPS," he interrupted "and let us know when we've driven about an hour, so I can get out and walk around. Ninety-six ain't exactly young anymore."

The weather was uncharacteristically warm as they motored North down the Interstate. Beatrice mentioned how she loved to drive. Trees flanked the road, their dying leaves curled up like tiny fists. The cold and distant sun kept them company, saying not a word.

"Mr. O'Riley," she said. "You have no idea how happy you've made me, driving with me to Scranton."

"We'll just relax," he said, "and have ourselves a nice little drive. We'll stay in the right lane and leave the NASCAR drivers all the space they want."

"I would like to explain one thing to you, Clifford."

"What's that, Darlin'?"

"Chanukah. The Festival of Lights."

"Explain away," he said, pulling down his sun visor.

She explained that the holiday celebrates the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem during the second century B.C.

Clifford pretended to snore, and she gave him a light slap on his wrist.

"So," she continued, "the Jews rose up against Greek-Syrian rulers in the revolt of Judas Maccabeus. They kicked the usurpers out of Jerusalem. So there!

"And to mark their victory" - this time a pretend yawn from her seat-mate - "we stalwart Jews wanted to light the menorah at the temple. A menorah, you know.... "

"I do not know," he said.

"Oh, like a candelabra, like Liberace used to have when he played on the Ed Sullivan Show.

"There was only enough olive oil, the lighting fluid, for one day. But in one of God's miracles, the one-day supply lasted for eight whole days."

"That IS very interesting," said Cliff.

A green sign indicated a rest stop.

"Shall we?" they said in unison.

With moans and groans, and a few cuss words sprinkled in, they alighted from the car. Limping along, they used the rest rooms, and sat on picnic benches. Cliff returned to the car and fetched the Igloo cooler with the chicken and snacks.

"Damn! You sure can cook, lady," he said, offering her one of the Handi-Wipes for her greasy fingers.

They watched folks come and go to their automobiles.

"Dig that auto!" he said, pointing.

It was a long, low, brown Ford LTD, in mint condition, driven by a young man with a beard.

"All the young un's, nowadays, got beards," he said.

"You better not be growing one, Mister, or I'll shave it off while you're asleep."

They agreed it was very refreshing to take a break as they zoomed back onto the Interstate, again, nice and easy.

"Scranton," read a sign, pointing north. It was maybe an hour away.

Clifford turned on the radio with a "mind if I.... ?

Static turned into WILK-FM, "Scranton's favorite talk show." The disc jockey was telling a caller how stupid he was.

Bea and Cliff looked at one another. She shut off the radio with a "mind if I do?"

The GPS was guiding them. "Zion Cemetery two miles ahead on the right."

"Oh, I am so excited. The dream of a lifetime."

She pulled into the cemetery which revealed row upon row of grey tombstones, often with Hebrew lettering. On a long green pillar was an alphabetical map of the burial grounds.

"Wouldn't it be funny," said Bea, "if Donald J. Trump's name was on there?"

"Deserves to be," said Cliff. They began to laugh, which soon turned into howls.

Bea bumped along slowly, first on the asphalt, and then onto the grass.

"Good Lord!" she exclaimed. "There she is! Great-grandmother Bernice, the woman I was named after. We use the entire name or, in my case, just the first letter."

They got out of the car. Slowly.

"Gramma Bernice," said Bea, as she caressed the grey stone. "Happy Chanukah!"

Benches resided under the trees. The happy couple sat down. Beatriz pulled an envelope from her purse. Inside was a black and white photo of great-grandmother Bernice. She was a black-haired beauty with a string of pearls around her neck.

"Do you think Gramma Bernice would mind you marrying a ... gentile?"

"One who makes the best latkes you've ever had? Potato pancakes we serve at Chanukah?"

The two of them entwined hands and leaned toward one another. Cliff cradled Bea's face in his hands, opened his mouth, and they kissed as if they were seventeen years old.

That night they stayed at a Best Western Hotel, checking in as Mr. and Mrs. Clifford D. O'Riley.

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