When I asked a young friend for an image when I said the word "mobility," he said, "wheels." I thought, "What a descriptive image for that word." All around me I see folks zipping around in electric wheelchairs, bicycles pedaled by motor or hand, kids on skateboards or scooters, cars with single drivers, even a few speed walkers.
At 94, I have reluctantly given up driving myself around -- to the relief of my son and all my friends, even though my license is valid for a few more years. The other day, my friend and I parked outside a special vegetable store we both liked, and watched while a driver parked his van in front of us. He came around to the back of the van, accompanied by his teenaged son and younger daughter, and unpacked a scooter for his daughter and two skateboards, one for his son and one for himself. They all mounted their self-propelled vehicles and sped happily down the sidewalk. Their automobile wasn't enough to satisfy their need for a different kind of mobility!
Poets remind us of the joys of the open road, of wandering down wooded lanes or on the seashore, looking for shells. We grow up with strong images of freedom to roam the world, with the ability to run, swim, hike, bike, drive and even fly. As children, from the time we learn to walk, we are eager to explore the world, and this urge to move around, to explore, becomes part of our obsession with mobility. Owning a car gives us not only privacy in transportation and control over our environment while traveling, but most important of all, a car offers us a private room on wheels.
I remember a lovely book, written in the 1930s by two Russian journalists, Ilf and Petrov, called Little Golden America. Ilf and Petrov came to Detroit and chose a Ford motor car as it came off the assembly line. They knew that all the cars are alike, but when they chose their particular car, it suddenly acquired a personality, and became "theirs." They then set out to explore America, and they come to the conclusion that "America lives on the road."
That book has remained in my memory as a sharp analysis of American culture, and provides a good framework for much of American current history. The survivors of the Dust Bowl disaster of the 1940s, often referred to as "the Okies", could not have escaped their devastated land without an automobile. As Steinbeck described them so clearly in The Grapes of Wrath, their mobility depended on their ownership of wheels.
I was able to leave Northwestern University in the summer of my junior year, 1939, because I had a ride to Yellowstone Park, where I worked for the summer. Then a friend picked me up and drove me on to Berkeley, where I graduated in 1940, went on for graduate work, and never went back to Chicago. I suppose I could have done this by Greyhound bus, but the joy and privacy of traveling in a mobile hotel room was much more fun.
Elders I have spoken to in assisted living spaces and in nursing homes often complain about being hemmed in, and what they mean is that they no longer have the option of getting into their cars and going wherever they want to go whenever they feel like it. The urge for independence is strong among us, and lack of mobility reinforces a threat to our independence as we age.
Traveling in a car offers relief from struggling with decreased physical mobility. Sometimes I feel as if I am walking on the deck of a large ship, even in my own flat. The deck is familiar, as are other passengers; the sea is calm, but suddenly the deck beneath my feet is heaving up and down and maybe side to side. Of course, it isn't the deck (or floor) that's unsteady -- it's me! My dancer's legs are wobbly, my balance uncertain. I find the changes in my physical ability to be gradual, but the uncertainty gnaws at me.
When I am relaxing in the single room that is my garden apartment, I gaze out through my floor-to-ceiling windows on all the varied gifts northern California provides. I gaze happily at my loaded Navel orange tree, the lilac bush, the willows, the fish pond, the hummingbirds, dogs and cats who come to visit, and I long to join them in the garden. But I can't. So when I have the chance to be driven up to the Berkeley Rose Garden, or down to the marina, I am tempted to pat the car as if it were a reliable horse -- as of course, it is!
Rhoda P. Curtis is the author of "Rhoda: Her First Ninety Years," a candid memoir of a first-generation American woman who was willing to change the direction of her life every 12 years, and "After Ninety: What." To buy Rhoda's books and to read her blog, visit her on Red Room.
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