Driving Miss Critchfield
Reporter Hannah Critchfield and her grandmother Carolyn celebrating their birthdays — they’re exactly 60 years apart in age.
The summer before Hannah Critchfield left for college in Chicago, she was preparing to say goodbye…to driving and to Meijer supermarkets. And also, to someone very special.
My grandma and I were the same age. At least according to her.
Stage 2 of Alzheimer’s looks different for everyone, and for Grandma Carolyn, it almost seemed like she was moving backwards. She talked about wanting to call her husband — dead for ten years.
And then all the boys, boys, boys, she was meeting in college —
I was her driver that summer, taking my grandmother out once a day — for lunch, for grocery shopping, for walks around the windowless mall. It was my way of saying goodbye to a woman I knew would be less and less like herself each time I returned to visit.
It was jarring to see how much Carolyn was changing.
My grandmother was a brilliant and hard woman. She worked in state politics and brought electronic voting to Charleston. She met four presidents. But this grandmother, the one in my car? She hugs, and she cooes at babies.
New Carolyn and I drive, talking a little, and listening to Simon and Garfunkel’s Greatest Hits
— I far prefer it to her other choices, Ultimate Country Party 1 and 2.
I watch her watch the flat cornland pass, and wonder if she remembers anything about the green mountains of West Virginia.
if she thought it greedy to see so much sky in one frame.
The drives are mostly awkward, and unspectacular. Not the “Driving Miss Daisy” parallel I’d created in my head. We run through the usual chit chat, then I ask if she needs anything at the store before we go home. One day she answers, “Yes.” She sounds like the old Carolyn.
It was like I’d asked if she wanted a stiff drink, or enjoyed the last David McCullough biography.
“Well okay then,” I say. “What do you want to buy?”
She furrows her birdlike brows.
“It…it plugs your pores.”
“No…no…that’s not it.”
As I drive to Meijer’s grocery store, I try to decipher what my grandmother means. When we get to the hygiene aisle, she exclaims, “Oh, I know! Antiperspirant!”
“Carolyn, what’s the difference between deodorant and antiperspirant?”
“Antiperspirant doesn’t have a smell,” she says. “That way when the boys are feeling you up, they don’t come home smelling like you to their mothers –”
She leans in —
“or their girlfriends.”
History did a backbend that summer, without asking my grandmother’s permission. It also gave me some of her secrets.
She was the grandma who bought me books, not toys or clothes, every time she came to visit. The grandma who had a patent to her name for inventing a new type of plastic.
But she was also the grandmother who had made out with other people’s boyfriends.
The year Carolyn died, my college boyfriend cheated on me with one of my good friends. And I thought,
was this my fault?
I’d laughed when my grandma had told her story. Was this some kind of Stanley-Yelnats-esque karma?
But then I remembered how that moment had felt. I saw how a situation that was likely not funny for those involved at the time could become a gift decades later — a break in the granddaughter-grandmother code that was so outlandish you had to laugh, rather than cry.
Sometimes the only difference between everything being beautiful and everything hurting is time. And I like to think both old and new Carolyn would drink to that.