O.Henry Ending

Call me when you get there

A mother’s mantra leaves tire tracks on the heart

By Cynthia Adams

I confess to missing it — something that once made my eyes roll into my head. Mama’s constant comment upon parting: “Call me when you get there.”

Mama first started when I was a new driver at 16, chugging to high school in a periwinkle blue Corvair — named Perry, of course. Perry was aging badly; he had a leak in the oil pan. 

The Corvair was the infamous unsafe-at-any-speed car that made Ralph Nader a household name. Perry expired too soon, after consuming lethal quantities of oil that puddled in the high school parking lot. 

Actually, Mama’s request seemed very reasonable in retrospect, given Nader’s view that the car was prone to spinning around in the middle of the road with a steering wheel shaft likely to impale drivers in a crash.

Two years later, heading off to college in a second-hand British racing-green Austin Healy Sprite, it was questionable if Perry’s replacement was any safer. The tiny convertible was darling and nimble, but so lightweight that passing semis blew me like a leaf. 

Mama’s view that my driving was unsafe at any speed didn’t help things.

Time trudged onward, yet there was no aging out of Mama’s cautious farewells. She repeated the “call me when you get there” just as urgently when I was 24 and drove a caution-flag-yellow Honda Civic — which no one with working eyes could possibly miss.

Mama repeated the same thing when I reached 30 and was driving a fast BMW 3 Series, newly single and facing the open road. 

She knew there were plenty of potholes that could potentially swallow up my naive self.

When I headed into a new marriage, Mama still repeated the old saw upon each parting, even though I had graduated to a safe, staid Volvo.

Her admonition remained a given, even when I reached age 40. Pulling away from her in a third-hand diesel Mercedes, her hand flapped at me as I watched her mouthing the words. That car alone was definitely too heavy for the semis to whipsaw around on I-85.

The safety of the car, the situation, nor my age, mattered not at all to her. I was to call. When. There.

Easing my Honda Accord out of Presbyterian Hospital’s parking deck four years later, I left Mama scared and freshly scarred, recovering from heart surgery. Her standard words, raspingly delivered, rang in my head as I ached for her; call me when you get there.

A newlywed at 75, Mama stood with a bouquet, waving us off, comically urging us to call when we got there. We were flying home. She was hitting the high seas to honeymoon.

The cruise ship bearing her and her sweet-faced groom, Jim, age 81, pulled up anchor and departed Miami. 

Eleven years later with Jim’s passing, we moved her to an adult community in Cornelius. Here she stood at the door, leaning on a walker, ever watchful each time I pulled away in my Honda hybrid. 

Dark eyes burned brightly in Mama’s pale, thin face. 

Once, I noticed her lips moving, so I circled back. She repeated hoarsely, “Call me when you get there,” wanly waving and blowing a kiss.

On another evening, the walker stood at her bedside. 

Mama’s lids were heavy. The effort of speech and wakefulness too much. For the first — and only — time, I left to silence.

Making my way due north on I-77, I heard the echoes of the worn phrase, one she used with all five of her charges, plus her grandchildren, her great-grandchildren and, now, too, her caregivers.

Silence tugged at me, weighing heavily, as I navigated the darkness.

This time, it was she who was leaving.

My tires slapped the tarmac in a lulling rhythm: Call me/ when you/ get there.  OH

Cynthia Adams is a contributing editor of O.Henry magazine.

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