The day of our family reunion weekend begins two hours earlier than normal. By six o’clock, I’ve packed the car and herded my husband Gary and surrogate child Lucy-dog inside. We’re going to Tahoe for a family reunion. Gary has limited eyesight and mobility. He functions well around the house, but his issues become challenging whenever we take a trip. My mind whirls with logistics—buying supplies, packing the car, plotting stops that need to be made along the way, and helping him navigate unfamiliar territory. My efforts to make sure all goes well leave me exhausted and sometimes a bit cranky.
My goal is to cross the Central Valley before temperatures rise to the fires of hell and melt our delicate coastal bodies. Two hours later, Lucy starts whining. I stop at a gas station in Lake County. After several minutes of sniffing, she fails to go potty. As the temperature continues to rise, I give her water, silently scolding her for wasting our time.
An hour later, we stop in Williams where Lucy has a successful potty. She and Gary are enjoying the journey. I marvel (not in a good way) that it’s only nine o’clock and already 75 degrees. I get breakfast sandwiches and a call from our son Harrison. “Would you mind finding a CVS and picking up sunscreen and a hat for Kasi [our daughter-in-law]?”
Actually, I would mind. Very much. I’m fixated on getting my passengers to our destination with as few stops as possible. Running a spontaneous errand while they sit in a hot car is not on the schedule.
“I’ll text you the address of a CVS along the way.”
When it finally occurs to me to question why he can’t do this himself, I recall last year’s family reunion where the nearest shopping was 20 minutes away. I can possibly save him a 40-minute round trip.
This Mother Teresa moment is fleeting. Resentment reaches in and captures my mood.
As I push past the speed limit along Highway 20, my phone pings with a text. Moments later, Harrison calls. “I sent you the address of a CVS at the turn off you’ll take in Truckee. Could you also stop at the Save Mart there and pick up a red onion?”
“Sure,” I snap. The outside thermostat has climbed to 80 degrees.
“And some ketchup?”
“Don’t be such a curmudgeon.”
“I’m worried about leaving Dad and Lucy in the car. It’s hot and going to be hotter by the time we get there.”
“We worked all day yesterday,” he says (having perfected the counter argument as a child), “went grocery shopping and didn’t get here until midnight.”
In the game of Who’s the Most Martyred, it’s a tie.
Three hours later, I pull off the freeway in Truckee, a town that, unlike me, is fond of roundabouts. May I make a recommendation to those who design GPS systems? Instead of programming the voice to say “Take the second exit at the roundabout,” have it say, “HERE! HERE! EXIT HERE, DAMMIT!!!”
After twirling through two traffic circles and failing to exit at the appropriate times, the GPS gives up and guides me through back streets into a small shopping center. It is now 90 degrees. I park in front of CVS and take Lucy for a potty around back among a patch of spindly fir trees near the loading bay. It irritates me that the only trees in the parking lot are where they’re not needed. I reposition the car under their skimpy shade.
Inside the store, sunscreen and cap in hand, I stand at the checkout counter while tourists in front of me engage in conversation with the cashier about how outsiders have driven up real estate prices, forcing most service workers to live in Reno. While I sympathize with cashier’s plight—my own tourist community suffers from the same socioeconomic discrepancies—I want to shout, “Hurry the hell up! A disabled man and dog are roasting to death in my car!”
I notice two additional texts sent by Harrison.
“Please pick up some mustard.”
“And some pickles.”
I want to hurt him.
I exit CVS and debate whether to dash into Save Mart which is only about 100-feet away. I worry a semi-truck might arrive to make a delivery and won’t be able to maneuver around my car. I picture a big rig trucker yelling at me.
I find Gary and Lucy quite content. I move the car to the blazing hot sun in front of Save Mart. My deodorant has failed. Sweat pastes my shirt to my back. I verbally review the shopping list.
“What kind of mustard?” Gary asks.
“I don’t know,” I moan.
“Get Guldens.” He smiles, happy to be helpful. “And Claussen pickles.”
Gary’s mom was an expert canner and made the best pickles around. As a result, he’s quite fussy about them. I, on the other hand, hate the things. I want to yell “What the hell difference does it make?”
I leave Gary and Lucy in the Easy Bake Honda. Entering the store, I recall the game show “Supermarket Sweep.” Filled with sweaty adrenalin, I’m certain I can record a personal best. I imagine emerging to find my car surrounded by an angry mob that has called the police to report elder and animal abuse.
I quickly locate all the items on the list except the pickles. I go to the dairy aisle (where they’re located in my local Safeway). No Claussen’s.
Time is ticking, the temperature rising. The angry mob is growing. I hate everyone and everything. I’ll go back to the condiment aisle and grab the first damned pickle jar I see.
Moving swiftly toward the back of the store, I nearly collide with a teenage employee. Mustering my last ounce of humanity, I politely ask if they carry Claussen pickles. He directs me to the meat department at the opposite end of the store. I turn and encounter the back of a generous head of black curly hair. I take two steps forward to see her profile.
“Elizabeth?” I say.
She looks at me without recognition. If my outside resembles my inside, I look like a thorny hag.
Elizabeth is the daughter of Sue, one of my most beloved clients who, three months shy of her eightieth birthday, died as a result of a tiny hole in her lung. When told she could survive by staying on oxygen and having caregivers, she chose to call her family to her hospital bedside. After an evening of visiting around wine and cheese, she said goodbye. By the next afternoon, she was dead. When we settled her estate, Elizabeth and I spent hours sharing stories of her mother.
I remember Sue’s smile—how it lit her face and made her eyes squint with delight. I felt comforted in her presence. Her life hadn’t been easy, but she graciously accepted whatever came her way. I remember how much I appreciated her, and how glad I was to spend time with her equally gracious daughter.
“Kate,” I say.
I’m engulfed in a hug. We talk about how bizarre it is that we should encounter one another almost exactly two years after her mother’s death in a place Elizabeth resides but I have never been. I tell her how I think of Sue each time I walk or run the Glass Beach trail where her memorial bench overlooks the ocean.
My mood shifts. Sue would have accepted the flow of this trip, would not have tried to control every minute. Somehow she managed to lead me to this place despite my childish protests. It wasn’t easy, but did what it was intended to do—cause me to calm the hell down.
I leave Elizabeth with another hug and smile as I saunter to the meat department to find the pickles. It’s a joy to fulfill Gary’s gastronomic desire. I breeze through the express checkout line and out the door to the car where Gary and Lucy are panting, but not too uncomfortable. I start the engine, blast the air conditioning, and continue to our destination as I relate my encounter with Elizabeth. My burdens have been lifted. The desire to incite violence has evaporated. I can finally allow myself to feel the blessing of being able to spend three days with our wonderful family.