My 90-year-old mother is the 12th of 12 children, and only her 96-year-old brother AJ and her 94-year-old brother HJ are still alive. Neither is in the best of health, but HJ is confined to a skilled nursing facility (SNF), and mom was particularly anxious to see him as his health is the more precarious of the two. When I got the new 2015 Corolla in November, mom said, “Now you can drive me to Pearland to see my brothers.”
Monday, 29 December, that’s exactly what happened. I made arrangements with a dear friend who would take care of the kitties while I was gone, and I showed up at mom’s house at 6 a.m. with my bag packed and with a full tank of gas. We stowed her bag in the trunk, and off we went. We had beautiful weather going down. It was sunny — really sunny for the 10 minutes or so when the sun was right in our eyes at sunup! — with only a few clouds and with high temperatures in the 40’s-50’sF/4.4-10 C. (Not only does the new Corolla have a clock, it has a gauge that tells the outside temperature!)
When we go to Pearland, we take US Highway 84* to Roscoe, take Interstate Highway 20* to Abilene. There, we take State Highway 36** to Brenham, take US Highway 290* to Interstate 610* which loops around Houston. We exit 610 onto State Highway 288* south, turn onto County Road 518 (east), and voilá. We had very little traffic at all until we got to 290, but 290 and 610 are basically freeway situations: As many as 5 lanes of bumper to bumper traffic whizzing along at 60 mph in amongst the pickup trucks and semi trucks/articulated lorries, and having to be constantly on the lookout to make sure we were in the correct lane, didn’t miss the various turnoffs, and avoided getting run over by merging truck traffic.
We were to stay with my cousin EYJ (my mother’s sister VJY’s girl) and her husband BJ, and she had given mom excellent directions from County Road 518 to her house. We had intended to stop for lunch, but couldn’t find a suitable place to eat, so we just ate some energy bars we had brought along for snacks and kept going. We arrived at my cousin EYJ’s (at left in the dark blouse) a little after 3:30 p.m. I’m proud to say, we pulled it off without a hitch. Between my mom’s expert navigating and me being vigilant and alert for highway signs, we did not miss a turnoff. Not one.
The new Corolla has a very quiet, smooth ride and holds the road well. The seats are also quite comfortable, which is good, as it’s 540 miles from my mothers door to my cousin EYJ’s, — all of it well within the State of Texas. Believe it or not, we started with a full tank of gas/petrol, and only filled up once en route. We were still working on that second tank of gas when we filled up New Year’s morning at 6:30 a.m. to start back home. The new Corolla gets excellent gas mileage. It has a “countdown odometer” — it tells you how many miles you can expect to be able to go on the amount of gas you’ve currently got in your gas tank (378 if the tank is full) and counts down as you drive. We always like to stop for gas when we have about a quarter of a tank left, at which point I can still drive about 70 miles before I completely run out of gas!
That night, cousin EYJ fixed Poblano Chicken Chowder for 11 — Her brother BY and sister-in-law PKY, her daughter RDC and son-in-law CC, her sister CJY, her daughter DRW and granddaughter, and mom and me. EYJ had left her wonderful Christmas decorations up for us, and our dinner conversation was punctuated by the chimes from this gorgeous grandfather clock that has pride of place in her foyer.
We were up early Tuesday morning and fortified by EJ’s yummy French toast and fresh brewed coffee, we went to the skilled nursing facility (SNF) where my uncle HJ has been for the past year and a half. He is fortunate in that he has been able to engage a very competent and delightful young woman, KS, to look after him for the past 4 years. She took care of him before he came to the SNF, and she is a very caring caregiver. A genuine affection has grown up between them. She comes at 7 a.m. and stays until 3 p.m. Most days, she is joined by HJ’s grandson RW, who is currently looking after HJ’s house and property and runs errands for him. Having KS and RW with him means that he is not dependent on the SNF staff — who are typically spread pretty thin. RW stays with him until 6 p.m., sees that he gets his evening meal and gets him settled for the night.
I had my knitting with me, and I sat and knitted and chatted with KS and RW, while mom and her brother HJ had a good long natter. Soon we were joined by mom’s niece WWM (in red), who is her sister EJW’s younger daughter. We caught each other up on our goings and doings. Both RW and WWM wanted to take us to lunch at Floyd’s Cajun Seafood Restaurant. Rather than try to explain how to get there, or have me follow them, WWM drove us over in her four-door pickup and RW met us there. Mom and I had the breaded and fried butterfly shrimp. I had mine with French fries, and mom had hers with a baked potato. The food was so good! Once back at the SNF, we visited a while longer then bid farewell to HJ and WWM (she had cattle to feed!), and Mom and I drove from the SNF to WWM’s older sister MJW’s to visit and see her house.
MJW gave us the grand tour of her beautifully decorated town house. It looks like she had it professionally done but she did it all herself — painting, hanging wallpaper, accessorizing, and furnishing. She had the most beautiful antique lace drapes. We had a nice visit. She told us how just that morning, she had run across a box of old photographs and one of her mother’s 5-year diaries from 1938-1942 that she had brought home with her after her mother’s death. (Unfortunately, the diary had been written in pencil and was very difficult to puzzle out.) Still, we had a good little jaunt down memory lane.
My mom is the youngest of the 12 children, so all the aforementioned cousins are anywhere from 7 to 10 years older than I am. Even HJ’s grandson RW is only 10 years my junior.
We had promised to be back at EYJ’s by 5:30 so that they could take us out to Gringo’s Mexican Restaurant. They thought we’d get there early enough that we’d be able to get a table, but there were so many people there already, it would have been almost a 30-minute wait to get seated, so we opted to go to Juanito’s Mexican Restaurant. That proved to be a wise move as they were not nearly as crowded. By the time we got home, both mom and I were pretty tuckered out, and we made an early night of it.
EYJ made a baked breakfast casserole for Wednesday’s breakfast that had eggs, seasonings and sausage. (EYJ has such a lovely home and is such an accomplished cook — we felt so pampered!)
We wanted to get to the SNF as soon as we could that morning as mom’s other brother AJ was being brought over by his son-in-law RM so he could visit his younger brother and his baby sister. AJ is physically in good shape for someone who is 96; unfortunately, the same cannot be said for his mind. He has begun to succumb to dementia. Equally unfortunately, his wife passed away over a year ago and, although he is still able to remain in his home and functions fairly well, he has a caregiver who comes in to get his meals and help with housework and his daughter and son-in-law live close by.
After AJ and RM left, it was getting time for lunch, and HJ wanted barbecue, so RW got a carry-out order from Central Texas BBQ and brought it back for us. We had barbecue chicken and beef, potato salad, baked beans and banana pudding for dessert. It was very tasty and hit the spot. Unlike my father, HJ has no problems with chewing or with swallowing. Even though he is now confined to bed, he still can and does enjoy a good meal.
Later in the afternoon, we bid HJ and RW farewell and returned to EYJ’s for another tried and true home cooked meal. After supper, EYJ’s son JD and his wife came by, as did EYJ’s brother BY and his wife PKY.
I must make mention here of another member of EYJ’s family, Ginger. As near as EYJ can figure, she is part Labrador retriever and part pit bull. She’s also a very old lady –13 years old. Ginger is actually her son’s dog, but when JD and his wife married and amalgamated their households last year, it was discovered that Ginger did not tolerate being in the same house with the other female dogs. EYJ stepped up to the plate, or rather dog dish, and agreed to take her for whatever life remains to her. Ginger has got a touch of arthritis and it’s difficult for her to get around, and being an only dog is the best thing for her. That evening, EYJ had put Ginger in their bedroom so all the company would not overstimulate her. When JD and his wife came, they went into to see Ginger. When they came out, Ginger whined so that EYJ couldn’t stand it and let her out, since she was only put in the bedroom as a kindness and out of deference to her difficulty getting around. She is a very well-behaved old lady, and gets waited on hand and foot by a doting “grandma.” She stayed on her bed before the crackling fire and enjoyed being part of the group.
JD and his wife only stopped by for about an hour as they were on their way to a New Years Eve party at friends’, and BY and PKY wanted to get home before the streets got too “happy,” and mom and I had a long drive ahead of us, so we were going to make an early night of it.
I had been watching the weather forecasts since before we had left, knowing I would have to be driving in it. Before we went to bed, we had a tense weather conference over the forecast for New Year’s Day. When we left town Monday, a polar air mass moved in behind us, and while we were gone, the low temperatures back home got as low as 18F/-7C. The forecast map showed the southeast portion of Texas from a long diagonal line from Wichita Falls to Presidio was all green — meaning rain — except for a parallel scraggle of magenta meaning icy conditions that cut a swath across Abilene. I was very concerned about this, but mom was not worried about it. She was determined that we would go home on New Year’s Day.
On the trip down on Monday, we discovered that there is an IHOP just off the highway in Temple. (We discovered this after we had already eaten several snack bars and were no longer hungry!) The IHOP restaurants are among our favorite places to eat, and we decided we would forego breakfast so we could leave at 6:30 Thursday morning, get gas and hit the road. Then we would stop in Temple and eat breakfast at IHOP. (That turned out to be the best idea of the whole return trip!)
It was overcast the entire time we were in Pearland, but up until we left it never actually rained on us. New Year’s Day, it was mizzling when we left my cousin EYJ’s house, and it vacillated back and forth from mizzle to out-and-out rain for most of the day. Well, we bragged too soon. We missed the turnoff from 288 to 610 and ended up taking Interstate 45 (an elevated, controlled access, non-stop throughway) through downtown Houston, but during the course of it, I got to see the hospital where I was born, and it neither slowed us down nor really took us out of our way as we just reconnected with 610 on the other side of Houston. From there we were able to get off onto 290 and we were cool. That was really the only time we got off track going back.
Would you believe, the rain stopped long enough for us to eat at IHOP in Temple? It was on the opposite side of SH36/US190* and we probably went about 3 miles out of our way to find a way to cross over to the opposite side of the highway* but once we did, the IHOP was right off the access road. It was right at 10 o’clock when we sat down at the table. While we were waiting for our order, mom made her regularly scheduled Thursday at 10 a.m. phone call to her brother HJ. We had fried eggs, hash browns, toast, sausage/bacon, mom had coffee and I had hot tea. It really hit the spot. Thus fortified, we set off again.
Mom didn’t think the roads would be too bad (it was 40F/4.4C outside), and they hadn’t been anything other than wet thus far, but I was still worried about that possible icy stretch around near Abilene. The further north we got, the colder it got, and it was still raining off and on. Turns out I was right to be worried. Just past Rising Star, it was 38F/3.3C and we ran into a coating of slushy ice on the roads.
The Corolla gives you three choices of “Drive” gears, each favoring a different gear ratio. I downshifted to “2,” slowed way down and we kept going. At first, I could go as fast as 40 mph/64 kph in places, but the farther we got from Rising Star, the more “frosted” the tree limbs and grass became and the roads got incrementally worse. We passed one horribly jackknifed truck that had run off the road across the oncoming lane, up onto the shoulder and through the barbed wire fence of the pasture adjacent to the road — although we had no way of knowing exactly when the wreck happened, it looked very recent. It was a very sobering sight.
We kept thinking it would clear up on the other side of Abilene, and that by the time we hit Interstate 20*, we’d be home free, but no, it just kept getting icier and slicker, the temperature kept falling, and by the time we came to Abilene, there was actually snow on the ground as well as on the road, and it was 34F/1.1C outside. What was worse, Interstate 20 had about an inch of slush and truck-packed ice. Traffic was practically bumper to bumper, and three-fourths of it was semi trucks! The 44 miles/66 km of interstate between Abilene and Sweetwater were just horrible. Most of the time I was driving between 7 mph/11 kph and 15 mph/24 kph, but at one point I was actually able to drive 20 mph/32 kph for almost a mile! Talk about “white knuckling!” I had held onto the steering wheel so hard for so long that the next day, my forearms were sore!
But then, miracle of miracles, when we got to US 84*, the access road was a little slushy, but once we were on the highway proper, the road surface was not only ice free but almost dry as a bone — despite the fact that there was snow on the ground. The speed limit is 70 mph/112 kph and the roads were in such good shape that I was able to drive the speed limit with no worries. It was smooth sailing all the way back home. We stopped outside of town and filled up with gas one last time, then I dropped mom at her house at about 6:30 p.m. and headed for home. It took us almost two hours longer coming back than it did going down — that’s how long it took us to travel the 56 miles/91 km between Rising Star and Abilene!
At least I had not set out on this epic journey unprepared. You know how it is. If you have it, you won’t need it — which was the logic behind putting that half dozen tea lights and a cigarette lighter in a bag and put them in the back foot well of the car before I left home! (I also had a set of tire chains in the trunk, but they were from the Crayola — I need to make sure they will fit the new Corolla. If not, I shall need to get a new set . . . )
One thing, though. The way I drive, it’ll take me probably 2 or 3 years to double the 1,277 miles the new Corolla has on it now. The car and I have both been broken in good by this little excursion. Talk about a baptism by fire!