My grandmother, Nance, was a tiny lady with diamond and emeralds and sapphires on her fingers and a piled-up coiffure of blue-tinted white hair. She looked as if she should be riding in a horse and buggy, but Nance loved to drive a car. She always volunteered to chauffeur her non-driving old-lady friends to appointments or shopping trips, and she especially enjoyed a long afternoon spent exploring back roads around the little town where she lived.
Nance had a lot of confidence in her driving ability and in her sense of direction. She was a very optimistic driver. She never worried about a flat tire (although I remember more than one) or getting lost (also not uncommon) or about running out of gas. Especially not the gas. When the needle stood smack on top of E for empty, she’d drive right past a gas station. “Oh, we don’t need to stop. We have plenty of gas to get home on.”
Sometimes we made it back to her house with a few tablespoons of gas still in the very bottom of the tank. Sometimes we had to coast down all the hills to save gas. Unfortunately, the southern shore of Lake Ontario is quite flat. And sometimes we ran out.
Kind motorists would rescue us, or my grandmother would knock on a farmhouse door and borrow the equivalent of a cup of gas for the car. She always got a scolding from her oldest son, my Uncle Jack, when she let him know what he had been up to. But after one scary episode that involved a late night, a deserted country road, and a scary watchdog, Uncle Jack was alarmed.
He knew he didn’t have a hope of keeping his mother out of the car, and he didn’t think he’d have much luck breaking her of her no-gas-needed habit. So he gave her a watchdog of her own: me.
When we set out on a trip, Uncle Jack would glare at me (as if it was my fault) and say, “Mary Alice, do NOT let your grandmother run out of gas.” He was a six-foot-tall and intimidating person, and I was seven years old and always a little scared of him, so I’d take up my post in the back seat and watch the gas gauge instead of whatever scenic wonders we were passing.
I’d start feeling nervous when the needle fell below the halfway mark. Gas stations were rare in the countryside in the 1950s, and I wanted Nance to stop at the first one. She never gave in willingly, but with a lot of nagging and a few tears, I kept her out of trouble.
Many, many years later I’m married to a man whose motto could be, “We have plenty of gas to get home on.” And although we’ve coasted down at least one exit ramp to fill an empty tank, we’ve never actually run out of gas.