"Do you know where we're going today? There's so much going on, I've plumb lost track."
My customer didn't appear distressed in the least, just genuinely curious. We were sitting in my cab at the entrance to the nursing home where she lived. I reached across to help secure her seat belt before responding to her question. The woman's name was Jane, but her son — who had set up this fare — told me that she was commonly called "Gramsy," the name bestowed on her by her great-grandchildren. Great-grandchildren, wow!
"Sure I know, Gramsy," I replied cheerfully. "Your grandson Andy is getting married today in Montréal, and I'm driving you up and back to the wedding and the reception."
"Oh, my goodness — isn't that just wonderful? I hope you know where you're going, because I have no idea."
Gramsy and I enjoyed a laugh together at the comedic mystery of life. She had to be close to 90, but she was relatively sturdy and fit. Her hair had been done in a snazzy perm, courtesy of an early-morning visit from the hairdresser. Despite her forgetfulness in the moment, she seemed quite with it, as they say. As one not entirely with it myself, I appreciated the quality.
"So, Gramsy, did you grow up here in Vermont?"
"No, I grew up on a dairy farm in Connecticut. I left to go to nursing school in New York City. The main building was on Columbus Circle."
I said, "Holy cow, if you'll pardon the pun. A country girl in the big city. Did you do OK?"
"I did just fine," she replied — and, gaining a sense of her big personality, I had no doubt.
We chatted the whole way to Montréal. Her late husband, she recounted, was an early iteration of a business consultant who achieved fame as an author of several best-selling books. She would accompany him when he did seminars and talks, and she eventually wrote a book of her own called something like The View From the Other Side of the Bed (she couldn't quite recall). Her book also sold well, and she appeared on some early TV and radio shows. All in all, this woman had created quite a life for herself in the pre-feminist era.
We drove straight into downtown Montréal, where, despite having come of age in a big city myself, I felt overwhelmed. I've been countrified, it seems, by my decades in Vermont. At one point, I spotted a large panel truck in front of us with video ads streaming on screens that covered both sides, plus the rear door! How is that even legal? I fretted, as I negotiated the chaotic, speedy traffic.
I made it to the InterContinental Hotel and pulled up to the front. The short, jovial and helpful doorman was expecting us and hurried in to fetch Gramsy's daughter, Sharon.
"Mom!" she called out, bending into the open door to give Gramsy a hug. Turning to me, she said, "Jernigan, right? You'll be back at 3:15 to drive Gramsy to the ceremony?"
"I sure will," I replied. "Your brother emailed me a minute-to-minute schedule of the day, so I'll be there. Really, whatever you need, just let me know if there's any changes."
In the few hours I had to kill while Gramsy and the wedding party got dressed and primped for the ceremony (One day I'd love to get primped, I mused), I found a side street up by McGill University and tucked myself in. Sure, I had all of Montréal to explore, but, as I say, the countrified Jernigan just wanted to stay balanced and focused. A couple of sandwiches and a good book did the trick. (Plus, my rudimentary French was inadequate for deciphering the complex street signage, and I was too paranoid to take a chance on parking, wandering off and getting towed.)
At the appointed time, I made it back to the hotel to retrieve Gramsy. She looked really great in her wedding duds. The ceremony was taking place at Birks Chapel, an ancient, venerable edifice associated with McGill, which school, I was informed, both the bride and groom had attended. I dropped off the Great Matriarch at the chapel and returned an hour later for the drive back to the hotel and the reception.
Now I had three hours before the trip back to Burlington. I decided to park in a public garage around the corner from the hotel and loiter in the fancy lobby. I entered the garage at street level (duh) and circled down nine levels, if you can imagine, to reach the non-reserved public parking spaces. Montréalers, I decided, are gophers by nature; the entire downtown seems to be interlaced with connective passages and underground layers.
I set up camp on a huge couch situated between two restaurants. Ostensibly, I was still within the confines of the InterContinental, but with all the high-end shops, perhaps it was an indoor mall? As I observed the flow of people before me, I kept thinking, Toto, I've a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore. Burlington has certainly grown more cosmopolitan over the decades, but even at its most fancy-dancy, it remains a hick town compared with La Belle Ville to our north.
Most striking were the people: culturally diverse and dressed to a version of the nines unseen in the Green Mountains. And when, pray tell, did men's clothes get so ultra-tight? Sitting there in my loosey-goosey brown corduroy pants, flannel shirt and black fleece vest, I felt like Gomer Pyle.
At 8 p.m., I rendezvoused with Gramsy. She seemed a little perplexed, but none the worse for wear. I asked Gramsy if she'd had a good time, and she told me she had, though she had to be reminded what the party was for.
As we motored back to Vermont on the dark highway, Gramsy graciously invited me to come visit her "any time at all."
"I live in Philadelphia, you know," she clarified.
"I didn't know that," I replied. My experience with very elderly folks has taught me simply to go with the flow. Factual accuracy is close to meaningless in these interactions.
"I could take you in my plane, but I had to give up flying a few years ago."
"Really?" I said, highly intrigued. "You were a pilot?"
"Yes, after the kids left, I learned how to fly, and we had our own plane. We flew all over the United States, and even to Europe. I crashed it twice before I called it quits. Once onto a reef in the Atlantic Ocean."
"Well, I'll be," I said. "Just like Amelia Earhart." It didn't sound all that likely, but who knows?
The next day, in a follow-up email with Gramsy's son, I found out her story was all true, including the crashes. If I hadn't already had it, I would have gained mad respect at that moment for Gramsy — farmer's daughter, nurse, author, pilot and great-grandmother.
All these stories are true, though names and locations may be altered to protect privacy.