Window 22 was at the far end of a long counter marked by 21 other windows – each window framed by ivy sprigs rooting in vases of pretty glass marbles. As if DMV could be any more inviting than a blood lab.
For the interrogation, a lady with a clipboard asked politely if I would "step away" from the window so she could interrogate my mother about what happened when she drove her car into the wall of the carpet store. When she mistook the gas for the brake pedal.
I sat on a bench – just within earshot of my mother referring repeatedly to the brake as the "clutch." What she learned to drive on what, a good, 75 years ago? I wanted to pinch her.
I could swear, above all the raucus of sorrry waiting souls in this enormous DMV room, I could actually hear the mad scribbling of Clipboard Lady. "So you weren't driving a standard then."
"What standard? I was driving my car."
I took out my phone to play with it, when what I really wanted was a cigarette which I haven't smoked in over twelve years.
The lady beckoned me back, wearing the pleasant face of someone who'd merely been taking my mother's order at a fast-food window. She told us she would meet us outside for the road test "and to take our time."
We had no choice but to take our time. My mother is understandably quite slow, and it was enough to get her up the stately stone steps, through the metal detectors, to hobble down the long hallway.
Now we got to do it all again in reverse. At least we got to climb down rather than up the stone steps....
Outside, the Clipboard Lady was already there, leaning against the railing, feet crossed, and I was reminded of my boys' pretend superheros who can take flight and land out of nowhere.
She wore her horribly pleasant smile as she told me to "find a comfortable spot to wait."
I sat on a "comfortable" stone step. Watching younger folk mostly, come and go up and down the steps as if back and forth to classes. I resisted bumming a cigarette from a cute couple cuddling on a step above me. There were no other 90-somethings in the mix.
They finally returned. Getting out of my mother's car, the Clipboard Lady still wore a pleasant smile though it seemed to have stiffened a bit. "I'll meet you back at window 22. Do take your time."
My hobbling mother was giddy with relief: "I think I did pretty well." She'd been really worried about parallel parking as she hadn't done it for years. She thought she'd aced that one, as "there were no cars in front or behind me."
We began our trek back up the stone steps, through the metal detectors and down the hall. To beautifully ivy-sprig-framed window 22.
It takes only 30 points to fail a road test. My mother scored 95.
My mother stood at the DMV counter as the clipboard lady went over all the points: making a 3-point turn in an intersection; almost hitting the car behind her parallel parking –
"What car? There was no car...."
Ms. Clipboard pinched two fingers together: "You missed it by this much."
She had failed to yield at a yield sign. "What yield sign?" My mother asked.
"You did a three-point turn in the middle of an intersection."
"What's that, I don't even know what a three-point turn is."
"A U-Turn. You did a U in the middle of an intersection." Then the Ms. Clipboard Lady suddenly became real. She put a hand to her heart and in the most gentle of tones said, "Mam, I was queasy out there...."
And I saw it: the Clipboard Lady had feared for her own life with my mother at the wheel.
My mother was quiet a moment. Then she began drawing a little map on the cream-colored counter with an arthritic pointer finger. She was mapping out the one-block radius of her house, the post office and grocery store. "I don't go far. But I need to go up this block, turn right, then a left here to get my mail and groceries."
Ms. Clipboard actually grew patient, folding her hands on the counter.
We both looked at the invisible map on the counter.
Then Clipboard Lady just shook her head. "I'm sorry."
My mother folded her own hands. "You wait until you're 93. You just wait."
Ms. Clipboard "evolutioned" as my seven-year-old would say, back into an ice monster that he could "bust open" with a hammer. She handed my mother a copy of her failed report. At the bottom was scrawled the word "hazardous."
She slid another form across the table for my mother to sign – for her to surrender her license.
And as my mother slid her license across the counter, I regretted this. I regretted it so deeply, I could taste the remorse, my mouth filling with saliva and my eyes welling. I regretted what I'd hoped to avoid, having it be her daughter to take away the keys.
But taking away car keys I realized was far less devastating than having someone take away your license – I hadn't foreseen the clipboard lady actually asking my mother to surrender that little card she'd been carrying around her entire adult life.That identity. And dignity.
If only she could just find those damn keys that she was always misplacing anyway....