Baby boomer Morgan Ronzio’s troubled marriage is the least of her worries when she gets the call that her addled, eighty-six-year-old, half-blind dad, Mac, has stolen a car and escaped the rest home.
Before she can alert her uber-capable wife, Treat, a trio of lady octogenarians appropriates the rest home van to rescue Mac, embarking on an adventure that makes national news. But Morgan knows something they don’t: Mac is taking orders from her mom’s ghost, trying to make good on a promise he made years ago. Worried sick, Morgan sets out on the 126 mile drive from Fresno to Santa Cruz, praying she finds Mac before he hurts himself—or worse. The chase is on—only the mission becomes one of more than miles; Morgan must also undertake a journey of the heart.
Mac scowled at the scatter of puzzle pieces on the round wooden table. It was ridiculous to even try. The damned macular degeneration robbed him of any clarity, except out of the corners of his eyes. Morgan had given him the puzzle, hoping it would bring purpose to his life. He couldn’t blame her. She was trying to make the best of a bad situation. No one wanted useless elderly parents moving in.
He cocked his head to the side, giving his left eye a shot at the confetti of interlocking pieces. It wasn’t one of the thousand-piece puzzles they did together when she was a girl. Same kind of picture though: windmill, bunches of tulips. Morgan always liked the ones of faraway places.
“Try that one,” Effie said, pointing to a blue edge piece.
He picked up the piece and locked it into place. “Bingo.” At least he and Effie were in this together. He couldn’t imagine going through this humiliating stage of his life alone—even if she did make him fit the pieces together, as if she weren’t actually doing the puzzle. But they were coping as best they could, yes siree Bob. “I’m going to put some water on for tea. You want some?”
“I’m good,” she said without looking up. “Well, don’t do anything crazy while I’m gone.” She wrenched her attention away from the puzzle long enough to stick her tongue out at him then went back to scanning the pieces.
Since the remodel, Morgan and Treat’s house was all angles, etched glass, and fancy blond wood furniture. Mac supposed all the houses in the trendy Tower District of Fresno had been similarly done up. The artsy section of town made a point of disassociating itself from the rest of the city’s conservative style. He supposed that’s what had attracted his daughter and her…wife. Boy, that was hard to get used to. Not that he didn’t like Treat, but two women getting married? Of course, things hadn’t been going too well between the two of them. He’d heard the whispered arguments, seen the sad looks. But it was none of his business. Morgan had made that clear on more than one occasion.
He walked past Morgan’s god-awful collection of Mexican folk art—all skeletons and gaudy colors—into the kitchen with its high-maintenance granite countertops and impractical open shelving. Bright canisters marked Flour, Sugar, Cornmeal sat by the stove, all of them empty, save for the coffee one, which was always full of some special organic blend or other. The coffee maker itself looked like something made for outer space. Above the stove, Rosie the Riveter held her fist in the air: We can do it! She made Mac feel tired. He filled the stainless steel kettle, flipped the front burner to high, and searched through a drawer of assorted teas for the one he’d finally figured out was actually tea. It was some gourmet brand they liked. Not all that different from good old Lipton’s in his opinion.
“You building a boat in there?” Effie yelled.
Ignoring her, he plucked out a tea bag, dropped it into a mug, then returned to the living room. “God knows what all those other teas are,” he said, joining Effie at the puzzle. “Saw one called Women’s Liberty. It’s supposed to promote healthy hormone balance.”
“If it helps with night sweats, I say more power to her. Remember how I used to wake up drenched in the middle of the night?”
Mac dimly recalled Effie flinging the sheets back and charging out of bed to stand under the ceiling fan. “I guess.”
They stared at the puzzle for some time, neither of them finding a match. Effie pointed out a couple, but they weren’t fits. Mac drifted off into his thoughts. Was that a new liver spot on his hand? A bruise? He barely recognized his hands anymore. His knuckles had gotten huge.
He pushed his chair back. “Water should be boiled by now.”
“I’ll get it. I’ve got to go to the bathroom anyway.”
He watched her get up from the table and shuffle her way past the windowsill of wilting African violets to the kitchen. She was still an attractive woman, had kept her figure more or less, except for that soft little belly and her hair turning into a dandelion puff. Of course, he’d never say that to her.
“You old coot!” she called from the kitchen. “The kettle’s barely even warm!”
“Is the whistle top on it?”
“Wasn’t, but is now.”
Mac massaged his forehead. Time had gotten so wobbly. A minute could last an hour. A whole day could slip by in a second. It was because there was nothing to do here. Sure, there were things that needed fixing, the spring on the door of the outside shed had a hinge that could use some adjusting, the downstairs bathroom sink had a drip, but he didn’t have any tools here, not even a hammer or a screwdriver. And he couldn’t drive to pick any up; they’d taken his license over a year ago. The bitter irony of it. He’d owned and run Ronzio’s Hardware for over forty-five years and now didn’t have a tool to his name! Of course, Treat had a motley collection out in the garage, but it was against Mac’s principles to go rooting around in someone else’s toolbox, a woman’s no less. Resigned, he picked up the puzzle box top. There was a small bridge in the upper right-hand corner he hadn’t noticed earlier. He searched for pieces of gray stone. That couldn’t be so hard. He spotted one and locked it into place. “Got one!”
Effie returned to the table. “Well, bully for you.”
Mac scanned for more gray stone. He was hot on the trail. He began sorting all the possible bridge pieces into a pile. They looked a lot like the slats on the windmill. Or were they wall pieces? His eyes began to sting. He rubbed them. He coughed a couple of times.
An intermittent shrilling blasted from the kitchen. He was momentarily confused. Teakettle? Hearing aid? No! Smoke alarm! He bolted up from the chair, his thighs banging painfully into the table, had to slow down around the carpet’s edge—if you weren’t careful you could catch your shoe—then tore into the kitchen.
It was filled with smoke! More coughing. More stinging eyes. He grabbed a dishtowel and reached over to turn off the burner. Success! Except the room was billowing black clouds. Morgan would kill him.
“You said you put the whistle top on the kettle!” he yelled to Effie.
Then he remembered. Effie was dead.
86 year old and half blind Mac escapes from a rest home away-day and steals a car to fulfill a promise – driven on by his wife’s ghost. 3 octogenarian ladies rush to his rescue in the care-home mini-van and gain national TV coverage as the Runaway Grannies.
Meanwhile his lesbian daughter, Morgan, is having a crisis because her Alpha wife is obviously having an affair with a younger woman who is, almost certainly, not having hot flushes and suffering middle aged-spread. When the call comes that her father has disappeared she is determined to prove her capabilities and reassert her independence.
The ensuing chase reveals things to all involved. Mac finds out just what he is capable of, the ladies form a bond that will change their futures, and Morgan goes on a journey of self-discovery that will decide the fate of her marriage.
The story is full of humor and pathos, written with love and care. The characters are well developed, well rounded and delightful. Their life experiences shine from the page. All are drawn out by the ‘adventure’, challenging their own self-perception as well as our image of old folks and middle-aged women.
As much as anything this is about exploration, finding out who we are and who we are capable of being. Life can put us in boxes to do with our age that we aren’t ready for. In this charming story we watch as each group fights against those restraints and choses who they want to be – old and consigned to the scrap heap, or living life as an adventure to be taken.
This isn’t a romance, but it is full of romance none-the-less. Morgan and her wife, Treat, have had a happy and successful marriage. The life they have shared is revealed in the gentle touches of remembered experiences. The challenges we face of both aging and long term relationships are lightly drawn, but will resonate with all of us who face the issues of parent care and our own aging.
Funny and touching, this story held my interest and kept me turning the pages. Ms Henderson’s novel is brilliantly written and full of delightful observation. It would make a wonderful movie in the style of “Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”.