From NJ to NOLA: 1,300 miles on the road with my 89-year-old grandma

Grandma and I pose for a picture before saying goodbye to Grandpa in New Jersey. He took our picture while he stood in the driveway in his plaid boxers and New Balance sneakers.

I was eating lasagna with my two 89-year-old grandparents in their northern New Jersey home when my grandma suggested she come with me on my 19-hour road trip to New Orleans.

It was last September, only days after I had returned from my three-year service in Madagascar with the Peace Corps, and we were discussing my upcoming move to Louisiana for my new reporting job at New Orleans’ oldest newspaper, The Times-Picayune.

It was between a mouthful of ricotta and marinara when she blabbered: “New Orleans! You know Livie, I should go with you.”

I waited in silence, my eyes darting toward my very practical grandpa, to see if his wife’s idea would earn his consideration.

The idea was definitely crazy–I think all three of us knew that to some degree as we toyed with it in silence. It was at the same table, three years earlier, that Grandma had a minor stroke that left her with limited mobility and occasional seizures. Her short-term memory was also failing her. Since then, Grandpa had become her caretaker – preparing most meals for her, helping her walk to the car, giving her daily medicine and urging her to hurry up when they were running late for bridge games on Thursday nights.

But it was that craziness that piqued our interest – how often can you go on a 1-300-mile road trip with your 89-year-old grandma?

When Grandpa didn’t say anything, I checked with Grandma to make sure she in fact knew what she was proposing. She nodded.

We pushed our dinner plates aside to make room for an atlas. A week later, we were off on our way to the swamp lands of Louisiana for an adventure that I would never forget (and one that my Grandma most likely would).

***

We had been driving for no more than 20 minutes, when the air conditioning in my Volkswagen beetle stopped working. I realized it before Grandma did. After intermittent rain drops turned into a deluge on Route 287, I rolled my windows up. Our windows fogged up as warm air blew out the vents. When I turned to her and broke the news, she shrugged.

As we drove further and further south and the temperature rose, Grandma didn’t complain once. In Virginia, I suggested she change into one of my t-shirts and she started to take her shirt off in the middle of a rest stop parking lot. In Alabama, Grandma desperately asked if ice cream would fall from the sky.

After GoogleMaps led us astray toward several nonexistent ice cream shops, we finally found one in a small town in Alabama.

For the next three days, she tolerated my R&B playlists, while I listened to her tell stories for the 17th time. In between NPR broadcasts, her cat naps and NYTimes crossword puzzles, I’d notice her staring at me. When I asked her if she was ok, she told me she was just making sure I wasn’t getting sleepy.

She jabbered nonstop and I gladly listened because each time I heard the same story, a new detail would emerge. I listened to her talk about many things, including her childhood in Johnstown, PA, her theory on a successful marriage, her fascination with my car’s handles and the fact that she considers herself a full-fledged milkaholic.

We sprinkled Goldfish pretzels into each other’s hands and split Babybel Gouda cheese during the long stretches of highway.

“I’m a cheese freak. Cheese is my downfall,” she admitted to me.

We averaged nine hours in the car each day, making overnight stops in Wytheville, Virgina, then Birmingham, Alabama and finally New Orleans, Louisiana. By the time we reached each hotel at the end of the day, I try to rush Grandma along to the room. She, in her own way, reminded me to slow down.

I was exhausted and many steps ahead of her carrying both of our bags while trying to get to the hotel room to eat dinner at 9 p.m. When I turned around, I saw her marveling at the gold-and-maroon tiled floor. Again, when I finished brushing my teeth and wanted to go to sleep, I caught Grandma slurping her chocolate milkshake off her nightgown while she sat in bed.

Her dawdling took another form the next morning, shortly after we woke up and started to prepare for our last leg of the journey. As she fumbled to put on her bra, she yammered her fascination with its clasp in the front rather than in the back. “Aunt Janie found it on the internet,” she claimed.

Her spirit suddenly dampened as she grabbed her shirt and in that moment, she showed me of the fragile beauty that is growing old with someone.

“I keep thinking Tom is around here,” she said. “But he isn’t.” I assured her that Grandpa was in New Jersey, waiting for her and she agreed. “I reckon he is.” They’ve been a team since 1954 and this road trip meant she was spending a much longer time without him than she was used to, especially in most recent years. (They have become “like glue,” according to Grandma.) I quickly ran our bags into the car and when I came back, Grandma was still sitting on the bed.

“My shirt is on backward… damnit.”

Her mood was lifted when she saw her "baby brother,” Stan and his wife, Suzi at their cabin in Tennessee. Uncle Stan and Grandma held each other’s hand as we sat around the table eating lunch, both of them telling each other how cute one another was. At 85 years old, Uncle Stan is still traveling the country with his wife in their RV. Before we left, they handed me their business card with the text “On the Road Again” printed next to an American flag.


Though she moved slow, my copilot was a seasoned traveler. For six and half years, she and Grandpa used to travel six months every year in their van. In that time, they were able to visit every state twice. The traveling duo have also explored every continent together. Grandma recapped the last time she was in New Orleans in 2012, when she helped rebuild a home with Habitat for Humanity. On the last day of the trip, Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn showed up, she said. In the weeks following Katrina, both Grandma and Grandpa were volunteering in Baton Rouge — Grandpa was helping displaced survivors separated from their families find one another using a database called, Find Family, while Grandma helped anyway she could inside a gym at Southern University where many survivors slept on cots. The memory prompted her to hum a melody and she spewed a lyric containing “New Orleans.” She didn’t remember the rest of the words.

***

On the third day of our trip, the city’s skyline became clear in the distance and Grandma started to sing again in an elongated moan: New Orleans!

I dropped Grandma off in the lobby of a Central Business District hotel around 3:30 p.m. and went back to the car to grab the bags. Once I came back, we made our way to the room. She told me that the hotel has “a very unique floor.”

At the recommendation of my soon-to-be roommate, we headed to the Ritz Carlton Hotel to hear jazz trumpeter and singer Jeremy Davenport. Grandma told me as long as she heard some jazz, she would be happy. It was her first and only request she made on the trip.

I held her hand as we walked to her first Lyft ride. While in the car, Grandma insisted: “We have to call everything jazzy, since this is the city of jazz.” She pointed out the window toward “a jazzy Walgreens.”

While sitting in the lounge under dimmed lighting, eating baked potato chips and drinking a Sprite, Grandma nodded her head to smooth sounds of the saxophone. She clapped her hands and effortlessly mouthed every Satchmo lyric.

“Can I give you a hug, honey? This makes me want to cry,” she said as she turned to me. Afterward, we walked to the nearest restaurant, pausing on a bench midway, and ordered a mediocre bowl of seafood gumbo.

Grandma and I didn’t stop at iconic landmarks or top-rated restaurants on our trip to the South. Instead, its highlights were in the intimacy shared between a nearly 90-year-old woman and her 20-something granddaughter. Though we were no strangers to each other, spending 72 straight hours together showed me the humbling realities of growing old and the bravery it takes to depend on others to help you. By the end of our trip, we were both exhausted, but happy.

***

As I tried to get her ready for the airport the next morning, Grandma paused at the doorway of the hotel bathroom and said, “You could have a ballroom in here! Or a ping pong table.” She ventured off to other corners of the room, peeking behind the curtains and grabbing anything that catches her eye.

“Look at this rig-a-maroo!” as she held an electric plug in her fingers.

“C’mon Grams,” I rushed her, even though I realized my goodbye to her was imminent. I packed a note to my Grandpa in her suitcase, thanking him for letting me borrow his partner-in-crime for the past few days, and we headed to the airport.

I put her ID in her hand and gave her a hug as she sat in an airport-provided wheelchair. An airport employee stood behind her ready to push her to her gate.

“Your first story should be about your road trip with your grandma,” she told me before we parted ways. I nodded and smiled before reminding her to hit the green button on her cell phone two times to get in touch with Grandpa, if she had any trouble. He would be waiting for her at the airport in Newark.

Grandma made it safely back to New Jersey, where she was reunited with her original travel buddy. In the months after our road trip, I filled many notebooks from interviews with New Orleanians, often in the aftermath of a shooting and sometimes on the lowest days of their lives. I’m thankful they trusted me to tell their story. I’d like to think that I was able to do so with traits I got from my grandma, like her earnestness and unwavering curiosity.

Though my copilot couldn’t drive or manage a GPS, it’s her I can always thank for getting me here. Now, as I write the story of our road trip, I realize it is my last that I will write while in New Orleans. Nine months later, I’m headed on another 20-hour road trip, but this time without my trusty copilot. (Don’t worry, she’s just chillin’ in N.J. with Gramps). I wasn’t anticipating another move so soon, but life is unpredictable and best when we can roll with what we get. I’m excited for my next adventure in Colorado, where I’ll continue reporting/fact checking/seeking truth at The Gazette, the state’s second-largest paper.

Please come visit and climb some mountains with me.

The Gazette newsroom in Colorado Springs. (Photo courtesy of gazette.com)

The Gazette newsroom in Colorado Springs. (Photo courtesy of gazette.com)