Each morning, my father drives my mother, Joan, his wife of 53 years and counting, many miles from home, pulls over at the side of the road and kicks her out of the car. If someone is standing within earshot, my dad might say something like, “That’s it woman, we’re through,” or, “I can’t take it anymore, I’m flying solo,” and then peel off in a screech of tires. My mother will shrug and laugh to try and set the observer at ease. Then she will begin running home.
My parents have been doing this routine for nearly 30 years, ever since my mother began running marathons. My mother can stand nearly anything, she says, except the mind-numbing boredom of retracing her steps on a long run.
Recently, while visiting my parents in Florida, where they escape from the Vineyard for a few months each winter, I took over the driving-mom-far-from-home duties. My kids would join me, and on the first morning, after driving six miles away and leaving grandma by the side of a deserted stretch of road, out by a strip mall filled with pawn shops and fast food joints, my young daughter began to cry.
“But how will grandma find her way home?” she wailed.
To borrow a phrase from my father, I said: “She always does. No matter what I do, she always does.”
My mother will turn 72 on Sunday. During her running career, she has completed six marathons, run the Falmouth Road Race 23 times and the Chilmark Road Race nearly as much (she prefers long distances). For her 70th birthday, she gave herself the present of finishing the New Bedford half marathon. My dad was there, too, as always, walking the dog around new neighborhoods as he waited for mom to finish the race.
I still remember when she started, back in the mid-1970s, on the streets of New Jersey. One day, mom announced she would be walking the two miles to work at Stony Brook School, where she taught sixth grade. We all looked at her as if she had been struck by lightning.
The exercise craze was still in its infancy back then, and a lone woman wandering the streets with a small briefcase and lunchbox was a rare sight. Each day, friends and strangers would slow down and offer her a ride, which she would politely decline no matter how much it was raining or snowing or freezing.
The walking provided her a good argument against her three sons’ whining about walking to school while our friends enjoyed the warm confines of a heated car on cold January mornings. Mom didn’t have to resort to mythic tales about how, when she was a kid, she walked to school in her bare feet, carrying 100 pounds of books plus two little neighborhood kids who tired easily but hungered for education. She just walked out the door each morning, silencing our whines by putting one foot in front of the other.
In a few years, walking to school turned into running in the late afternoons and on weekends. By then, I was running too, mostly to lose weight for wrestling matches, but over time, I grew to love the feeling of flying down empty streets in the dark of night, my heart pounding, sweat flowing. It was the perfect antidote to teenage angst and 20-something mayhem.
In 1992, mom and I decided to run the New York City marathon, each of us for the first time. I had friends running, a group of 20-somethings looking fit and rosy cheeked, and on the morning of the race, we clustered together on the grass, stretching, talking and hydrating. Mom was there too, the only parent in our group. It seemed both natural and odd for her to be there, this woman who had always been by my side encouraging me, but never before as an equal on the athletic field.
I was young then and therefore mostly concerned with myself. It never even occurred to me to say to my mother how much it meant to have her by my side, but that is what I felt. After I finished my race, I circled back to watch her run. I finally found her at mile 21, steadily moving forward with the crowd, her face tight with determination. That day, I saw her for the first time not simply as my mother, but as a person in her own right, running, sweating and never giving up.
I started cheering then, waving my arms and yelling her name until I was hoarse and she heard me above the general roar of the crowd. She turned, smiled and gave me a wave. Then she went back to work, trying to overtake a few more runners before reaching the finish line.
I ran one more marathon after that and then stopped the long distances. Over time, I stopped running. The knees and the Achilles tendons and other various pains took over. But mom has never stopped. That’s something I never saw coming: my mother, the running warrior in her 70s, and me, on the sidelines, cheering for her.
I couldn’t be prouder.
Editor's Note: A longer version of this essay originally appeared in the Vineyard Gazette.