Skip to main content
Jim Duke | Author

Mom Runs Away

Sometime in her early seventies, my mom ran away from home. She'd been living in a downstairs apartment at one of my sisters' homes in Boulder, Colorado, helping to raise two grandchildren while their parents were busy practicing law. It seemed to dawn on her rather suddenly that she had enjoyed plenty enough child rearing with her own litter of six when she abruptly announced that she would give her Volkswagen Rabbit to whoever would also take her dog and that she was moving to D.C. She made it clear that if any grandchildren were interested in getting to know her, they could do so by accompanying her in protest marches and such.

She bought a condominium two blocks off Dupont Circle on Massachusetts's Avenue NW, started a new career with AARP that lasted twenty years, and never drove a car again. She is the only person I've ever known that voluntarily gave up driving long before it became necessary for safety reasons. She seemed to be happier than I'd ever seen her, including even before my father had died twenty some years earlier, and even though they were truly still very much in love at that time. Wonderful as my dad was, he was such an intelligent and entertaining character that he unintentionally overshadowed her in a way that nobody was really aware of until she was on her own.

Mom had sacrificed huge potential to raise children. Overshadowed by three older brothers, she had no support from her parents in pursuing her education. She secured a scholarship from the local rotary club, filled out her own application forms, packed her own bags, and walked herself to the bus stop to arrive at the University of Illinois. She became Phi Beta Kappa and earned a Masters in Latin and Greek before marrying and becoming a full time mom. To maintain her sanity in the chaos of six kids in rapid fire, she started taking graduate level math courses to keep her brain active. Soon she was tutoring graduate students in math.

D.C gave her a new lease on life. While she had an active career and social life with all the goings on around the capital, she lived the simple life of a monk at home. She completely quit cooking, which she had never enjoyed, and lived off small snacks she pilfered from the many cafeterias in the federal buildings around the neighborhood. She especially liked filching the packets of saltines and butter pads from the cafeteria of the Justice Department. Although she did lose some weight during that time, she appeared to be healthier than ever. Concerned about her weight loss, one of my sisters arranged to have regular meals delivered by 'Meals On Wheels', which immediately made her overweight and may have contributed to her eventual tripping over her cat and breaking her hip in her early nineties.

Meanwhile, I visited her frequently and, although generally phobic about large cities, came to really love and enjoy D.C. Inspired by the many bicycle couriers delivering important packets at high speeds while dodging through slow human and vehicular traffic congestion, I kept an old bike in her basement storage and biked or rollerbladed everywhere I went. Cruising the National Mall was the most fun, where most folks tend to walk backwards obliviously while looking up at monuments or whatever through a camera lens or cell phone. I made a practice of gently 'counting coup' on these sorts, moving so fast that their startled reactions were never quick enough to see who had touched them.

One time my two brothers and I all visited together and did a rollerblading tour all around town. I was the most skilled of the three, but none of us were good enough to be out in that sort of traffic and chaos. Our highlight was coming down off a steep cloverleaf bypass on our way to the Rock Creek Trail. We were totally out of control at high speed when we reached the intersection at the bottom of the hill at the same time a women's Georgetown track team was crossing the intersection in front of us. Brother Bill and I split off in opposite directions, jumping the curbs and each doing three giant steps, tuck and roll in almost perfect synchrony, while brother John aimed for the stop sign, grabbing the signpost and performing a slamming 'flyswatter stop' as he folded the stop sign to the ground. The women were still on the ground laughing as we left.

My personal accomplishment of the day was after we reached the National Mall where I couldn't resist the temptation of the stairs below the Lincoln Monument. I was at least smart enough to try the steps at a gentle angle across the steps rather than going straight down, and I was smart enough to think that I would try just a few steps at first to test it out, but I wasn't smart enough to try those first few steps at the bottom rather than at the top. It should have been plenty obvious right from the beginning that once I started, it would not be easy to stop. I survived it, but was so shaken physically and mentally that I could barely make it back to mom's condo.

The best part of hanging around D.C. was merely my appearance. I really didn't have any choice in how I looked because I didn't have any other clothes beside Carhartt's and Wranglers and boots and my beat-up brown cowboy hat. But that was a real crowd stopper in those parts. The first time I went into Kramer's Book Store, a famous local bar and restaurant just off Dupont Circle, I ordered a vodka martini. The waitress promptly delivered a shot of Jack Daniels whiskey. I thanked her politely, but told her I'd ordered a martini. She responded that the martini was coming, but that my hat had ordered the whiskey. That has been my favorite bar ever since.

Even better was the scene out on the streets. There seemed to be a lot of reasons for gay pride parades around D.C. and they were always quite a sight, Some of them featured an S+M theme where couples dressed in black leathers with lots of whips and chains, and boyfriends on leashes with studded collars. They were very competitively weird and outrageous and generally cornered the market on curious stares from onlookers. Until I came along. Merely my boots, hat and western wear were more out of place and unique than their whips and chains. I could see the envy in their eyes as I got more stares and second glances than they did. And to make it worse, they could tell that I wasn't even trying to be weird.

Mom lived in D.C. for about twenty years totally independent and still walking so fast we could barely keep up with her. Then I received the call from my sister Sally. Mom had fallen in her bedroom and, unable to get up, had covered herself with a rug to keep warm for two days until a neighbor had come to check on her after my sister, Peg, couldn't reach her by phone. Mom was pretty casual about carrying her phone so Peg hadn't been too concerned until the second day. My sister Sally was living in D.C. at the time, but had been away on business. When she had to leave on another business trip, and with mom in assisted living during rehabilitation, Sally called me to come and help take care of mom in her absence.