Updated: Nov 13, 2020
By Annie Newcomer:
After being sheltered for many weeks, afraid to leave our home and engage in this new world made daunting by the virus Covid-19, my husband suggested that we go for a ride on his pale-blue Vespa. He drove his bike like a man stuck inside a house too long, flying past families walking on the sidewalks in our newly socially distanced neighborhood, and I held tightly on to him like I did when we first dated. I watched off the side of my husband’s shoulder as trees whizzed by, enjoying the movement and flow of the air enveloping my being on this beautiful April afternoon. Then the ride got very bumpy, so we stopped to check the bike and found an aneurysm in the front tire about the size of a large grapefruit. Out of nowhere, a huge explosion sounded, causing us and all the golfers on the greens across the street a few dozen feet away to jump. Left considering how to get our wounded bike home, we decided that my husband should carefully navigate the Vespa on the road while I followed in the distance. I graciously accepted that this was going to be a long walk back for me.
Later that day, since almost all the stores were mandatorily closed at this time, I was quite surprised when my husband informed me that he’d found a motorcycle shop that would send an employee to our home to collect the disabled bike and transport it to the shop, where they would replace the tire. Soon after he shared this information, from a window on the second story of our house, I saw an unmarked vehicle pull into our driveway, a man exit, ring the doorbell, and then with my husband’s help, load the motorcycle into the storage section of his truck and just as quickly leave. It was like watching a heist.
Weeks passed with no word from the shop, so I started calling them hoping the Vespa was ready. All I got was the answering machine telling me to leave a message. That was my cue to recite my old sorry request for an update on the bike. I started to worry that we may have given the bike away to a con artist. Finally one day we received a return call with our scheduled time to pick up the Vespa. On the designated day, we headed over to the shop, arriving a little early for our 10 a.m. appointment. We’d been instructed that only one couple was allowed in the store at a time, and we’d be second in line when the store opened.
We started chatting in the parking lot, once again socially distanced, with the gentleman who held the designated first slot when out of the blue #1 asked me if I might like to try his Buddy, a handsome royal blue motorcycle. My first inclination was to politely decline,
“Oh, thank you so much but my mother always warned me that I should never accept motorcycle rides from strangers.”
But he wasn’t actually offering me a ride. He was offering his bike for me to ride. That was a problem for me because it seemed sacrilegious to decline any offer of kindness during a pandemic. And yet to accept was to scoff at my mother’s fear of motorcycles that I had inherited. Indeed a fear with quite a history too because it had been passed down to her from her father. I felt the weight of my duty to guard this “motorcycle phobia” that had been polished over the years. My mother’s storytelling elevated it to sacred, raised to the importance of the Ten Commandments.
The story goes like this: Decades ago when my mother was a small child, her family attended a dinner at the local chapter of the Knights of Columbus in Lansing, Michigan. The bingo games were played before the main event, the raffle of a shiny new Huffy bicycle. The hour grew late, but parents understood the excitement of their children and allowed them to stay up. Those who had gathered that Friday evening were in for a shock when my mother was called to the stage, a tiny girl of no more than eight, and instructed to draw the winning ticket. She did. There, scribbled on the ticket stub she drew, was her father’s Irish Catholic name, James Doyle. My grandfather only had a third-grade education and his handwriting was close to illegible but still recognizable. After deliberating, the judges determined that it was, indeed, his name. Rather than producing joy in him, this unexpected result only unsettled grandpa because he was afraid that the other Knights of Columbus members might think it was a setup—him winning the grand price when, as it turns out, he was in charge of the raffle. But after the initial shock wore off, everyone agreed that my mother hadn’t cheated and that the bike should go home with her, for it had been won fair and square. Then, to everyone’s surprise (the second of the evening) and to my mother’s great disappointment, grandpa declined the bike, saying it was a safety issue. No daughter of his would ever ride a bicycle, he announced. So there, in front of nearly the whole congregation in his church, my grandfather promised to buy my mother a wristwatch, which eased her sadness and ensured that although she left the auditorium without a Huffy bike there would be no more drama that night. She showed her appreciation by demonstrating a healthy respect for time and was never late for work a day in her life when she grew up. My mother held various jobs: in the rectory in her hometown of Lansing and later in the Golden Dome at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. That is where she met my dad and then soon after married him. They moved to upstate New York and raised a large family. In addition to her family obligations, my mother worked for the Civil Service Fraud Unit in downtown Syracuse, New York, until she was 83 years old. She lived outside of town, so she was up bright and early every day at 5 a.m. to catch the city bus, a time schedule she kept until her death at 97.