Her health was failing, and her husband had just died, but Norma Bauerschmidt decided to join her son on a journey across America. He tells Giulia Rhodes how 14 months of travel liberated her
The recommended treatment, Norma Bauerschmidt was told on learning that she had terminal cancer, comprised surgery, radiation and chemotherapy. At the age of 90, and just two days after Leo, her husband of 67 years, had died in the same Michigan hospital, Norma had other ideas.
“I’m hitting the road,” she told her astonished (but supportive) doctor. Over the following 14 months, Norma, her son Tim, daughter-in-law Ramie and their poodle, Ringo, notched up 13,000 miles across 32 states in a 36ft motor home.
For the first time, Norma tried oysters, gin and tonic, cannabis products (for pain relief), a pedicure, hot-air ballooning, horse-riding and a zip wire. On her 91st birthday she was honorary co-captain of the Atlanta Hawks basketball team, waving to a 20,000 crowd in the city’s stadium. She used 10 hairstylists and established a new family tradition of celebrating with beer and two types of cake.
Last October, Norma died peacefully in the motor home in Friday Harbour, an island seaport on the north-western tip of Washington state. A tree, planted there in a ceremony organised by the local community, bears her name.
The story of their trip is told in Tim and Ramie’s new book. When Tim suggested his mother join them on the road – a lifestyle he and Ramie had enjoyed since taking early retirement 15 years earlier – he had neither any notion of whether she would accept nor a firm grip on the practicalities involved.
“It was an organic idea. We certainly didn’t over-think it or it mightn’t have happened. She couldn’t stay in the house. A nursing home seemed wrong. I felt like she didn’t have much time left and I needed to spend what there was with her. I hoped to share the lifestyle I loved with her so I just felt I had to put it out there,” he says. “I had promised my dad I would take care of her.”
Norma decided rapidly. “She spent a few minutes eating her ham-salad sandwich quietly then she said: ‘I think I’d like to come along,’” recalls Tim.
It took five weeks to settle Leo’s estate, exchange a too-small Airstream trailer for a two-bedroom vehicle and a Jeep to be towed behind it, collect a lightweight wheelchair, obtain medical advice (keep on top of any pain, call 911 in an emergency, hook into the local hospice services when the time comes, the doctor reassured) and pack up the house.
“Then we drained the pipes, locked the door, got in the thing and drove away. The only thing Mom took from the house was her pillow,” says Tim. “She never looked back.”
“When we left, she was sick and depressed. We were all pretty quiet and sombre.” The first destination was Mount Rushmore, South Dakota (that and New Mexico being the only two specific requests Norma had made). “To be honest, I was worried we wouldn’t get her there.”
An early pit stop in Blue Earth, Minnesota – home to a 55ft-tall statue of the Jolly Green Giant, of frozen vegetable fame – went some way to allaying his fears. “Ramie pushed her over there in her chair and she got out and copied his pose for a picture. That was a huge turning point. I thought, OK there is something here. We are going to get beyond the grief and have a good time.”
The thing that had struck him was Norma’s grin. “We had sorted through boxes of photos and not found one of my mom smiling,” he says. Not that Norma’s life had been unfulfilled – far from it, he says – rather that she had always happily lived in the shadow of others.
“I hate to admit it, but I never knew my mom had a personality. I’m sure it was always there, but she had always put others first,” says Tim. “She had always been very reserved, expressive but quiet. The road was somehow liberating for her. There were no preconceived notions. She could be silly, funny, whoever she wanted to be. She could let out her spirit of adventure.”
Knowing – as all three travellers did – that time may be short, the desire to embrace life was heightened. “When you accept you are going to die anyway what is there to fear? A zip line? The possibility of falling out of the wheelchair into a bubbling mud dip at Yellowstone? What a way to go. I wanted new and exciting things for her.”
To Tim and Ramie’s proposals – often activities suggested by one of the thousands of fans following Norma’s adventures on the Facebook page Ramie had created – Norma’s standard response was: “Sure, why not?”
In January 2016, six months into the trip and having reached Orlando, Florida, Tim and Ramie arranged what was to be one of Norma’s highlights.
While sorting through his parents’ paperwork, Tim had found a number of newspaper clippings about hot-air balloon rides. It was, Norma told him, an ambition she and Leo had always harboured. “I had no idea. I’d have happily indulged them but they never wanted to put us out for anything. They were stoical, Depression-era, independent people,” he says.
“The balloon flight was special. Mom was very contemplative when we were up there. She just quietly said: ‘Dad would have liked this.’”
Happy moments were not always high adrenaline though. Among those Tim now treasures were many spent simply admiring a view, sipping a cup of tea or sitting with Norma while she enjoyed a jigsaw puzzle or a game of sudoku with the devoted Ringo dozing at her feet.
Routines – “which ground your life and become especially important if you live on the road” – brought the family closer. Every night at 9pm, Tim and Ramie would escort Norma, singing and dancing with her cane, to bed. “Oftentimes we would laugh. You cannot laugh too much,” says Tim.
Talk of journeys can sound a little hackneyed, but of course this one really was an emotional as well as a physical one. Like many grown men, Tim says his relationship with his mother had been close enough – phone calls, visits, odd jobs – but not terribly profound.
“I had always been close to her but it was only in that last year of her life that I really got a chance to know her as a person, share so much time and create so many happy memories,” he says.
Norma remained “a woman of few words” but their communication completely changed gear. “I could sit next to a lake and look at the sky with Mom, just soaking it in. We would just look at each other and nod. You don’t always need long conversations to say everything.”
After Norma’s death, Tim and Ramie continued the itinerary they had agreed with Norma, heading to the Baja California peninsula in Mexico, where they had spent several winters.
There they read Norma’s daily journal. It detailed location and weather. Never once, Tim found, did Norma mention her illness or even her new-found internet fame.
“She didn’t have expectations and she saw every day as a gift,” he says. Of all the entries, Tim finds one especially comforting. “It simply ended: ‘I had a good day.’”
• Driving Miss Norma by Tim Bauerschmidt and Ramie Liddle (Bantam Press, £12.99). To order a copy for £11.04, go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call the Guardian Bookshop on 0330 333 6846.
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