Second of three articles
PINELLAS PARK — Joetta Marlor ushered her freshly groomed schnauzer, Princess, into the back seat of her car.
She settled into the blue Mercury and maneuvered down busy Park Boulevard, holding the wheel with one hand as she has done for 60 years. She signaled when she changed lanes, stopped at lights, applied her brakes carefully when a white Sentra pulled out in front of her.
It was a sunny September day and Marlor, 79, appeared to be in command of her car.
But driving inspectors didn't think she should be on the road. After an accident last year, she was asked to take a driving test and did poorly on it. So in June, she received a letter saying "continued driving can place Ms. Marlor's safety and the safety of others at risk."
The letter said "driving cessation is strongly recommended." But it didn't say exactly when. So Marlor kept driving, knowing that the authorities could step in at any moment and take away her license.
One of her worst fears was that she would become a burden to her children. And if she couldn't drive, she felt she surely would be.
"It hurts. It really hurts," she said. "I'm so not ready. I'm glad I'm still independent."
As she drove past her favorite flea market, a bald man on a scooter pulled out in front of her, slowed and then popped his wheel up a little before surging forward. She slowed down to avoid him.
"He," she said, "has got no business driving."
• • •
Her story begins at an intersection in Pinellas Park almost a year ago. Marlor was driving her 1989 Cadillac home from a lunch outing with some of her friends. In the seat beside her was a container of ambrosia.
As she drove along 78th Avenue N at Belcher Road, a young man in a Jeep broadsided her. His car rolled over and ended up on its roof. When Marlor's Cadillac stopped spinning, she had ambrosia all over her clothes.
A police officer cited her for running a red light. The driver of the other car, Christo Pettas, 20, was taken to the hospital. In a phone interview recently, he acknowledged that the brakes failed on his Jeep. He said that he thought he went through the red light and that his insurance company paid for Marlor's car.
But it didn't matter. Marlor still had the ticket. In court, the judge fined her $141 and ordered her to enter a senior driving program called Getting in Gear. It tests drivers referred by the court system, assessing their vision, cognitive ability and reflexes. It's one of several around the state that evaluate drivers whose abilities have come into question.
Marlor took the test at Getting in Gear in St. Petersburg on May 28. She was nervous. She had to drive on strange roads in a strange car. At the end, she pulled into a circular drive the wrong way.
"Well, that's the only boo-boo I made," she remembers telling the driver evaluator.
In June, she got her results.
She had made 17 other boo-boos, including driving too close to the yellow center line nine times and turning from or into an inappropriate lane five times.
Marlor was shocked. Getting in Gear recommended to the court that she give up her license.
• • •
Marlor has lived on her own since her husband was shot and killed at his auto business in 1988 in a dispute over money. She gave up her home in St. Petersburg's Lakewood Estates a few years ago and now lives in a one-bedroom apartment in Pinellas Park. She has five adult children who all weigh in on her decisions.
After her failed driving test, daughter Debbie Darbois, 60, told her to move on and find other ways to fill her time.
"My mom was in the wrong place at the wrong time," said Darbois, of Seminole. "I'd like her to still be driving. But there's nothing you can do about it."
But Marlor's youngest daughter, Mary Katherine Kilburn, 46, wondered if there was something her mother could do to fight.
Try the test again?
Question why her driving skills were challenged when the accident was the other driver's fault?
"I don't feel like she's jeopardizing anybody," Kilburn said recently while visiting her mother after work. "She's not incapacitated."
Marlor poured her some green tea with pomegranate and handed her the glass.
"It's really making me old before my time. It's just making me tuck my tail between my legs and … " Marlor's voice cracked.
"I can only imagine, Mom," Kilburn said. "You were already fighting getting old. This is way before it needed to happen."
"I think it's unfortunate that as people get older that they lean too much on their kids," Marlor said.
Kilburn nodded sympathetically. Her mother had always been independent. She paid her own bills, bought her own groceries. A little more than a year ago, she had cooked a spaghetti meal for 22 in her apartment.
Kilburn worried about what would happen if her mother stopped driving. She knew her mom would hesitate to call for help if she needed a gallon of milk or to take Princess to the groomer's.
"Don't you think if I thought I couldn't drive, I'd be the first one to admit it?" Marlor said, her voice almost a whisper.
"I know," Kilburn said softly.
"I'm useless," Marlor said. "I've lost my usefulness."
"Why am I being forced to get old before I'm ready?"
Then again, they hadn't taken her license yet. She still had the keys in her purse.
• • •
One day a few weeks ago, Marlor was making a left turn off 49th Street when another driver broadsided her and took off. Marlor went to the hospital, but it turned out she was okay. Police tracked down the car's owner and Marlor is being paid for the damage to her car.
Marlor's son and a daughter came to the scene. A police officer took them aside and told them she had no valid license. It had been revoked in June, after she failed the driving test. Marlor had never received a notice.
The whole experience made her think God was trying to tell her something. She had long worn a silver pendant around her neck. It says, "Let Go, Let God." Now, she would have to live by it.
The other day, Marlor went to the grocery store and the drugstore and the bank. Her daughter drove her.
Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Leonora LaPeter Anton can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8640.