Say you’re 90 years old. Your husband of 67 years died a few days ago, your beloved daughter died nine years earlier and you have uterine cancer.
You can hardly think past lunch, much less how and where you’ll spend the rest of your life.
Then your son and daughter-in-law, who have spent much of the last decade living out of an Airstream trailer, ask if you’d like to come along with them.
“You don’t have to give us an answer right away,” they say. Everyone keeps eating their ham salad sandwiches. After two minutes, you’re the one who breaks the silence.
“I think,” you say, “I’d like to come along.”
With those seven words, Norma Bauerschmidt not only changed her life and the lives of her son and daughter-in-law, Tim Bauerschmidt and Ramie Liddle. She also changed the lives of hundreds of thousands of people around the world.
When Norma, known as Miss Norma, died Sept. 30, 2.8 million people viewed the announcement on the Driving Miss Norma Facebook page that Ramie had set up (mostly to let her own mother in Pennsylvania know where they were). More than 39,000 people left comments; one comment had 80 replies. Her obituary ran on NPR, and in The Washington Post and the Miami Herald.
“It’s mind-boggling,” Tim says of the response it’s received. And no wonder: Aside from being stationed in San Diego as a nurse during World War II, his mother had hardly ever ventured outside of Michigan.
She had never eaten lobster, never ridden a horse, never zip-lined nor waved at spectators from a convertible in a St. Patrick’s Day parade. She certainly had never used medical marijuana (which she preferred to call cannabis) or been a VIP co-captain at an NBA basketball game. During her year on the road, she did all of these, and so much more.
Watching mom bloom
Tim likens his mother’s life to that of a century plant, which he and Ramie see a lot out West.
“At the end of its life, it shoots up this giant stalk, 8 to 10 feet long with a bloom, and then it dies,” says Tim, 59, who left home at age 19. “I watched my mom live her life that was unfulfilled and obscure. But like the century plant, she rose high and bloomed, and then she died.”
During their 13,000 miles on the road, their “total aim,” Tim says, was every day “to go out to say this was the best day of her life.”
Tim and Ramie have written about their adventure and their lives leading up to it in “Driving Miss Norma: One Family’s Journey Saying ‘Yes’ to Living” (Harper One; $26.99).
“People are incredulous” about how the whole thing came about, Tim says. “Ramie and I literally looked at each other and said, ‘We’ve got to ask her to go.’ “
To accommodate Miss Norma, they had to change their mode of transportation from the Airstream trailer where they’d lived – off and on since 2003 and full time since 2011 – to a motor home. To be honest, Tim says, “that was a significant investment.” His mother was sick; she was depressed. She was small and frail, and Tim and Ramie were fearful. Would she even make it to one destination?
But they were determined. When Tim’s sister, Stacy, was dying, he made her a deathbed promise that he would take care of their parents.
So Tim, Ramie and Miss Norma told her doctor she was forgoing treatment of the medical sort, and off they rolled, along with Ringo the poodle. Ramie started the Facebook page because it was easier than writing a travel blog. Their initial followers numbered a dozen. As they met more people and posted more photos and updates, that number grew. In February 2016, 520 people were following them, which amused them no end.
When a story about Norma ran on the Good News Network, the numbers zoomed up. Brazilian author Paulo Coelho posted a photo of himself holding a handwritten note – “Bravo, Norma, I “heart” you” – “and we got 93,000 people from Brazil that day.”
“None of us understood it,” Tim says. “We still don’t understand it. It took her a while to grasp it. We’d read messages and show her the Facebook page and she was amazed people had any interest in our little family. We were just doing our thing.”
A woman with agoraphobia wrote to say she hadn’t left her house in years, but reading about Miss Norma gave her courage to walk around the block. Months later, she let them know she had kept up her walks and had lost 40 pounds.
Teenagers said she’d given them courage to come out to their parents. An oncology nurse wrote to say she wished more terminally ill elderly patients would forgo invasive treatment and live their final days in peace. One family wrote about the Miss Norma-inspired, two-week road trip they’d planned. Someone else told them he was driving nine hours to take his grandmother to lunch.
“Miss Norma gave us something priceless in return for our care,” Ramie writes: “Her pure delight, her adventurous spirit, her willingness to play with the world, to touch and taste with eager abandon.”
In turn, Tim and Ramie saw Miss Norma gain confidence and exude joy. They watched as she, who had always kept her feelings to herself, opened up about her daughter’s death to a woman in Florida who was grieving the loss of two sons.
“God bless you,” some followers wrote. “Allah bless you,” wrote others. And still others, “Buddha bless you.”
Permission to get creative
“Here’s this snapshot of a middle-class, Midwestern housewife who decides to do things differently,” Ramie says. “She gave people permission to get creative in their lives. ‘Wait. I don’t have to do that the way society thinks I should, that the medical profession thinks I should. I have my own brain and choices that come from someone’s mom are easier to swallow than from someone with a lot of degrees.’”
Says Tim, “Everyone is grabbing what they need from this story: old, young, things you would never consider. We took a picture of her smiling in front of the Liberty Bell with the words ‘Philadelphia Freedom,’ and people posted what they’re thankful for.”
“We cry every day from the messages,” Ramie says.
“I know I do,” Tim says. “Everyone can see the comments we get on the page, but they don’t see the private messages that come in, thousands and thousands. I write back to everyone; I’m emotionally involved. I can’t believe any of this; I can’t believe anyone pushed the ‘like’ button. But when someone writes to us, to Miss Norma, and pours their heart out, I have to give them the respect and write them back.”
Six months after his mother’s death, Tim and Ramie are still traveling in the motor home. They’re now sleeping in her bed; Tim’s on the side that had been hers. Some mornings, he still feels her energy, he says.
“My mom was rock solid. You want to be raised by someone like that, but nothing extraordinary. In her 90th year, she became extraordinary. I’m so proud of her.”