Columns 2005

A new Driver

When I got my learner’s permit, my parents made it clear that they did not believe in paying for driving lessons.  I went to a small Catholic high school that didn’t offer driver’s ed in the curriculum.  And if it wasn’t available for free from the school, then they would just have to be the ones to teach me.

So the first few weeks I had my permit, my dad was my designated driving instructor.  About once a week, after much begging, crying and sulking on my part, which would cause my mother to start getting a migraine, he’d agree to take me for a lesson. We would drive to a big parking lot in a deserted section of town and I’d drive in circles around the lot.  I was never allowed to actually go into the street or anywhere near traffic or a traffic signal.

Needless to say I eventually grew quite frustrated with the pace of my lessons. I felt that before I took the driving test, I should be allowed into traffic at least once.  My father agreed with me in principle but was intrinsically unable to put that belief into action.  Or, as we would later tell him quite lovingly, he was just a big chicken. It never occurred to me to turn to mom for assistance. Mom, as far as we kids knew, did not drive. 

We had only one car for two teenagers, a toddler, and the adults who tolerated them. This caused not a little conflict in the family since dad felt that the station wagon was first and foremost a work vehicle meant for delivering grocery orders to our customers. It was a family car only in the evenings and on Sunday afternoon when the store was closed.  The idea of a second car just for family use was right up there with the idea of living in a house as opposed to the apartment over the store. What would be the point?  No one in our entire neighborhood had two cars. Most people didn’t have one.

I would probably still have a learner’s permit were it not for my mother’s shopping habit.  She had many good qualities but her best was her ability to shop.  If there were an Olympics of shopping, she would have had her number retired so that no one else would ever have had to feel like a failure because they couldn’t keep up.  Until my sister came along, mom held all the best records in the field.

One afternoon when it was particularly slow in the store, she decided she wanted to go to Blatt’s – the one large department store in Atlantic City at that time.  But dad wouldn’t leave his butcher block to drive her and didn’t want our one employee to stop cleaning out the storeroom to give her a ride. So she looked at me, a light bulb went off in her head and I heard her say, “Get the car keys. You’ll drive us.”

That was how I found out that my mother did in fact have a driver’s license and had, in fact, driven for many years in her youth. However, at some point she decided she’d had a nervous breakdown and couldn’t drive anymore.  But she never let her license lapse.  So I got in the car, pulled out into traffic and suddenly, I was a driver. 

As grateful as I was to my mother for allowing me to actually drive, what I remember even more than that is the fact that when I was driving, she spent the entire ride with her hands gripping the dashboard while making sharp hissing sounds as she suppressed small screams every time she felt I wasn’t stopping fast enough for the light at the end of the next block that might turn red before I got to it. This continued even after I reached my 50th birthday.

So when my young friend Greta drove me home the other night, I decided I was not going to do to her what my mother did to me. After all, she’s got a license, she passed the driving test and she even owns her own truck.  She obviously knows what she’s doing.

And I’m proud to say that I didn’t leave my fingerprints on the dashboard of the car and I didn’t thrust my foot through the floor applying imaginary breaks. Although I maintained a low level hum the entire way, at no point did I scream.  And I’m sure it’s just a matter of time before my pulse converts to normal again and my blood pressure is low enough to actually register on a machine. 

But I didn’t make her nervous.  I can’t tell you how proud I am of that.  I would shout hallelujah about it but I don’t think I’ll be able to make a sound until my lips decompress.