I had passed my driving test long ago. Gone was the stress of when to merge into traffic, when to mash the brakes, and Mom’s horrified face as I backed onto the highway we lived on. Now I endured new driving lessons.
After the imminent death of my Ford Escort, a sleeker Toyota Corolla took its place. Dad and I had shopped for this one. It was the sunroof that sealed the deal. The only little snag was that I didn’t know how to drive a stick shift. I picked up the motions quickly after a few lessons, though I still managed the occasional spine-shifting grinding when I missed a gear. In no time I would be driving that baby around town: sunroof open, permed hair blowing in the wind, Edie Brickell tape blaring. When my dad took me out on the road for one last test, we realized he had forgotten something very important.
Life on the coast meant flat streets. No sledding hills. No grassy slopes to roll down in summertime. Just manmade overpasses and ramps. As we headed home after my road test, I stopped at a red light near the top of an overpass. I realized I didn’t know how to keep the car from rolling. Dad told me what to do but when the light turned green, I nearly rolled into the car behind me. I watched in my rearview mirror, helpless and screeching, “What do I do?!” as headlights grew closer. Horns honked. We jerked back and forth like a rodeo bull and the car stalled. My dad chuckled and I panicked. Cars sped around us. The light and my cheeks turned red. I would never get through this light. And worse, someone might see me! Anyone!
Again, the light turned green and again I tried to slowly lift my foot off the clutch and tap the gas, but we rolled back. The car jerked. I wanted to switch seats and let my father bail me out. He comfortably reclined in the passenger seat as if it were his own brown La-Z-Boy knock-off, urging me to stay calm. I could do this, he said.
But I couldn’t be calm. A look in my rearview mirror again revealed flashing blue lights. “Oh, no. I’m going to get a ticket,” I thought. But no officer ever approached my car. “He just knows I’m an idiot. What if I roll back into him?” After a few more tries and with what sounded like ten NASCAR engines, I finally gunned it through the light.
My dad immediately led me down the road to a less-traveled area, found a ramp, and let me practice until I got it right. It didn’t take long.
My dad seemed so cool and calm as I freaked out. We could have argued as I so often do now with my kids. He could have lost his patience with me as I easily do these days, trying to get my kids to see that they are capable. How come I didn’t get that sense of calm? I always punish myself for not being a more patient parent. Sometimes I get it right, but I think the truth has always been there: I’m the person I always was. Even more, at their core, my kids will probably always be who they are now.
Of course, it doesn’t mean I still can’t try to find that calm. I can take a breath, try again, and remember that maybe I am capable, as a parent, a driver, a person. Maybe Dad’s lesson reached far beyond the wheel.