Driving lessons

I would never have learned to drive if it hadn’t been for my father. He taught me in his girlfriend’s Ford station wagon.

My parents were divorced by then, and every time I got behind the wheel of my mother’s vehicle, she would spend the entire trip gasping, gripping her seat, panicking, nagging, and occasionally screaming for me to pull over. It was more than either of us could handle. Cars and driving are not really my mom’s thing.

When I got my license, my dad helped me pick out my first car – an $800 blue Honda Civic with two gears. It was about the size of a golf cart and probably weighed 400 pounds, but I liked the feeling of power I got when I moved the gear shift from first gear to second, and then to “D” for Drive.

I suspect my dad knew when he helped me select the car that it would not last long. In fact I wrecked it just a month or so later. I was driving back from the home of the cutest guy in school, where we had had a discouraging conversation in his backyard pool. It was just the two of us, and everything was going reasonably well, which is to say that we were kissing.

But something was making me nervous, so I stopped to ask him if we were boyfriend and girlfriend. Actually, he told me, we were not. He liked me enough to make out with me in his backyard pool and to do more if I was willing, but not enough to publicly call me his girlfriend.

Maybe this sounds petty, but I was a little offended. I grabbed the keys to the Honda Civic and left. On my soaking wet and dejected drive home, a guy pulled out in front of me and I totaled my first car. I was 16 years and one month old.

So now I had no car, but I still needed a way to get to my job selling earrings and necklaces at the mall. These are the problems 16-year-old girls dump in the laps of their fathers. First there’s the phone call: “There’s been an accident …” and then, once you’ve explained that you are fine, but property has been damaged and you are stranded, you start thinking about how your parents can solve your next problem.

Dad took me to retrieve an extra car of my mother’s, which she hadn’t been driving for a while. I’m pretty sure it was a beat-up Ford station wagon. (We had a thing for those in my family.) Would you believe that, on that same afternoon, as I was driving down U.S. 50 in Frederick County, Virginia, at a speed of approximately 55 miles per hour, my mom’s Ford station wagon burst into flames? It just burst into flames as I drove down the road on the same day I’d wrecked the Honda Civic after being rejected by the cutest guy at James Wood High School.

I’ll make a long story a little shorter by saying that I survived the day in large part because of my dad. I often think back to that day and reflect on how, if Facebook had existed, I would have had one heck of a time formulating a coherent status update.

My parents were hippies, both of them, but probably not the best match on any other account. My mom is six years older, and, given the maturity difference between males and females, this presented the first of a few obstacles in their union.

They married in a little Lutheran church on a back road in Mountain Falls, Virginia. My mom wore a white sundress, a shawl over her shoulders, and flowers in her hair. My dad wore a brown suit. They lived in a cabin in Shawneeland and had three babies in short succession, all of us born at home.

The problem for my mom was that even though she wanted to live the dream of the peace- and earth-loving hippie, baking zucchini bread and breastfeeding her children into early childhood, she had to earn a living. She was a nursing home administrator, which is a pretty serious job for a woman who had no intention of ever wearing any kind of shoe that is not a moccasin.

My dad worked in a motorcycle dealership.

Both of my parents were smart, but in different ways. I was blessed with two parents who read for pleasure. My mom was a spiritual-philosophical type and she would listen to native tribal instrumental music so that if my dad called home on his lunch break he would think that he had possibly dialed the wrong number and called an Indian reservation or maybe Tibet.

My dad was so smart that he had graduated from high school at 16, but his intelligence just led him to a kind of live-in-the moment nihilism – making the best of things by having a good time because there wasn’t much chance of doing anything worthwhile after death.

A good time for hippies like my parents involved hanging out around a bonfire with a bunch of friends who came and went, pretty much as they pleased. This was the backdrop of my childhood. I’d sit outside making fairy gardens on the mossy mounds of our front yard and when I got tired, I’d go on inside and fall asleep in a crib or a cradle, on a couch or a mattress on the floor.

For people without much money, my parents were gracious hosts and good neighbors. Friends wanted to hang out at our house because my parents were nice enough to share their food and cigarettes and wine. My parents knew how to have fun. I think it was partly due to the fact that they were both the youngest children in their families. Being the oldest child of two youngest children, I didn’t exactly inherit the “fun” gene. I like to say I’m a Granny Smith in a family of Galas.

Everyone in my family loved animals, and I did, too, at first. I wanted a ferret, so my mom got one for me. I named her Baby. We didn’t keep Baby in a cage like you’re supposed to. She slept in my bed and pooped wherever she wanted for a long time.

At age 10, I convinced all of my family members to let me have my own bedroom. I kept it neat and organized; that was my mechanism for coping with the chaos that you realize, as you mature, is life.

My parents made fun of me for keeping my room so neat, and then they resented it. If I could keep my room so clean, why couldn’t I clean the whole house, they asked.

This was an ongoing discussion between my father and me when I lived with him during high school. My room was neat and organized, and I did my own laundry, but I didn’t like to do dishes. I was generally good, but not perfect, just mature enough at times to cause trouble rather than stay out of it.

When I stayed out past curfew and came home after my father was asleep, he would simply remove the distributor cap from my car, thereby rendering me immobile on the next day.

By the time I was in high school, I had outgrown my interest in animals. My dad had this white cat named Fred. Dad would put Fred on his shoulder and carry him back to his bedroom every night before they went to sleep.

One time I joked with my dad that I didn’t see the appeal of animals anymore.

“They take and take and take and they don’t give anything back,” I said. He just laughed.

Fred kept following me around the house on the day I was to graduate from high school. I told my mom it seemed like the cat knew I was leaving.

When Fred died, my dad had him cremated.

I almost cried when my parents dropped me off in front of the dormitory as I started college. The other kids were eager to get to their first frat parties and experience the freedom of being away from their parents, but not me. My parents were no prison wardens. Because of who they were and how they’d raised me, I knew what freedom was just another word for, and by then I’d assigned a higher value to security – the security of knowing that if I was broken down on the side of the road, I could always call my dad to come get me.


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