I can chart my children’s maturation via their changing locations in the family car. First came the backward-facing infant seat, and then the forward-facing infant seat. Time passed and the infant seat was replaced by a child car seat, which was, in due course, replaced by a booster seat, and then, no auxiliary seat at all. At age 12, they graduated to the front seat. Now our older son, Ben, is elbowing his way across the aisle.
He’ll be sixteen soon, and he has, in his clutch, a plastic card bearing two words guaranteed to stop parents in their tracks: learner’s permit.
Before Ben received his learner’s permit, of course, he had to complete his classroom driver’s education course, which meant that for a few weeks, we had the worst sort of backseat driver – the newlyminted know-it-all.
Dad! Why did you get in the car before you completed your exterior safety check? Dad! Why are your hands at ten and two? Four and eight is the new ten and two. Dad! Hand-over-hand turning is so twentieth century. The shuffle is vastly superior. Dad! You only checked two of your five reference points before you made that lane change!
And on and on, until the fateful day he emerged from the DMV clutching the certificate that validated him as street legal.
Ben was ready to go! He was ready to jump into the driver’s seat and hit the open road. But first, Dena had researched mom-approved driving areas suitable for newbies. She handed Ben her results, which I reproduce here: the driveway.
Dena, it must be said, is not the world’s most sanguine passenger. If I were to list our five worst fights in twenty years together, six of them would involve my having taken offense at what her passenger anxiety implied about my driving. To her credit, she has worked to keep her anxieties to herself, but this repression has resulted in a compensatory array of tics, flutters, and tremors so profound they have earned their own articles in Psychology Today. Conditions such as hallelujah hands, stop button syndrome, and Jell-O corpus. Sometimes, in heavy interstate traffic, she cycles through the behaviors with such fluidity that passengers in nearby vehicles think she is performing in-car aerobics.
Which is why she had long declared that I would have to be the instructor during Ben’s protean driving days. So, on that first day, we set out on a simple errand. A trip to the gas station along a circuitous route that involved only right turns. And would you believe? Once he got behind the wheel, all of Ben’s derring-do, his hubris derived from his vast store of theoretical driving knowledge, just… vanished. He inched along the road like a grandmother. A great-grandmother. A great-grandmother still thawing from cryogenic sleep. I had forgotten, after thirty years, the monumental task faced by the new driver. Sure, Ben had some knowledge, acquired in a nice, orderly classroom while sitting at a stationary desk. But a moving vehicle is a classroom made of two tons of growling metal, and a public roadway is an instructor that hurls torrents of ever-changing data at you with every wheel revolution. Failing a pop-quiz can have horrific consequences. Ben dared not even operate the turn signal without checking his blind spot a dozen times, and as he made his halting way along our route, I found myself fighting back hallelujah hands.
We made it safely to the gas station and back. I was a little shaky and Ben’s brow was beaded with sweat, but a light of triumph shown in his eyes. He had done it! He’d passed his first test on the mean streets.
And me? I had guided him masterfully, dispensing timely and accurate advice in exactly the right measures as he navigated new challenges.
I was the best driving teacher in the world!
Except that, as it turns out, I wasn’t. A few days later, Dena doubled down on courage and hopped into the passenger seat. She came back in a stable mental condition, and as the weeks passed, Ben began asking for her to drive with him instead of me. I would like to believe that it was because Dena’s car was nicer than mine, but the truth is, as a teacher, she is a Maserati to my Corvair. She anticipates situations and helps Ben to respond proactively, whereas I usually only point out the mailbox after it’s lying crumpled in our wake.
And Ben is a very good student. After a few months of practice, he is handling the car with more confidence and awareness, and with less input from the passenger seat.
Speaking of seats, there is one more move remaining in the dance of automotive musical chairs I mentioned earlier. The final move, however, doesn’t belong to the children. It belongs to Dena and me, and it means removing ourselves from the car altogether. This is the most difficult moment, when a parent has to put trust on one scale and fear on the other, and pray like hell until the balance tips in favor of trust.
And then you drop the keys in your child’s outstretched hand, make the long walk back inside the house and pull out old family photos. The ride home from the hospital, the first wobbling steps, the three-wheeler and the bicycle with training wheels and the ten-speed racing bike. Surveying the road you’ve traveled to get here, and the open road that lies ahead.