In a day or two, the teenager will get his Learner’s Permit. I’ve been anticipating and dreading this day for years. Everything about me is ill suited to teaching someone to drive. Besides being averse to wind, rain and darkness, I don’t like traffic, tunnels or any major thoroughfare on Long Island. With me at the helm, my son will only be able to drive locally, and then only on bright, sunny days. I’m not sure, but I think that may end up being limiting for him.
When I got my Learner’s Permit, my dad was still alive. We had a 1975 beige VW Bug. That’s the car I learned to drive in and my dad nearly disowned me in the process. We lived on top of a mountain, in a town with tiny, Hobbit-like streets. The mountain flanked a lakeside community whose winding roads sometimes bisected the lake – narrow passes with steep banks on either side. No guardrails. Guardrails were for wimps.
At night it was even worse. There were barely any streetlights, so if you didn’t drive with your high beams on, you could easily misjudge one of a hundred hairpin turns and end up in someone’s living room.
One day, early in my education, my dad had me drive up and down the mountain. I had to learn to get our four-speed Beetle going from a complete stop on a hill. He would have me drive halfway up the mountain, stop fully, then start going again. We rolled backwards a lot, but that wasn’t even the worst of it. It was summertime and the trees were green and lush, canopying the road. The VW’s windshield was practically flat; in the front seat, you were nearly on top of it. I didn’t even notice the inchworm because I was concentrating so hard on getting the car going from a dead standstill. And I did get it going – at the exact moment that the inchworm splat against the windshield. It landed right in front of my nose. I screamed. And covered my eyes. And must have taken my feet off the pedals, too, because we started rolling backwards down the hill, and my dad – who never yelled at me or even raised his voice for any reason – had an absolute shit fit right there next to me in the car.
In truth, I’m sure it didn’t go on for very long, but it felt like hours of screaming about never letting go of the wheel and never covering your face and a whole lot of other instruction that would have seemed reasonable and sensible if it weren’t being delivered in such a loud, humorless manner.
“Bugs freak me out,” I reminded him, as if that were a valid and excusable reason to abdicate all control of a moving vehicle. And at the time, to me, it was.
Learning to drive was, for me, this defining moment where I was asked to put aside a lot of childish beliefs and behaviors, and quickly take that first big step toward becoming A Responsible Adult. Beliefs and behaviors that, up until then, defined me. Maybe it was a step I wasn’t so ready to take, letting safety supersede my fear of bugs. Often when we take on a new challenge, there’s a part of ourselves that we need to leave behind.
Just today, I read something in a friend’s Yoga blog about teaching her son to ride a bike. She’d quoted the novelist Sloan Wilson as saying: “The hardest part of raising a child is teaching them to ride bicycles. A shaky child on a bicycle for the first time needs both support and freedom. The realization that this is what the child will always need can hit hard.”
I didn’t teach either of my kids how to ride a bicycle. I always said it was because I couldn’t run fast enough, and that’s actually true. But I also know deep down that I’m the shaky one in the equation. Or at least “the other shaky one.” The one who worries not only about rain and traffic, but also about what exactly will be left behind. And how that’s going to change things. Who’s never quite sure how to execute this Mother Dance I am continually asked to engage in: that of both holding on and letting go.