Approximately eleventy hundred years ago, when I was sixteen, high schools offered Drivers' Education classes. A whole herd of us paid our forty dollars to the secretary, handed over our parent-signed cards, and made plans to show up from 6:30 until 9:00 in the evening for as long as it took to fulfill the requirement and "get our temps." I got mine, no problem (except for the gruesome movies of car accidents with people's blood foaming out of their mouths like cherry Icee). I went out for my driving time with a strange old lady instructor whose idea of driving practice was to do all of her errands: we picked up her dry cleaning, went to the post office, drove by her bridge partner's house to see if she was home, and once, even dropped off a little brown bag containing what we later found out was her stool sample to the hospital lab. I shared a car with Esther, and we tried not to laugh as we drove and drove and drove.
And after all of that, I sort of...stuck. My parents didn't feel the same urgency I felt to get me out on the road, let alone get my permanent license. It was incredibly frustrating. I asked them both to take me out driving. "Oh, not now, maybe later," they'd say. If we were in the car coming home from school, church, an errand, I'd say, "Hey, let me drive home!" And Mom or Dad would say, "Next time."
Next time never came. I had to renew my temporary license every six months to keep it current, and I did, three times. Three times! Before you laud my Patience, don't. It was Spite. Pure, unadulterated Spite. It cost them time, inconvenience, and whatever the fee was each time I renewed. And I was hoping it kept reminding them A) that I had yet to have a driver's license; B) this was ridiculous; and C) they were wasting time and money.
Suddenly, The Time came. And when I say Suddenly, that is precisely what I mean. One day, my (not yet canonized) mother said, "Nance, your father and I are planning our vacation up to eastern Canada. We'll be leaving on the same day you start your classes at community college. So! You're going to need to get your license. I'll practice with you, and your brother will help you with parallel parking." I had mere weeks.
Mere weeks and the family cars, which consisted of a 1967 Chevy Impala and two 1969 Buick LeSabres, all fine for driving, but not so nifty to parallel park. But this wouldn't be a problem, my mother assured me. We would borrow a car belonging to my sister's roommate! It was a Chevy Nova, small and easy to park. Did she need it during the week? Yes, but she would be happy to trade cars for the weekend so that I could practice with it.
I was overwhelmed by all the machinations and arrangements. I felt pressured by the deadline. Still, the final result would be that I WOULD HAVE MY DRIVER'S LICENSE. At age eighteen, every single one of my friends had been driving for years. Years! And I was always their passenger, forking over gas money and thanking them for rides. If all went well, those days would be over.
My mother, to be fair, is an excellent driver, far better than my father ever was. Dad saw most traffic laws as guidelines when it came to his own driving. He coasted through stop signs if he saw no one coming, and he was turning right on red decades before it became permissible by law. He invented the wide left turn. As a matter of fact, his left turns were so very wide that once, when he was taking the dog to the park for a run and Dusty was perched with her front paws on the edge of the open window, he turned left down 33rd Street and she fell right out of the car. Dad told us later, "As soon as I saw what happened, I pulled the car over and got out. There she was, just sitting on the tree lawn, looking up at me. I felt all of her legs and her back to make sure she wasn't hurt. I felt terrible. I had her walk a little bit, and she was fine. So we got back in the car, and she ran in the park like usual. From now on, I'll have to keep that window at least halfway up." And it was a stop street, too.
But I digress.
Mom and I practiced driving, mostly in the blue Buick. Which was unsatisfying because not only was the cable to the speedometer loose, rendering the speedometer unreliable, but also because said cable produced a constant chirping noise that drove me jaw-clenching crazy. When we got the little yellow Nova, I practiced driving and parallel parking, the latter eluding me completely. My brother was the Soul Of Patience, but I have no sense of spatial relationship. "Use your mirrors," he kept reminding me helpfully. "For what, for what?!" I kept crying inside my head. There was something about thirds and something else about something, and I was ready to hit everything I saw at full ramming speed. It was all the worst.
But it had to be done, and I had to take my test. I did, and I failed parallel parking. I hit a cone practically the minute I put the car into reverse. I didn't dissolve into tears because it was exactly what I had expected. What I didn't expect was the reception I received once I got home and Mom and Dad wanted a confab with me in the kitchen. What it amounted to was this: D Day (Departure Day) was fast approaching, and I was kind of tossing a monkey wrench in their vacation machinery. I would therefore need to call the BMV ASAP and schedule another test.
So much for sympathy. And wallowing. I remember feeling very put upon. Things didn't get any better when I called to get my testing appointment. There weren't any available for the next two weeks. I needed one well before then. The clerk checked in other cities. "We have one available in Sandusky next Saturday. How is that?" I booked it and thanked her and went to tell my parents that someone would have to drive me forty-five minutes west in order for me to try and pass a parallel parking test so that they could go to Canada the following Monday.
My dad took me. It was ungodly early, and he drove (of course), so I slept. My test administrator was a kind woman with blond braids. I must have looked like I wanted to chew my limbs off or something because she said, "Try to relax and take your time. There is no time limit for this. You can take an hour if you need to, okay? You can do it." I had never heard anything so ridiculous in my life; I was certain of it. There was no way I could do it. Then I was seized with an astonishing realization. I could name about a dozen kids I knew who were a lot stupider than I was who had gotten their license. Kids who were real idiots. How hard could this be? I took a deep breath and started the car. What followed probably looked like a super slow motion YouTube video of a one hundred-year old woman trying to parallel park a car. For approximately seven minutes. It was gut-wrenching and epic. It was nerve-wracking and suspenseful. It was so intensely...intense that my knuckles ached and my head hurt. I passed. I passed, and the blond-braided woman simply patted me on the back and said, "Great job!"
We walked into the test center and she nodded and smiled at my dad. I wanted to collapse into a knot of bones and sweat, but I couldn't. My knees wouldn't bend anymore. So I tottered over to get my picture taken and sign my Real Driver's License. My picture looked like I wanted to throw up. Probably because I did.
Without even asking, I knew to climb back into the passenger seat for the trip back home. I had a headache anyway. I didn't drive again until it was time to go to school, and on the first day of classes, I locked my keys in the car. Driving became a chore for me; I hated it and almost feared it. My poor sense of direction compounded my distaste, and I wondered why anyone drove at all, beyond necessity.
My dislike of driving continued until my husband gave me a GPS as a gift. That one small device took away my fear of being endlessly lost. When I stopped working, that took away my distraction and stress. I gave myself a road test, a solo trip to visit friends in Virginia. I passed.
Now, driving is freedom to me. I chauffeur St. Patsy around, do all the shopping, run errands, and go meet friends all over the place. When I hear stories about elderly people who fight against giving up their driver's licenses, I empathize. I understand what it will mean for them. Waiting. A whole lot of waiting. And being on someone else's schedule. Feeling like a kid again. Giving up. All terrible feelings that I can remember.
Our early experiences go on to shape us later in life. What I've been happy to learn is that those attitudes and interpretations don't have to be forever.