Tis the season for white-knuckling the door arm, testing out the passenger side fantasy brakes, and forgetting to breathe through intersections. My oldest daughter just got her permit. When I asked my mother what she remembers about my own first days on the roads, she shrugged. “You’d already been driving for so long,” she said.
I learned to drive when I was ten. Self-taught and under the kind of pressure my own daughter doesn’t feel as she automatically adjusts the seat, mirrors, cabin temperature and pulls out onto a paved road.
The baler had broken down at a hayfield we called The Willows. Whatever was wrong with it couldn’t be fixed on site. We’d have to head home early. Before the thrill of that set in, however, my father growled at me from underneath the machine, “Go get the truck.”
I had never driven before and glanced across the ten or so acres between us and the vehicle. “Doesn’t it have one of those clutch things?” I said.
My father, ever the patient teacher amended his earlier command: “Go get the goddamned truck.”
Peering through a windshield filthy with flyspecks and bits of last year’s silage, I bucked and stalled across the field towards my father. The ripped seat pinched the skin on my thighs. Every rut yanked the steering wheel out of my feeble grasp and threatened my shoulders’ connective tissues. The trip dislodged a nest of hornets from the glove box and some of my bodily organs that have never completely re-anchored themselves. At several points, the passenger side door flew open and then slammed shut again, but I pitched forward, started and re-started, my only fear rooted in what would happen if I couldn’t complete my assigned task.
When Beatrice successfully completed her first Dunkin Donuts drive-thru without incident, we fist pumped and I told her what a great job she did. My own father’s method of praise was a little different. As I neared the busted baler that day several decades ago, he moved directly in front of me and stood there, one hand on his hip, one shading his eyes from the sun. I kept thinking: he’ll move. Then praying; he’ll move. Then screaming: “MOVE!” But even when I landed in one final, airborne lurch just inches away from him, the engine cutting out mid-air, he didn’t flinch.
I hope Beatrice would describe me as a good driving teacher, that she would say I’m calmer at least than she expected I might be. But I will never be the teacher my father was. Sure, patience and praise have their place, but my father possessed none of the doubts I seem to have whenever my children begin something new. Where I brace myself and offer gratuitous advice, he ignored the situation, perhaps because he trusted me to figure it out. What inspired him to stand before me that day was not foolishness but his own brand of faith. He never doubted my abilities, so why would I?
Tomorrow, as we set out to negotiate rush hour traffic and three-point turns, I hope I remember his lesson.