My daughter, Meghan, recently celebrated her sixteenth birthday and was beside herself with excitement at the prospect of obtaining her driver’s permit. She studied the driver’s manual for weeks and had her trip to the Millbrook Department of Motor Vehicles meticulously planned.
At the DMV, Meghan sat at a small desk answering driving questions with shaky hands, while her two-year-old sister danced in front of her, waved in her face, and asked, “Meghan, what are you doin’?” every 35 seconds.
Despite the distractions, Meghan passed the exam. I promised her a first driving lesson, after I tucked the toddler safely inside the house with her daddy.
We sat in the car on our driveway, and I told her how to adjust the seat and mirrors and warned her that attempting to find a favorite track on a CD while driving in a blinding ice storm, as her older sister had, was an accident in the making. “Put the car into drive and slowly let up on the brake, “ I instructed her. “The car will move forward, even if you don’t press on the accelerator.”
She did as I told her, but she forgot to steer.
“Hit the brake,“ I said.
She slammed the brake pedal to the floor. We flew forward toward the windshield and jerked back against the seats. She looked at me without expression. “I guess you should have said, ’tap the brake.’”
I gathered up my courage and invoked my father’s relaxed spirit. He had been so carefree when he taught me to drive that he often fell asleep. One of my aunts asked him how he managed to stay so calm with an inexperienced driver at the wheel. “I was not calm,” he told her. “I had passed out from fear.”
Meghan and I ventured out on the public roads. She drove around and around on our empty neighborhood streets, and she was becoming accomplished at executing a right turn without bumping the curb. Then, we hit a slight decline. The car began to pick up speed. “Tap the brake,” I said quietly.
“Mom, I’m only going 10 miles an hour.” She turned to give me a disparaging look and brought the steering wheel with her. We veered toward our neighbor’s garbage cans.
“Straighten it out,” I said, my voice rising. The garbage receptacles kept coming toward me. “Hit the brake,” I yelled. I pumped my foot up and down on an imaginary brake pedal and flailed my arms in front of me in an attempt to brace myself for the inevitable trash crash.
Meghan brought the car to an easy stop. She stared at me. “What?” she asked.
Safely at home, Meghan regaled her friends with the tale of her first driving lesson. I saw her wildly flap her arms and give her foot several exaggerated stamps. I heard her say, “My mom freaked out.”
I informed my husband that he would be the teacher for subsequent lessons.
“I don’t think I’m qualified,” he said. He reminded me of the time that he tried to teach our oldest to ride her bicycle without training wheels. Like Meghan, she was on a bit of a hill, and she forgot how to use her brakes. My husband jogged after her shouting, “Pedal backwards,” but she accidentally pedaled forward and sped away.
Now, you may recall that my husband has trouble navigating hilly terrain. His jaunty jog became a full-blown dash as gravity propelled him downward. When he finally caught up with the bicycle, he was like a speeding freight train that needed to stop for a bovine lazing on the tracks. He plowed over the bicycle, daughter included, and his feet became entangled in the spokes. “I broke a few toes that time,” he recalled, “ and I‘m worried that teaching Meghan to drive could be even more dangerous for me.” He winked at me. “But, the next time you take Meghan driving, I will call the neighbors and tell them to bring in their pets and small children,” he offered.