A Daughter as a Driver: A Symbolic Shifting of Gears

IT is high noon, and the northern California sun glints off the metal key ring with the quartz crystal that my 16 year old jangles impatiently in her hand. From behind the softly billowing curtains of the living room, I watch her out on the driveway, leaning against our shiny Honda, clad in her jeans with knee holes and a Hard Rock Cafe sweatshirt. Raising her heart-shaped face to the sky, she hollers, "So, I'm ready already! Mom? Oh-h-h, Mo-o-om!"Try as I may, my loafers are rooted to the carpet. For 5 1/2 months I have tried to avoid this day of reckoning, this day my daughter will attempt to shift the transmission of a car it would take, at my present pittance, a year's paychecks to replace. The thought conjures up a symphony of stressful sounds - the most predominant of which are the clanking of iron and the grinding of steel. After just six weeks of driver's ed, only the mastery of a stickshift and a driver's test separate my high school sophomore from the highways and byways of the continental United States. It is a sobering thought. Stepping out on the porch, I muster up my resolve, and paste on my best jack-o'-lantern grin. In a laser-beam glance, Danae has penetrated my bravado and pegged my anxiety. Turning her back a second too slowly, she rolls her eyes heavenward with theatrical disdain just before she slips off her Birkenstocks, tosses them in the back seat, and slides confidently behind the wheel. She is ready. Her learner's permit is propped on her "purse" (a black sack that weighs 10 pounds without the mini blow-dryer), her John Lennon sunglasses are perched on her nose, and her dark hair is held from her face by a silver peace symbol. I recognize the exterior. It's the interior that baffles me. Navigating the shoals of high school, adolescence, and self worth has rendered my first-born, a once giddy and affectionate toddler, a sullen, silent stranger. Locked in this puberty-long dance, and uncertain of its steps, we stumble and bruise each other in awkward silence in any encounter more intimate or less fleeting than a chance meeting on the stairs. Danae watches me carefully as I edge into the passenger's seat. The floor pedals, gear shift, and dash have never looked like the cockpit of an aircraft carrier before. I remind myself to breathe. "Do ... do you know gear positions?" I ask, haltingly. "It's handled, Mom," she snaps brusquely. "Just tell me how to do the clutch." We sit in the driveway as I review gauges, remind her to buckle up, and give a fair explanation of a clutch going up as a gas pedal goes down. Danae listens dutifully, then demonstrates she can shift first through fifth. "So, now what?" she challenges. "Start it," I whisper. Danae turns the ignition key and hits the gas - too hard. Gasoline races through the fuel lines and the Honda pulses ominously beneath us. Since the garage door looms dangerously near and Danae has never simultaneously shifted and backed up, we reach a rare and quick mutual agreement to let the car roll down the driveway. Danae successfully depresses the clutch, shifts to neutral, and lets the car roll into the street, but all without checking for traffic. I weigh my options and decide rather than burst the tiny bubble of equanimity in which we float, to remain silent. On the street, I suggest she shift to first, and in one fluid movement, she does - she punches the clutch, shifts, hits the gas, then freezes - abandoning the clutch to an inch and a half of directionless limbo. The Honda comes alive - two tons of bucking, broncing steel, screeching tires, and burning Goodyears - and Danae's legs pump the floor pedals like a Saturday morning cartoon character. It takes hours to yell, "Hit the clutch! Hit the clutch!" When she does, the Honda shudders convulsively and dies. We sit in stunned silence. "You didn't have to scream at me," Danae announces. "I didn't," I say, genuinely surprised. "Yeah, right," she snaps. "Like that wasn't screaming." OK, OK, I did scream. I'm frightened. But not for the reasons one might suspect. Today's outing has thrown into relief that I'm not teaching my daughter to drive. I'm preparing her to leave. It's suddenly hit me how little time we have left, and how much more I wanted to teach her. "Let's ... let's try it again," I volunteer uncertainly. "If I yelled, I didn't mean to." Instead of relief, it is defeat that clouds her face as she looks at her hands and twists the silver rings on her slender fingers. "I don't know how to do this," she finally whispers. I want to pull her to me to hug, but she no longer allows such intimacies, and though it pains me, I abide by her rules. I miss the child she was, and I don't know the adult she's becoming. But, whoever it might be, I don't want to lose her. I suggest we switch places, and while I drive to the nearest country road, I try to feel what my daughter feels behind the wheel. It is beyond me. What I do discover is that when the Honda's in neutral on this sloping back road, it rolls, requiring less precision when shifting. Danae gets behind the wheel again, and shifts and clutches smoothly as she heads toward an intersection, a yield sign, and a slight grade ahead. "We have a yield," I point out, one eye on Danae and the other on a huge truck lumbering toward us. When I realize we're picking up speed, I repeat the warning, then scream at her to stop just as she floors the Honda, squeezes past the truck, pulls the car to the shoulder, and hits the brakes. I am speechless. Then spit out, "You almost killed us!" Near tears, Danae explains that if she stopped on the grade, we would have rolled into the car behind us when she released the brake. Shaking my head, I say, "Give me the keys." Danae's head jerks back as if I'd slapped her. "How can I learn if you don't let me try?" It is both a question and an accusation, and it is easier for me to pull her key ring from the ignition and get out of the car than it is to answer her. For a moment, she remains seated, her disappointment evident. Then it vanishes. "Fine!" she yells, as she jumps out, slams the door, and stalks past me to drop resignedly into the passenger's seat and stare stonily ahead. On my way to the driver's side, I stop and lean against the fender. In my hand I hold Danae's keys. They feel weightless. I look about me and realize I am lost despite the familiar fence posts and wooden barns, looming above the burned-out field that flanks the familiar road's edge. The field grass is burned and acrid-smelling, rimmed by slackly hanging wire supported by charred fence stakes. At the top of one stake, wound tightly at its tip, is a king snake - stopped in flight. I look at my daughter's profile, this half-woman, half-child, and consider the enigma she has become and the friend I hope she will again be, then I hand back her keys. "You drive," I say, and this time I mean it.

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