A Mother Teaches Driving, Learns Patience

`Slow down! Slow down! Slow down!'' my father yells, a distinct edge of panic in his voice.

A novice 15-year-old driver, I am trying to downshift around a curve on a gravel country road and immediately respond by hitting the brake. This action sends the car sliding, kills the engine, and jerks us to an abrupt halt. We sit in surprised silence as a cloud of dust sifts slowly down upon the car. I wait for an angry reprimand, but instead my father takes a deep breath and calmly suggests I restart the engine. The driving lesson resumes.

That was 30 years ago. My father is gone, and I am now the parent of three teenagers. What was his secret to remaining calm time and time again with his own brood of five kids? Struggling for that patience on a daily basis, I wish he were here to give me the answer.

Today, I am the parent scheduled for the road test. I click on my seat belt as my own 15-year-old climbs joyfully behind the wheel.

''This is so cool!'' he says.

''Have you got your permit?'' I ask.

''Of course,'' he says, waving it before my eyes.

''Do you realize, Mom,'' he continues, ''that I am the only one in my class who has never driven before?''

''Well, that makes you the only one who didn't break the law,'' I say.

''No,'' he says, ''that makes me the only one who doesn't know how to drive. Are you ready?''

I watch as he starts the engine with a roar; adjusts the rearview mirror to check his hair; flips on the radio to his favorite rock station; flips it off; checks his hair again; and finally, after what seems like an eternity, puts the car in reverse. Slowly and with much caution, he backs down our long, narrow driveway - no easy feat. I am impressed and begin to relax.

When we enter the street, the kid shifts the car into drive and steps on the gas.

''Watch the mailbox! WATCH the mailbox! WATCH THE MAILBOX!'' I scream as my foot slams on an imaginary brake.

He misses it by a centimeter.

''See,'' he says, ''no problem.''

I rub the cramp in my braking foot as my inexperienced driver pulls out onto the main road with giddy delight.

''Wow, this is fun!'' he says, a smile spreading across his face.

Enjoying the new power of his movable beast, he starts to pick up speed. I tense. Suddenly, all the mail- boxes, light posts, and assorted garbage cans seem really close to the road.

''Watch your speed,'' I say calmly. ''Slow down on this curve. Slow down ON THIS CURVE!''

My right foot floors the fake brake.

''I'm not going that fast,'' he argues.

I let out a deep breath.

''Just turn right at the next road,'' I say.

Flipping on his signal, he makes a wide turn directly into the opposite lane. Thankfully for our insurance rates, there is no oncoming car.

''You've got to stay in your own lane,'' I snap.

Silence fills the air.

He grips the wheel. I grasp for patience.

Heading down a long stretch of country road in a tension-filled car, I struggle to keep quiet and just let him experience the driving.

Looking around the countryside for the first time, I notice that the fields are awash in a clear, golden light. The late-afternoon sun hangs low in the rich blueness of the sky. The warm breeze blowing through the open windows calmly caresses our faces and brings a soothing grace to our mutual tension.

After a period of quiet, my son turns to me with an eager face, happiness shining in his eyes.

''How am I doing?'' he asks proudly.

''Very well,'' I reply.

''See, Mom,'' he says, ''you just need to give me more time.''

''I know,'' I say. ''You're going to make a wonderful driver.''

Smiling brightly, he steps on the gas.

I keep silent. He slows at the curve.

Looking over, I watch the innocent profile of my man/child, whose soft cheeks sport the beginnings of light peach fuzz. Radiating an awakening confidence, his face glows with the joyful realization that vast horizons and new beginnings are stretching out before him, just like the wide open road we are on.

Suddenly, I am no longer the weary mother of three with a sometimes overwhelming assortment of eclectic responsibilities, but once again the young girl in the driver's seat.

And through this blurry mist of time, a beam of knowledge shines dimly out to me. Thirty years ago, as gravel dust floated down upon us in a stalled car, had my father's own memory of a youth gone by come sparkling back to him?

Gingerly tucking my brake foot under the seat, I notice the sky has turned a rosy hue. I turn and look out the back window.

''Is there a car behind us?'' my son asks nervously.

''No, but there's a spectacular sunset,'' I say. ''The sky is filled with beautiful colors. Keep your eyes on the road, and I'll describe it to you.''

''Hey, I can actually see it my rear- view mirror,'' he says. ''Cool.''

Through the open windows, the dropping coolness of the evening breeze blows in the sweet pungent scent of a country dusk. It refreshes and invigorates us. I take a deep breath. My son checks his hair. Cruising on down the road, we both admire the fields glowing in the twilight.

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