I'm surprised that my mother didn't put a foot through the passenger-side floorboard of our family station wagon while I was growing up. Over the years she exerted thousands of pounds of pressure trying to hold down a nonexistent brake pedal.
There were eight kids in my family, and Mom stoically took us around the neighborhood and down country roads to teach us to drive. But my brothers and sisters and I preferred to practice with Dad. He was calm, sitting with arms folded across his chest, throwing out comments with soothing equanimity: "Watch that mailbox," and "You're in the wrong lane."
Mom, on the other hand, used few words but very expressive body language to communicate her concerns about our driving. First, there was that imaginary brake pedal, which she either pressed with all her might or pumped frantically as I rounded corners. Then there was what she did with her hands. I could see them out of the corner of my eye. Sometimes her knuckles whitened as she clenched her hands tightly in her lap, but other times both hands would cling to the door handle as if holding on for dear life.
The worse thing about driving with my mom was her frantic gasps and gulps. I'd be cruising along, feeling supremely confident about my driving expertise, when Mom would abruptly suck in a breath of air through clenched teeth. She sounded like someone trying to inhale a cantaloupe through a straw. I'd glance over at her, assuming she had choked on something. Then, because my eyes had left the road for a millisecond, she'd gasp loudly. Try concentrating on driving with that kind of racket.
But many years later, now the parent of three teenagers, I can confidently say that I have become my mother. I tried to take an active hand in teaching my daughter, Nicole, how to drive three years ago, but my husband proved to be the better man for the job.
We only have cars with manual transmission. Nicole drove up and down our driveway countless times, trying to move smoothly into first gear without killing the engine. We were sure we'd have to replace the starter before she ever mastered the technique.
I couldn't take the pressure, so I passed the mantle of responsibility to Jon, who calmly stood in the door of the garage, arms folded across his chest, throwing out comments such as, "Give it a little more gas," and "Don't give it so much gas."
Due to the stress of teaching Nicole to drive a stick shift, we decided to be more proactive with our sons. We have a lot of acreage, so Jon bought an old station wagon with a standard transmission as a knock-around-the-land car. He taught both Zach and Ben how to drive it on the trails he mows with the tractor.
I would watch them from the kitchen window and think how great it was that the boys would have their driving skills down pat before I ever had to take them out on the road.
Today we were returning from an appointment in another town, driving down a deserted country road, when Zach asked me if he could drive. I considered it for a moment, and then consented.
Zach followed all the rules, decelerating as he went into the curve and then accelerating as he came out of it. But to me it felt as if we were going to fly off the road and down a precipice.
I pressed hard on the nonexistent brake pedal on my side of the car - and kept pressing for the next two miles. I finally realized what I was doing when the muscles of my thigh began to cramp. Thankfully, Zach seemed oblivious to the movements of my leg.
Then, out of nowhere, a string of cars headed toward us in the other lane. Zach was concentrating hard on staying in the center of his lane, not too close to the shoulder and not too close to the center line. I, on the other hand, had to grab hold of the door handle with both hands to get my balance.
Zach couldn't help but notice this move. He glanced over at me, a puzzled look on his face. "What's wrong, Mom?"
In the millisecond that Zach turned his eyes away from the road, I couldn't help myself. I sucked a massive amount of air into my lungs in an audible gasp that rivaled any sound my mother had made years before.
The look of disgust Zach tossed my way caused a stab of remorse. How many times had I shot such a look at my own mother?
"I sure like driving with Dad better," Zach said quietly.
I leaned over and patted his arm. "You're doing fine," I said. "But let's go straight home. I really need to call my mom."
First, I'll apologize to her. Second, I'll tell her that I now understand why she relinquished much of my driving instruction to Dad. And, finally, I'll ask her secret for how she kept her foot from smashing through the floorboards of the family station wagon. I think I'm going to need it.