Driving Drama

Elizabeth and friends riding in a convertible.

As much as I hate to admit it, I failed my first driver’s test. I remember the exact moment it happened: with the silver-haired examiner sitting in the passenger seat, I cautiously inched into the middle of an intersection, waiting to turn left. As the seconds ticked by, the green light turned yellow, and then red. I completed the left turn, and the examiner carefully directed me back to the licensing centre, scribbled something on his exam pad, and calmly told me that I had been “unsuccessful”. I remember being confused; hadn’t I been doing well? I hadn’t crashed the car or hit anything – didn’t that count? I had even sort-of parallel parked! (I was miles away from the curb and had worked up a sweat cranking the wheel back and forth eighty times). I sulked for days afterward, feeling sorry for myself. Being a teenager was already frustrating enough, and now I had failed at my first chance of freedom. I hadn’t told my sister or any of my friends that I was taking the test, so no one found out that I flunked it. That, at least, was genius. But still, the failure made me cry.

My sister Emma was no help. While I wallowed in the depths of my funk, she would commandeer our parent’s gas-guzzling Jeep and make sure to oh-so-casually rub it in my face. “I’m going over to Jessie’s to study,” she’d say, “and then we’re going for coffee.” Of course she didn’t invite her terminally uncool younger sister to go with her. She’d prance out the door, car keys jangling, full of confidence and youthful invincibility, leaving me in the dust.

She might not remember now, but her journey to solo driving was not as smooth as she’d have you believe. I remember an instance where Emma was driving, with our mother instructing in the passenger seat and me in the back. Emma was smugly rolling her eyes at Mom’s suggestions, since Emma thought she knew everything and believed our mother was a total drag. We were heading towards a crosswalk; a family was stepping off the curb to cross the street. Emma wasn’t slowing down. Mom shifted uncomfortably as the car sped along. Emma wasn’t slowing down. We were twenty feet away now, and Emma wasn’t slowing down. Panicked, and temporarily forgetting the word for “pedestrians”, our mother confused the English language with her native German and screamed out: “WATCH OUT FOR THE FOOT PEOPLE!” Emma slammed on the brakes and the family safely crossed the road, shooting our car dirty looks. That’s how we learned that the German word for “pedestrian” literally translates as “foot people”. Shaking with adrenaline, Mom kicked Emma into the back seat and drove us home, the day’s lesson being obviously over.

Eventually, I crawled out of my self-pity and resolved to pass the driver’s test. I took lessons, practiced daily, and memorized the driver’s manual like it was the Lord’s prayer. Three months later, I nervously retook the test and passed! I was elated – I was on the road to adulthood, cruising around our small town in my dad’s squat little Nissan Pulsar. Like a typical teen, I drove too fast, didn’t pay close enough attention, and played my angst-ridden music too loud. I drove like I owned the road, scoffing at all the other lame, uncool drivers I passed. Looking back, I like to think I was a decent driver, but some of the memories make me wince with regret. Being young makes you feel immortal; is there anything more hazardous than a know-it-all teen behind the wheel of 3,000 pounds of metal? Why was I such an idiot?

Today, with my preciously annoying kids in the back seat, I’m extremely careful. There’s no reason for taking chances. I don’t speed, text, or eat while driving, and I rarely even take a hands-free call. I drive our comfortable family minivan like it’s full of rare cargo, which it is – even though occasionally, said cargo makes my left eye twitch with barely controlled irritation.

As confident and controlled as I am while driving, I’m still terrible at parking. I have no idea where the edges of the van are, and I don’t trust the mirrors. There’s no way I can back into position, so occasionally I’ll drive around a parking lot until I find a pull-through spot. Thank goodness I don’t have to take the driver’s test again, because I can’t parallel park to save my life. In fact, the last time I successfully did was twenty years ago during my second chance driver’s test! Hopefully my kids will remain blissfully ignorant of my terrible parking skills for a few more years, and who knows – maybe I can improve. I mean, I didn’t cry with frustration the last time my husband tried to teach me! Well, not that much.

Motherhood and driving a car are similar. You can read all the manuals you want, and you’ll still be surprised. I’m confident behind the wheel, and my confidence as a mother is growing. When it’s my turn to teach the kids to drive, I’ll make sure they’re prepared and ready, and I’ll make sure they watch out for the “foot people.”