Tuesday, June 10, 2014

driving lessons

A recent Craigslist find resulted in an early Fathers Day gift for Jonathan.  Some nice outdoor furniture in need of some refinishing and care, but lovely all the same.

Two lounge chairs came along with the dining set and I thought, well, okay.  We can find a place for those.  We can lounge.


I decided to try them under two of the old apple trees here, over near the graveyard.   Jonathan helped me carry them over, heavy and awkward as they are, and we placed them there and then sat in them for a bit.  It was a different view of the property from this side of the house.  The less used side.  But the kids were all outside, pulling toys and scooters and hoses and baseball bats out of the barn and running around, purposefully it seemed, but just far enough away that we could not quite hear what plans they were shouting to each other.  I want to do more of this this summer,  I said to Jonathan.  Sit here.  The kids within eye shot and frolicking.  Maybe with a drink with an umbrella in it.  But sit, lounge, chat, and enjoy ourselves.  There was something about the idea of it being our spot, with a bit of distance from the children.  Where we could relax and pretend to be grownups for a bit.  

This was after a busy day of yard work and gardening and two lacrosse tournaments.  It sounded very nice.

But I think, when this happened a week ago, that it was the first and last time we made it out to the shade of the old apple trees.  To lounge together.

There is so much for us to do, so many projects we want to get done, so much to care for, plants and gardens and animals and children.  That lounging doesn't happen as often as it should.

But this afternoon I found myself out there alone for a few minutes, my camera with me as I had just been snapping some shots of the bearding bees in the heat.  And I saw this.


This lawn tractor was left behind for us by the previous owners of our home.  It is a beast that we use often and often use poorly.  It sometimes starts, but often does not.  It spent the better part of last summer stuck in the blackberry bramble near the riverbank for example.  And Nicholas has occasionally driven it as well, slowly and on the flat.  

Seeing Julia driving it surprised me. And made me feel a little bit worried.  A few years ago, we let Julia drive our boat in a cove in the lake.  She drove in circles, giggling and apparently unable to make the boat go straight, but also did not seem to feel the need to try to do so.  When she was younger, at a playdate, her friend offered that she drive one of those small plastic Jeep cars with a motor.  Julia hopped on, drove over her friend's foot, and stopped the car.  With it still upon her friend's foot.

I have joked with Jonathan that Julia drives like a dragonfly flies.  In whirling circles, slowly, but without seeming to have a sense that she is in control of where the vehicle goes, and without a desire to try to control this.

It takes a lot of experience to learn the common sense necessities of driving.  That to get from here to there you need to point the vehicle toward there.  Then keep aiming that way until you get there.  And try not to hit or roll over anything between here and there.  Or maybe it is just that Julia does not think in terms of where she is going.  She just enjoys the ride.  And I think she is going to need more practice than a typical new driver when it comes time to steer a vehicle in any publicly accessible area besides an empty and wide open cove on a quiet lake in Maine.

My father taught me to drive.  And, like the lake's secluded cove, he had a series of parking lots in our town that he would take me to and allow me to drive around the open spaces for hours without fear of hitting anything.  Every Sunday after church, my mother and brother would head home and he would drive us to a large and empty parking lot, carefully chosen by him, knowing it would be empty on a Sunday.  He must have driven past them during the week and said, there's one to himself.  There is a place that she can learn to drive.  Without injuring my car.  There was the community college near our house.  I learned to parallel park there next to the dumpsters behind the cafeteria.  There was the parking lot of the town's athletic fields, where I learned to do three point turns.  And there was the enormous parking lot surrounding the old mills along the Merrimack River, the buildings mostly closed up, windows boarded over, abandoned years ago with rumors of anthrax from the textiles they had once manufactured.  With the red brick buildings on one side and the high waters of the muddy Merrimack on the other, it felt quite private down there.  And safe.  It was in the mill parking lots that I learned to drive a stick shift.  It is not a skill that came easily to me.  And I will never forget the shock and terror that I felt the day my father said, at the end of a grueling hour of gear stripping and stalling and jolting and frustration: OK.  Now drive home.  

After I collected myself and he assured me I could handle the 15 minute drive home, I headed out.  And stalled six times trying to get up the steep ramp out of the parking lot and then again on the uphill entrance ramp to the bridge that crossed the Merrimack.  He was quiet.  Did not roll his eyes.  Did not say anything about the cars lining up behind me.  And talked me through getting the car moving forward.

My mother had passed the driving lessons reigns to my father, probably quite willingly.  She and I have temperaments that were likely a bit too similar; there was no way lessons were going to happen without some edgy conversations between us.  But my father was unflappable.  I could almost hit something, put the car in reverse instead of forward, turn the car on when it already was, take a turn too fast, and he was able, somehow, to stay silent throughout my antics.  Because he had chosen well.  He had given me a safe place to try it out.  A safe car to do it in, refusing to replace our beat up manual transmission car until I had learned to drive it.  And he was staying close, keeping me safe, but allowing me to jolt and bump and skid through my courses around empty parking lots all across Southern New Hampshire.

The most impressive part of his patience was when we got home.  There would always be some stories to tell of my mistakes.  And though I enjoyed standing in the kitchen and exaggerating my near misses to my mother and license wielding brother -- just a bit for effect, my father listened but did not roll his eyes, make snarky comments, or reveal that he had been biting his tongue while the cars honked at me.

It was not until I started driving with others that I began to appreciate just how well my father had taught me.  I am a good driver.  I am careful and attentive.  I have a mental inventory of things to do in emergencies and how to handle bad weather.  He had prepared me well.  In college, I was the go to driver during snowy weather because I knew how to drive without skidding, and, if I did skid, I knew what to do to stop it.

Before I headed to graduate school, my father helped me purchase my first car, sitting with me at the dining room table calculating together how much I was able to handle for monthly car payments from my summer job and graduate assistantship position.  And then, this figure calculated, he took me to his favorite car dealership, allowed me to pick out a safe and solid car within my price range, and put down the deposit that was necessary to make my monthly payments something I could afford.

A year later, an older woman pulled out in front of me on a busy road in Pennsylvania. She appeared out of nowhere as I passed through an intersection for which I had a green light.  My father's voice came into my head, reminding that before I swerved, I needed to first glance in my rearview mirror and over my shoulder, to make sure I was not going to get hit from the side or behind if I took evasive maneuvers.  In the end, these memorized precautions and instructions helped me see that car in my blind spot, and therefore not swerve hard around the woman's car.  And instead I removed the rear bumper of her car.  It flew up and through the air, over my car and crashed down onto the road behind me.

Sitting shaken in a parking lot after the police officer had come, told me I had done the right thing, asked if I needed to be followed home I was shaking so badly, and eventually gone, I placed a call.  On my cell phone, the size and shape of a 2 by 4, to my father.  I felt I needed to tell him about my first accident.  He met my call with the same calm and unflappable voice as I told him the details, and he talked me through how to handle the insurance, the accident report, and getting the car repaired.

I have said to the kids a few times that Grandpa is going to teach them how to drive.  I really don't know how he did it, that calm and nonjudgmental stance, when sitting beside my flakey anxious and often difficult teenaged self.  I know myself well enough to know I don't have it, whatever it is.

Maybe it's a father thing.  It certainly is a special and important skill, and everyone needs someone like that in their life.  Otherwise we would all be riding the bus.  Or driving like dragonflies chasing boats up rivers.

Which is why I was struck when I noticed that Jonathan was setting Julia up to ride the lawn mower this weekend.  She had never done this before on her own, always in the past sitting in Jonathan's lap, driving in circles, spinning the wheel in a non-purposeful manner and giggling.  Always, after she grows bored and heads inside, Jonathan needs to redo the area she helped in.

Which is basically what she was doing now.  Alone on the lawn tractor.  Zigging and zagging her way across the flat open area.


Singing at the top of her lungs.


Wet loose hair flying out behind her.


She did avoid hitting anything.


Instead of having that moment with Jonathan beside me on the chair in the shade, I looked over.  And saw him.


He wasn't there beside me.  He was over there.  Close to Julia.  Watching.  And smiling whenever she looked to him to see if she was doing it correctly.  He was being...fatherly.  Or fatherly in the way I define it.

And I breathed a happy sigh from my chair, as I saw Julia's bruised, dirty and childish legs swerve past me.  Those legs,  they will only be small and a bit short on the pedals for so long.  There are even rarer moments of parenting these small beings than there are moments for Jonathan and I to sit and lounge.


When Elliott could watch and wait no longer,



Jonathan signaled to Julia.



Walked over, and yes, chased her a bit because she had forgotten how to put the tractor into park.


And then I saw, from my far away vantage point, them chatting, likely about that last brief moment of the tractor being a bit out of her control.

There is something that happens between this moment in the following picture and the one right after it.  When Julia is looking at Jonathan, assessing how he is reacting to her mistake.  Reading his face.  If he was frustrated, she would have become defensive and upset.


But, instead, he was talking quietly to her, explaining, reminding her where the brake and the lever were.

And then they both smiled at each other.  He did not make her feel bad for her mistake.  He just laughed with her.


And then, drivers changed, Julia skipped over to the shade where I was.  And Elliott got his turn, in the manner Julia has for a few years before.


And happily, that lounge chair beside me was taken.  By a delighted, breathless, and giggling girl.  And I enjoyed our time together in the shade of the apple trees.  Which was no doubt more enjoyable because she and I had not had a driving lesson together.

I do know that it likely should not be me who teaches the kids to drive.  Though I have the skills, I do not have the calm and unflappable part of the equation.   And I am not sure I would be able to keep the sarcastic commentary to myself when we get home as to just how we got that ding in the bumper.

My mother tells the story of learning to drive with her father, another man with extreme patience.  Apparently one day next to the fields my grandfather kept, her father told her to go up the road and turn right.  Which she did.  And the vehicle tipped to the right and rolled into the ditch.  When my grandfather ran to her and asked her why she drove so quickly around the corner, she told him honestly.  You did not tell me to slow down.  My Grampa apparently took off his hat, scratched his head, and laughed the big bellowing laugh that I still remember so well.  My Grampa loved to tell that story, and he did it in a way that highlighted the humor of it, the Amelia Bedelia quality that my mother had in that moment.  And not the frustration or criticism that could have come if he had been a more reactive teacher.  And therefore, my mother also loves to tell this story.


Whatever the reason, I think Jonathan may have what it takes.  To teach Julia.  And to make her feel confident.  And to make a moment of anxiousness pass without becoming a moment of edginess.  And I will enjoy watching, and chatting with her about it.  Afterwards. 

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