Thursday, February 4, 2016

Learning to Drive

No doubt about it:  my parents were eccentric in many ways. 

Our family moved constantly, so I lived in places like Boston, Tampa, Houston, LA, New Orleans.  We displayed odd stuff in the living room from my stepfather's travels and from my mother's haunts at strange antiques stores--like a South Seas fertility goddess with very pointy boobs, a totem staff from the shaman of a tribe of headhunting cannibals in Borneo, and an Australian kangaroo pelt casually thrown over the back of a chair. 

They didn't act like other parents.  Back when people didn't DO that (think Kennedy era), my mother was going barefoot in Boston.  When we lived in LA, my stepfather liked to lounge around the house in a tiger print loin wrap.  I remember being woken up more than once at 2 AM to go get hamburgers even though I was elementary age and it was a school night.  My folks thought nothing of driving twenty miles at midnight to go out for banana splits, and I got to go along for the ride. 

When I was in high school, all the other kids rebelled at their parents' curfew rules while I had no curfew at all.  As long as I said what time I'd be home and where I'd be going, it didn't matter and my parents didn't care.   My rebellion was not to go anywhere at all.  No one ever asked whether I had completed my homework unless the school lesson looked interesting, and then they might just take over and do it for me while I wasn't looking--like the time my grandmother got so fascinated with my Home Ec sewing project that she decided to fix it while I was asleep.  I got a D.  She had removed the sleeves and put them back in backwards. 

I went to high school in three states so I had to take Driver's Ed in two of them.  The drivers license age was 15 here in Mississippi back then.  My parents thought that was great--that meant I'd be available to run family errands.  Anyone could drive!  After all, my stepdad had been piloting a ferry for rumrunners during Prohibition when he was twelve.  Anything I did should be easy after that. 

Driving was one thing they expected me to get right. 

For Dad, that meant I had to be able to do two things:  change a tire and parallel park.  He tested me on the former by having me rotate the tires on the family car.  For the latter, he set up trash barrels by the curb where he had me practice dozens of times every day.  (By the way, I nearly did not get my license because of this:  I was so smoothly efficient at beginning the parking process that the patrolman told me I could pull out and move on to the next part of the test.  But I couldn't!  I didn't know how NOT to finish, and the patrolman was Obviously Not Amused when I wasted his time because I had to complete parking anyway.  I have been unable to parallel park ever since.)

For my mother, the important thing was being able to reverse the car.  She said that women were never competent at backing up and that I would not shame her by being like that.  So for a couple of months, I could drive anywhere in our quiet neighborhood but I could ONLY do so in reverse; I was absolutely Not allowed to drive forwards.  I can still back a car in a complete circle.....but I have also managed to back into a pole a couple of times because I'm so casual about it that I back up too quickly.  Oh well.

When I was young, the other kids would say stuff like, "Your parents are so cool!  I wish mine were like that."  And I'd plaster on a plastic smile while I pretended to agree.  The other kids just wouldn't understand even if I had tried to explain.  Those kids would never have believed that I listened to their stories with hungry longing:  visits to grandma's house, playing with cousins, knowing that your family would live in the same house forever, and that you'd always know the friends you went to first grade with.  I didn't have any of that.  I was rudderless in an endlessly changing sea.

I became aware early on that the solidity of tradition builds confidence--those are the roots that give you the ability to grow wings when you're an adult.  It's important to have certainties that you know that you can lean upon without fear.  I have no idea what that's like, so it's the stuff I didn't learn that still causes problems, like how to be consistent, how to be on time, how to plan ahead, how to make and keep friends--the simple things other people take utterly for granted are still boulders in a wasteland of confusion for me.

I am still learning to drive.

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