I learned to drive in the fall of 1980, when the future tasted like a raindrop on the tip of my tongue. It was after the summer we moved from my growing-up house into one that, in my mother’s words, didn’t have room for my father. It was the year we packed up books, clothes, and letters that would only decades later be reopened for discovery.
I was 15 going on 16, bursting at the seams and ready to break free, but still lacking some of the tools to get there. One of those tools was a driver’s license.
Having been displaced from our home, Daddy, 52 at the time, wandered about for a few months but refused to disappear. He would arrive unannounced some afternoons, over the course of that year, and invite me to practice driving, because the car was a more comfortable place for us to visit than our living room.
Looking three vehicles ahead; using mirrors to parallel park; calculating distance and speed; constantly surveying the surroundings. All of these things I learned from my father, a smart, kind, wayward soul who was more awkward Jimmy Stewart than racy James Dean.
My mother threw a surprise party luncheon for my 16th birthday, then she took me to Justine’s for dinner and gave me a black leather purse, telling me she knew I wouldn’t be excited by it but that I would grow into it over time, and I needed a place to put my driver’s license. She was right; I didn’t much like the purse, but I kept it for years. After my mother died, I finally let the guilt go, only to wish a year or so later that I’d waited more patiently to grow into the person my mother could see but I couldn’t, the woman who would carry a purse like that.
I passed my driving test with only one wrong answer, to a question about when roads are most dangerous, after 5 minutes, one hour, or five hours of rain. More than 30 years have passed since then, and I can still hear my father’s short lecture about the physics of oil and water.
I passed my test, and I was free, finally a pilot and not a passenger.
I didn’t have a car of my own but was often enough allowed to use my mother’s, a metallic-green Peugeot 504 diesel that we all loved dearly until it died from accidental exposure to gasoline. I have no idea how my mother got to work or ran errands on the days she lent me her car, because I was 16 and it never occurred to me to ask her. I drove to school and then, on the way home, drove to Walgreens to buy Kit-Kat bars, and Sun-In, and Vantage cigarettes. I drove with the windows down, smoking and singing to the loud radio, always taking the longest way possible back to our house.
Now in my early 50s, the age my father was when I first took the wheel, I am teaching my second child to drive – a singularly terrifying experience for which I doubt anyone could be adequately prepared. No book or colorful anecdote could capture the reality of riding shotgun-seat in a two-ton weapon piloted by teenage enthusiasm and adrenaline. Among the unexpected lessons: permission to “turn on red” does not apply to left turns, at least not in the U.S.
If nothing else, teaching a child to drive encourages one to make peace with one’s maker. (This is also, perhaps, the work of being in one’s 50s.)
My son drives my car – to school, and probably to Walgreens – because his own car is still in the works. He and Bernard have spent the better part of a year re-building an old 4-Runner that we kept for this purpose. Saturdays, Sundays and some summer afternoons have found the two of them, greasy hands and sweaty t-shirts, hunched under an open hood, fiddling with a carburetor or swapping out pieces from the spare truck we bought for parts. It has been slow work, an exercise in patience but also in the art of letting go.
I miss driving carpool. I love not having to drive carpool. Life is the unity of opposites.
My daughter is a very different student from my son, both in school and in the car. In our first week together with her behind the wheel, I’ve been trying to remember to start with a clean slate. She is not her brother; neither of them is 15-year-old me.
But their primary work is the same work I did at that age, the same work all teenagers must do. Erikson calls it “identity versus role confusion.” My parents might have called it “learning to be a confident driver.”
And my job is to stay attached and let go at the same time, to get us all in separate cars that are forever connected by an invisible tether of trust, and pride, and love.
Now let us go to do the work we are given to do. That is all.
Food | Early April 2019
Here’s what Bernard said: are we going to have everything seasoned with za’atar?
And I said: yes, until I get tired of it, because I am the one who does the cooking.
Here’s what I made that prompted his comment:
Couscous bowls (inspired by this David Tanis recipe – which looks delicious just as it’s written, but I didn’t think my people would eat it and didn’t want to waste all that goodness)
- Prepare couscous as usual; toss in a mix of brown butter (most of a stick), lemon juice and saffron (softened in warm water)
- Chicken thighs rubbed with za’atar, garlic, olive oil and salt, oven roasted (at 370, to get them crispy at the edges), cooled slightly, chopped and tossed with cilantro
- Cucumber (peeled, seeded, chopped), white onion (very thinly sliced), green beans (lightly steamed and chopped), and cilantro, all tossed together with lemon juice, salt and the oil from the chicken pan
And here are a few other things we might try one day soon (even this week):