When it’s time for a parent to give up the car keys
Patty Dann on life, liberty, and the love of driving.
Next week, my 90-year-old mother is handing over the key to her beloved Honda to her beloved granddaughter, my sister’s daughter. My niece, Meara, will then drive the car west to Boulder, Colorado, where she lives.
My mother will walk places when she needs to and take public transportation or taxis. My brother, sister, and I consider this a wise decision. One hears of hiding an older parent’s keys, having awful fights over near-accidents and terrible dramas over real ones. We have not fought. Instead, my mother said calmly when we told her our idea: “You simply don’t know how much driving means to me. I love to drive.”
When I was 4, as I stood clutching her skirt in our suburban home, my mother advised, “Typing and driving are two things a woman can never learn too early.” I typed easily at 10, but the real thrill came when I was 12, sitting on a phone book, peering through the steering wheel. When I drove, timidity turned into total joy.
I drove up and down our driveway, as excited as if I were going to the moon. My father worked in the city and my mother, a journalist, looked through the kitchen window and waved. I picked up my sister with her wild curls bobbing as she stood with her thumb out, pretending to be a hitchhiker.
“Hop in, kiddo,” I said, and I’d drive her to the mailbox. If we were lucky, nuns from the convent next door would be driving by in their serious black car, which we called the nun car. Then I put my face into a little smile and looked as holy as I could. On those sisterly drives, I learned the joy of someone who understands without saying a word.
One summer in high school, I went to Oklahoma to live with a Native American family and work in a day-care center. The wind blew as hot as Hades as I gave the children piggyback rides under the willow trees. Every weekend I sat in the back seat of Thelma and Lee’s Mustang as they took me to powwows. Once, on a tired trip home, Lee drove and Thelma slept with her head resting in his lap. I had never seen anything so intimate. That day I learned the possibility of true love.
When I was 18, I drove cross-country in three days with three fellow students. When we got to Oregon we picked corn, which we cooked over a fire. We swam in the Willamette River and slept under the stars, and I learned of a harmony with nature I had never experienced before.
At 28, I drove from New York to Montreal to visit friends after the man I thought I would marry dumped me. The next day, I turned around and drove south, traveling with a broken heart, stopping to swim in swimming pools. I changed in the back seat of the car and swam a couple of lengths in the next town’s public pool, to soothe my soul. Somewhere in New Hampshire I learned my heart would heal.
It did, and years later I married a Dutchman who bicycled as a child and learned to drive as an adult. With him I learned to share the wheel. After he died, I chauffeured our young son around for years.
My second honeymoon was a road trip, from Florida to Baltimore with the hot summer breezes at our necks as my husband told me stories of growing up eating collard greens and biscuits with gravy and going barefoot all summer.
This morning when I spoke to my mother, she said: “I can’t wait to see Meara. The key is on the table. I’m happy she will have the adventure of driving back across the country.”
While every day I am thankful that my mother did teach me to type and to drive, I realize there have been many other lessons she continues to teach me, even now.
Patty Dann’s next book, on writing, will be published in August 2016. Send comments to email@example.com.