A gorgeous day in July. I’m on a Plum Island beach with one of my daughters and a few of her friends. A family trudges across the sand to settle near us. The youngest child, a girl of maybe 5, yells out, her sweet soprano carried by a stiff salty breeze. “Where the hell are my floaties?”
We couldn’t stop laughing at the time, but her words have often returned to me as a kind of existential plea. I’d love some floaties, an extra buffer between the vagaries of life and those I love. I worry, not so much a helicopter parent as a drone. This admission is laughably unnecessary to anyone who knows me, because I obsess over the health and safety not only of my own children but also of anyone else’s kids in my care. I come by it honestly; my parents were masters of the protective instinct. The only time it ever became a real problem was when I learned to drive. It all came back to me when my daughter got her learner’s permit.
When I got my permit, my mom flat-out refused to have anything to do with teaching me to drive; she knew it would push her well past her ability to tolerate risk. My dad decided that the safest thing to do was to teach me himself. He was, by his own reckoning, always the best driver on the road. He was worried that I’d be corrupted by the unfettered stylings of a professional instructor.
I approached learning to drive with the same trepidation others might feel contemplating snake handling or sword swallowing. People do it, but that doesn’t mean it’s not dangerous. My dad assured me that I’d be driving on my own in short order. I found this hard to believe. He was a man who would move his family from a restaurant table if it happened to be located under a heavy chandelier, married to a woman who sent me to grade school with a whistle around my neck. Everything seemed to work out pretty well in the end, though, and I trusted that eventually I would learn to drive, no matter how long it took for my father to safeguard the process.
It took three years. Three years of white-knuckled teeth grinding, slamming of brakes, and high shrieking. And that was just my dad. I finally did get my license, but I was banned from driving one of the family cars because even though I eventually passed the Commonwealth’s test, I never did pass my dad’s. During all my years of growing up, the only real conflict he and I ever had arose when he was teaching me to drive.
So when my daughter came home with my husband from the Registry of Motor Vehicles triumphantly waving her permit, I cheered while my brain thudded with apprehension. The years had somehow flown by, and I was unprepared for this particular inevitability. The ache in my heart that has been with me since my dad passed in 2004 swelled, and I wished fervently, as I do every day, that I could talk to him.
I called my mom that evening to tell her the news. “Ah,” she said with a smile in her voice. “Who’s teaching her to drive?” “Guess!” I said with a laugh.
My husband is a skilled and patient teacher, and his lessons with my daughter went very smoothly. Our younger daughter often tagged along and watched from the back seat, equally excited at the prospect of autonomous mobility. In the face of new adventure and experience, they both continue to seem confident and careful in equal measure. Apparently my anxiety has been balanced out by my husband’s cheerful practicality. And there it is. We are all each other’s floaties. Together we make a raft.
Carolyn R. Russell is a writer in West Newbury. Send comments to email@example.com. Get the best of the magazine’s award-winning stories and features right in your e-mail inbox every Sunday. Sign up here.