How I learned to drive at 35
When I tell people I got my license at 35, they often appear perplexed. It could be because I say it, and then wait for a standing ovation. I am perplexed they aren’t astonished when they hear I picked up my kid, or drove to the supermarket. Why is their mind not blown? Why isn’t that the most impressive thing they’ve heard all day? Where is the confetti?
Learning to drive was the hardest thing I have ever done in my life. The hardest. Driving and I weren’t on speaking terms for the majority of my life. I found driving a nagging reminder of my biggest fear and sense of incapability; it told the truth I wished to mask so much- that I was still scared.
Immediately a defensive voice pops up and wants you all to know that despite not driving, I did indeed do other things my peers did. We shall call this voice, Fred, and imagine him a very nervous middle aged attorney with a passion for birdwatching. Fred came up with the original list of reasons not to drive. Despite many revised drafts over the years, he always ended the document with, “because cars kill people.” And a link to an exotic bird that was spotted in Hudson Valley.
I attempted to drive for the first time when I was a teenager, when most teens learn to drive. I took lessons with a foul-breathed large man named Morris who fought with his Russian girlfriend, Oksana, on the phone during our sessions. It always sounded like she was asking him for an abhorrent favor - like picking up her mother from the airport in the middle of the night. I sometimes wonder if they are still together.
I was 18, and life felt like it was full speed ahead. I was to graduate soon and go to the army. I was a theater kid directing my first full length play, and basking in the hopeful/terrifying daydreams of who I was becoming. Morris taught all my friends to drive, and we savored his fights with Oksana, exchanging imitations for our own amusement. He was the king of giving backhanded compliments about our appearances, most famously known for saying how great you looked now - because before you were fat. At the time it sounded endearing. My current self would have told him to respectfully shut the fuck up.
In the middle of my daydreaming-of-the-future/driving lesson momentum of my senior year of high school, my world turned upside down. Not precise. First it spun around like a dreidel and bounced down steep steps till it’s ultimate collapse into its upside down form.
I had no idea this specific day would be the one where everything changed. I don’t think anyone does. But retrospect, man, retrospect is one seductive beast. In retrospect, it made sense. I mean, it will never make complete sense to me, but had this day been a play, one would sense a crescendo was near.
This day, I went hiking with my mom. We did stuff like this, and we called them mother-daughter days. This day, I was exceptionally moody. Moody, in all of my teenage-glory, but nevertheless always down to hang with my mom.
So we went hiking. Not far from home, just enough for Fiona Apple’s Tidal album to finish. Do not act surprised, I told you I was moody. We mostly walked. Little conversation (I was moody). She spoke about finding peace. I told her she sounded like she was going to die. She told me she wasn’t going anywhere.
This day, a few hours later, my parents got into a terrible accident in which my mom died, and my dad was critically injured. I went from driving lessons to cabbing to the hospital several times a day, to see if my dad had returned to consciousness. I went from an 18-year-old to some freakish combination of a 5-year-old and 40-year-old. The dreidel had begun it’s descent down the stairs.
During this time I was driven around by people who loved me. My daydreaming looked very different from the passenger seat.
Being a proud and stubborn Israeli, I resumed driving lessons with Morris as soon as my dad was back home. He was taking the bus to work because his car was totaled, and so I was learning to drive on a stick shift in the hopes of inheriting my mom’s old white Ford Escort. Morris’ demeanor changed a bit during our sessions. He didn’t speak much, and resorted to angry whispering when Oksana called. He still told me I looked better than I did before, and I still thought it was an asshole move but also somehow endearing.
Soon, I passed the driving test and felt exhausted yet victorious, a feeling I would become intimate with throughout the following decade. My newly licensed self took the keys to the inherited car, and learned - I in fact could not drive. Not in that car. Not without shaking.Not without crying. Not without being terrified.
In retrospect, my dad’s gift to me of my freshly deceased mother’s car was not the best of ideas. The first reason being the stick shift. Literally- why? Secondly, I was not ready to be in her seat, in any way.
My move to a big city following my military service was a great way to continue not to drive. Who drives in a big city? There weren’t many opportunities for me to have to say I don’t drive, so it got brushed aside. Life went on. This continued when I moved to NYC as well. The idea of driving became just that, an idea, and the knowledge I had my license and could drive if I actually wanted to, was comforting. It was as if I was choosing not to. A preference, really.
When my husband and I moved to the suburbs with our baby 18 months ago, I was confronted by my limitation. This quiet, spaced out suburb, required a car to go anywhere. I needed to drive and I couldn’t. Without a car in the ‘burbs you are left stranded, especially during a pandemic. I needed to be able to get out and drive my kid places. I needed to feel some sort of ownership over this new life I felt I had been plopped into. I could no longer hide from this.
I took a lot of driving lessons. The first with a long haired 65-year-old named Wren whose car smelled like weed. He encouraged me to drive very fast, and then would get unexpectedly firm with me when I did just that. It wasn’t a fit.
I then found a Mike who specialized in teaching anxious people to drive. Ding ding ding. Mike, all 5’2” of him, was very nervous and barely spoke. I told him I was a therapist one day, you know, to break the silence. He, in response, nervously told me - he thought the best place for a road test was in Lodi. It wasn't a fit.
At this point I was somewhat ok entering the driver’s seat, but still felt like I was playing dress up. I couldn’t remember the sequence of things to check before starting to drive, and would get flustered thinking I missed a crucial step. Fred wants you to know I have memorized many a textbook and indeed remember steps in other areas. He also says Mississippi surprisingly has a very intense birdwatching scene. Who knew?
I couldn’t have any distractions while driving in those lessons. My hands grasped the wheel as if it would fly away. Every car on the road was a potential accident. I was dangerous, and they were dangerous, and this whole driving thing sucked a fat one.
The suburbs did not miraculously conform to my desire for them to be walkable, and I had to get this driving thing down. I found Amalia, who patiently showed me I was actually able to make good choices on the road. One day she asked me what I did for a living, and I told her I was a therapist. She said she works with a lot of the Jewish community in the area, and everyone seemed to have a therapist. She then asked me in all seriousness if it was something cultural. I laughed. It was a fit.
I passed my first road test. My husband ordered a cake that said “vroom vroom” on it. I let all my people know I did the thing, and was showered in congratulations . The issue was, I had already been in this place; I got the license, but would I drive?
The first few weeks of driving were nerve wracking. I would not drive with my kid in the car and continued to see cars on the road as somehow threatening. A defensive driver. Slowly I began to play music in the car, even Fiona Apple. I now drive with both kids in the car. I drive, you see?That’s fucking huge.
My dad came to visit this year after Romi was born, and serendipitously I found myself driving him (on the highway! Oh my god I am so amazing!) on the exact date of the accident. 18 years had passed. I have been mothered and motherless the same amount of time. I can drive a car. I can live without her. I can be a mom to my kids, even when I want mine so badly.
My mom spoke about finding peace on that day during our hike. I would like to believe she is unabashedly ecstatic about my driving, thrilled I am no longer the passenger. I just wish I could take her for a ride. There’s a nice place to hike nearby.
You’re writing is such a part of the amazing woman,mother wife and daughter you are. Thanks for sharing ❤️🙌
I just love your writing. It’s as fascinating as you are providing poignance and always a sweet laugh.