“What is a hysterectomy?” a friend’s lanky fourteen-year-old demanded, slamming his book bag on the kitchen table and opening the refrigerator door.
Inured to such abrupt greetings and mildly pleased at the prospect of a substantive conversation with her teenage son, the mother launched into a full discourse on female plumbing, surgical technique, and hormone therapy. “Is that what you wanted to know?” she asked, noting his impatience.
“Nope. What I need to know is can you get one? Alan’s mother had one last week, and he’s getting a hardship driver’s license Tuesday.”
Two of my three sons are licensed drivers now, and I’m relieved that neither license required me to undergo surgery. There are, however, some hardships inherent in living with beginning drivers. And, as with a hysterectomy, there is an irrevocability—a “no going back”—about the whole process.
My initial experiences with a driving child were gentle enough. Jack, my eldest, took his driver’s education course while at boarding school in Austin. He knows MoPac, Interstate 35, Loop 360, and Ben White Boulevard, but he’s still a little hazy on his hometown, Dallas. He has shaved the side mirror off a car while backing out of the driveway, been ticketed for doing 40 in a 30 mph zone on his way home from the dentist, been sideswiped and rear-ended by classmates at school. But because I never witnessed his learning to drive and never winced at his early uncertain lane changes, I have an unwarranted confidence in his driving ability.
With my second son, Drew, whose sixteenth birthday came earlier than those of most of his classmates, I developed a callus on my right foot from pressing phantom brakes on the passenger side. My sweaty hand clung to the handrail above the window, and even on the hottest days of summer, even in a linen blouse, I never failed to fasten my seat belt when I rode with him. He resented my alerting him to stop signs and one-way streets, so I settled for sucking air through my teeth each time he ignored one or swiveled his head to the rear and abruptly switched lanes, leaving me alone to assess the changing traffic in front of us. A new driver’s impulse is to swerve slightly away from oncoming traffic, so I learned to steer empathetically with my stiffened body, leaning toward my young driver when the passenger side seemed destined to be sheared away by a truck driver dissatisfied with the reduced right-lane space my son offered him.
I willingly left Central Expressway driving instructions to the foolhardy driver’s ed instructor. When I venture onto that treacherous roadway, I choose the lane I need to be in immediately and do not cut in and out of traffic, regardless of the pace. I have read stories about drivers’ being armed, and I try not to antagonize anyone, especially those with bumper stickers that oppose gun control or read, “Shit Happens.” After driving in Dallas for nearly twenty years, I still consider each safe entrance made from the Monticello ramp in my four-cylinder station wagon a divine dispensation. Deciding when to enter the flow of traffic and accelerating accordingly seem to require judgment and experience that I’m still acquiring. I lack the courage to accompany any sixteen-year-old on his first attempt.
I wasn’t always such a coward. In my teenage years, when Texas was a more rural state, kids were licensed to drive at fourteen. I don’t think that statute was enforced with any regularity in my hometown of Texarkana. Besides, unlaminated paper licenses without pictures were easily altered. My sixth-grade boyfriend had been driving a tractor and a truck on a farm since he was eight. By the time we were in the seventh grade (he was twelve), my parents allowed me to ride with him in his brother’s shiny red 1951 Ford with the courting knob. Well, he’d had four years of driving experience.
Driver’s education is now mandatory in Texas for drivers under the age of eighteen. I’m glad. The newest drivers in my home are the last of the babies who lived dangerously. They wore no seat belts in their infancy, and I don’t recall much restraint in their baby seats other than my swatting their legs every time they tried to climb out. They bounced along beside me in our ‘65 Chevrolet in unanchored, graham cracker-encrusted baby seats that allowed them to see the world, baby seats designed to hurl them headfirst through the windshield in the event of an accident. Only my youngest son, born after the stiffer safety laws were enacted, has known a consistently cautious and buckled-up life. His brothers frequently remind him, “William, childhood is not what it used to be.” Irrationally, I believe that their early experiences make them freer spirits behind the wheel and any caution that driver’s education instills is on the side of the angels.
The driving school that we selected for Drew cost almost as much as summer camp and didn’t last as long. For one hour each evening for three and a half weeks, my son and a gaggle of other gangly fifteen-year-olds gathered in a hotel meeting room to be lectured on the rules of the road and to view the Department of Public Safety’s films on collisions, which the boys dubbed “Crispy Critters.” Besides the classroom work, they did seven cumulative hours of driving in nice automatic Buicks. Judging from the ketchup stains on my son’s shirt and the milk shake cups he returned with each evening, I surmised that maneuvering past a fast-food window had replaced parallel parking on the driver’s test. Dave, my son’s driving instructor, was clearly more relaxed in the passenger seat than I was. Drew came home every night with jokes that I could never have told or found amusing while taking a suburban corner at thirty miles an hour.
Nothing in the driver’s ed curriculum, however, prepares a teenager for his first experience with the governmental bureaucracy that stands between him and his license. Not one of the Department of Public Safety stations is close to our house. The address for the one that seemed closest led us to a vacant storefront. By the time we found the proper location, we had lost our early-morning advantage.
Driver’s license bureaus have an Ellis Island quality about them. Citizenship is not a prerequisite for a license. I heard at least four foreign languages and a variety of American dialects as we inched toward the desk. Entire oriental families were on hand to support a shy mother’s reluctant foray onto the expressway of American life. Middle Eastern men hunkered down and gestured on the sidewalk outside while they awaited their turn with the driving inspector. Hispanic babies dressed for the occasion in full Sunday garb patiently dozed in their strollers under the eyes of nervous mothers. Other restless children fought over potato chips and played “You cain’t git me” until the young mother in tight jeans in front of me threatened, “Awright, Billy Earl, you do that one more time, and you don’t git no school supplies.” Only my son exuded confidence.
“Birth certificate?” said the weary clerk without looking up. I groaned audibly. Passing the buck and feigning ignorance, Drew turned to me and said, “Birth certificate, Mom?” This little adventure that had begun as a birthday treat had now eaten most of my morning. He had never mentioned needing a birth certificate. He turned quickly back to the clerk to avoid the killer laser I trained on him. “Uh, I brought my mom. She was there and can certify it,” he said in his jocular manner, which failed him for the first time ever.
We made four trips in all to the license bureau, two for the written test with and without proper documents and two for the driving portion. I was comforted on one of those subsequent visits by the mother of a daughter returning for her eighth try. Maybe raising daughters isn’t any easier, even if their insurance rates are lower. One woman told me that while riding with her newly licensed daughter, a parked car loomed in their lane. “I was sure that she saw it,” the mother said, “but less than a yard from the rear bumper of the parked car, I frantically grabbed the wheel to avoid the collision. ‘What were you thinking?’ I screamed at her. ‘You won’t believe this, Mom,’ she said, ‘but I just forgot that I was driving.’” While Drew was taking the driving test for the first time, I heard enough similar tales to make me think insurance companies should reassess their inequitable actuarial tables for male and female adolescents.
I did observe that females approached the licensing process with more humility than my son did. Cockiness does not go unpunished in government offices. Drew returned in record time from the driving test, having been disqualified within blocks for cutting a corner. His misery was compounded when the clerk told him the test could not be administered twice in one day. The birthday boy responded by kicking over one of the chrome standards that roped us in our ubiquitous lines. “Young man,” the clerk shouted after him, “before you control a car, you’d better learn to control that temper.”
Later that same day, abetted by his overaccommodating mother and a city street map, Drew located another license station. This one was bleaker than the first. It was Ellis Island with no chairs or benches for weary parents. Signs instructed us to line up to obtain a form that had been stacked by the door at the previous station. This line took twenty minutes. After filling out the form, we queued twice more, finally taking a number to await the inspecting officer. We had plenty of time to get chummy with the similarly oppressed. “I hate this shee-it,” said the pregnant woman in front of us with Whoopi Goldberg dreadlocks. “Issa pain in the rear end of my esophagus,” she added. We concurred, and in those endless lines Drew and I learned more than we wanted to know about her pregnancy, her boss, her two nervous breakdowns, and her intention to dump the baby on her mama because she had too much pressure in her life already. We shared a package of barbecue chips and sat on the curb of the hot sidewalk as we waited for the test. I watched sympathetically as a teenage girl ahead of us returned with eyes brimming, ‘The tag, Daddy, the license tag you put on the car this morning expired in March. They won’t even let me take the test!”
My son had drawn a young blond woman for his driving test this time. Although this day in purgatory had cowed him a little, he winked and gave me the thumbs-up sign as he slid into the driver’s seat beside the inspector. I cringed when I heard him call her by her first name and begin his joke about dreaming he had swallowed a tail pipe and then waking up exhausted. When they pulled up twenty minutes later, he kissed her on the cheek and gave me a triumphant high five.
Temporary license in hand, Drew turned on the wrong side of a median, ignored a stop sign, and, overruling my better judgment, drove us home by way of the treacherous LBJ Freeway. He dropped me off at the curb and headed to Burger King for a late lunch.
As I ate my tuna sandwich alone, a certain ambivalence about the day intruded. From now on, Drew will be able to go to the pet store he loves, to Eckerd’s for poster board and candy, to the video store to check out movies, and God only knows where else without me. He and I have a long history in the car together. In addition to preschool car pools, he had seven years of music lessons twice a week, so early in the morning that we could only talk about our dreams or giggle inappropriately at the blue jokes of drive-time disc jockeys Stevens and Pruitt. His elder brother had opted for a bicycle and independence, but this second-born was conveniently the victim of a series of bicycle thefts and got chauffeured through most of middle school. Drew’s banter with his back-seat buddies kept me from being totally illiterate about sports. I could flippantly toss off astute comments in the barbershop about Cowboys quarterbacks without having to read the sports pages or, worse, having to watch the games. No more. I will boogie alone to the golden oldies he had always located for me whenever he had made excessive demands on my chauffeuring services.
Ten years ago, when we lived near the middle school, students frequently discarded homework papers and notes in my yard on their way home. I remember retrieving a note in which an eighth-grade girl described her mother as being “absolutely clueless.” I later read it to my small boys. “Please, guys,” I entreated, “just don’t let me be clueless.”
Two of my sons are driving now. We play musical cars, since the old one they share is often in the shop. The last time I was stranded with their car, it had “Hot Body” and “Sexy Driver” written in shoe polish on the windshield. I make a list of grievances every time Drew uses my car. I have two radio stations that make my erratic days in the car bearable and even pleasurable, WRR-FM, the city-owned classical station, and KERA-FM, a public radio station. A noon errand is less irritating if I happen on the broadcast from the National Press Club. Late-afternoon runs are enhanced by All Things Considered from National Public Radio. When all else fails, I have French language tapes or a performance by Claudio Arrau of Chopin nocturnes that I am trying to master. They are four small things that make me happy. I find it inexcusably insensitive that for a quick trip to the drugstore, this child reprograms my radio so that it jumps only to head-banging music, and he tosses my tapes out of arm’s reach into the back seat.
The boys do leave exasperating clues. I piece together their now-unchaperoned lives from flotsam and jetsam on the floorboard: fast-food wrappers, sales slips, savings-account withdrawal receipts, cryptic directions to faraway football games that I thought were being played at the home stadium, a pair of girl’s shoes, an empty can of Skoal Bandits. I draw conclusions and occasionally confront them.
The response is usually “Chill out, Mom.”
Out? Out of it? I went into this mothering business to go out of it? Their lives were once so open to me that I filled two books. Now they control the steering wheel, directional lights, and the accelerator. I am an occasional passenger. If I’ve done my job, and their youngest brother quits tattling, my third volume should be a pamphlet.