My husband and I are teaching our oldest daughter to drive. On Sunday afternoons, schedules permitting, we take turns taking her to a vacant parking lot nearby and putting her behind the wheel. In the beginning, when she first passed her written test, she had to be shown how to adjust the seat and the mirrors, put the key into the ignition, put her foot on the brake, and put the car into gear. At this point, though, she has several lessons under her belt, and she is competently circling the lot forward and in reverse, parking parallel and head-in, and handling speed bumps. In May, when she turns 16 and is legally authorized to be on the road with her learner's permit, we'll have her practice on "real" but quiet streets. She'll learn to stop at stop signs and slowly inch forward before proceeding. She'll learn to make left turns at green lights, yielding to oncoming traffic. She'll be accelerating forward into the next stage of her life.
My grandmother used to tell me that a car was the only deadly weapon that just about any old idiot is allowed to handle. In my state, where the laws governing the handling of other weapons are pretty strict, I believe my grandmother's saying is still true and correct. It is absolutely terrifying to teach one's child to operate a piece of machinery that is, in itself, the number-one cause of death of people in her age group. When she's off on her own, will she be a good driver? Will she be able to focus on navigating the snowy roads with a car full of friends? Will her desire for speed and freedom outweigh her good judgment? These are the thoughts that go through my mind as we slowly circle the icy parking lot on this cold afternoon.
"Did you ever know anyone who died in a car accident?" she asks me.
"Yes." I tell her about the teenager in my hometown who died late at night in a crash on the highway about ten miles from home. I tell her about my college classmate who died on graduation night, hit head-on by other students as she returned from a celebration dinner. A law student I knew who flipped the Miata he was test-driving on the night he secured a job at the firm of his choice. My brother-in-law's grandmother, who tried to get out of a car she mistakenly thought had stopped.
I am not trying to scare her, but obviously I have. She becomes nervous and steps too hard on the brake. I try to reassure her. Sarah is actually a very sensible girl, with good judgment and good instincts, and I would not be next to her in the passenger seat if I did not think she was ready to take this great step toward independence. One of the problems with teenagers (at least with mine, anyway) is that they are haunted by self-doubt and by a warped image of themselves. Sometimes they think they are brilliant and invincible. Other times they are convinced that they are stupid and ugly and that no one loves them. The truth is somewhere underneath all that, and it will take them years before they straighten it all out. It's part of the normal process of maturing.
We see a mockingbird in a tree at the edge of the parking lot, and I point it out to Sarah. I show her how to identify it as a mockingbird: the tail held upright, the gray body, black head, and stripes of white visible only in flight. I think about how that bird learned to fly and wonder whether its mother held her breath as her baby fledged for the first time. Did he soar right out into the sky on his first attempt, or did he fall and have to try again?
One night when I was seventeen, I took the family car out in a blizzard to visit a boy I was interested in. The weather was horrible, and I drove very carefully and slowly. I had to drive on the highway, with cars sliding all over. When I returned home, late that night, my mother was absolutely furious with me. I was angry and hurt too, because I wanted her to be proud that I had handled the storm well and had managed to get home in one piece. She was upset about what might have happened. I was proud of what had happened. The space between us was about thirty years of experience - just about what separates me from Sarah now.
We hit a patch of ice in our parking lot, and I show her how to steer into the skid and regain control. I hope she remembers the technique later, when she is out on the road by herself, so that she too will return in one piece.
What's in the crock-pot: on Friday morning, I made a wonderful beef stew. I set it up on the counter and turned it on, and I thought all morning about what a great dinner we were going to have. Around 3 P.M., I got a text message from the babysitter: "Do you want me to plug the crock-pot in?" Oops. We had pizza for dinner Friday night, and we'll be having that stew tonight. It's warming up now, and it's just beginning to smell wonderful.