It is still a topic of debate between me and my four sisters as to the precise amount of times my mother took and ultimately failed her road test. My older sister who in fairness was around the longest to bear witness, says twelve. The youngest, too young to really know back then, claims six. My middle sister is positive it was thirteen and I am certain, yes certain it was ten. It may be in fact our neighborhood mailman who could vouch for the precise number. After all, he was with us all those years and had the unfortunate task of being the bearer of bad news those six or ten or twelve or fourteen times. I remember clearly the chaos that would ensue when we spotted him, slowly coming up the walkway. “Mom the mail is here!!!” we would sound. We had a vested interest of course, in her passing as she would be our passport to transport. My mother would approach the door with a mixture of hesitancy and anticipation. As he handed her the thin envelope, while shaking his head and tsking, I still recall the words of our kindly postman: “Next time for sure Mrs. D., next time for sure…”
So the day I walked in from school and saw the postman and my mother sitting at the kitchen table having tea, I knew something had changed. “I passed!” my mother beamed in pride. “Need a ride to gymnastics tonight?”
She always drove very slowly, sitting forward in concentration on the edge of the driver’s seat. It was the lack of attention once she got going that was the problem. My sister claimed that the two of them were driving down Plandome Road one day and my mother, driving too close to a line of parked cars neatly clipped one unlucky auto’s side view mirror off as she passed, all the while not breaking conversation and continuing on in oblivion.
We all have a story. That one mishap that happens in childhood wherein you are teased mercilessly long after the incident is over. My best friend Janet’s was accidentally wetting her pants in the first grade thereafter being known with the unfortunate nick name of “wee wee Johnson.” Years later at a high school party a boy approached and greeted her nonchalantly with “Hi wee wee.” My story was when my mother drove through the McGuire’s backyard. She claimed that the car had skidded – though no rain or snow was evident. Whatever the reason, she careened off the road plowing through a row of hedges. The car remarkably stopped short prior to crashing through the screened in porch though the screen door was taken off its hinges with the impact. Thankfully, the family was not home that day. My mother scribbled a note and left it propped in the door which lay on its side in stunned silence. She then managed to somehow back out and drive home. For years after, the chants that echoed on my school bus still ring in my mind “Your mother drove through McGuire’s back yard!” The McGuire children, all possessing a quiet and polite demeanor always sat quietly on the bus amid the teasing. They never once said a word about the mishap for which I remain eternally grateful.
Our Irish wolfhound too experienced the consequences of my mother’s driving. He loved to go out in the car but on one fateful day got a taste of what we all had ultimately come to experience. One day while stopping short to avoid a squirrel my mother jammed on the brakes ejecting poor Connell from back seat to front passenger seat. From that day on for the remainder of his years, Connell refused to set paw in the car with my mother, ever again. She would try to lure him with his favorite treat but he stood firm perhaps sensing he might not be so lucky the next time.
Our immediate family was well aware of my mother’s driving mishaps but I never quite realized her legacy until one evening while home from college. It was Thanksgiving weekend. School mates and local friends would congregate at a bar in my home town of Manhasset, NY called Publicans to reunite and catch up on the years. I loved this holiday ritual. As I made my way in to find a seat I spotted a neighborhood friend who I had not seen in years. Jimmy Dillon, the oldest lad from a family of ten children. He sat on the bar stool, his shock of red hair still vibrant. His smile widened when he spotted me and he lifted his mug of beer in greeting. “Kathy!! So great to see you. Hope your family is well. How is your mother?” Before I had the chance to answer he continued. “Kathy, your mother is one of the nicest people I have ever met in my life but the day she gave me a ride home from school, my life literally passed before my eyes!” He paused to quickly swig his beer, sobered by the memory. He then relayed the story in a bit more detail. She had seen him walking home from school one day and offered him a ride. Jimmy gratefully climbed in the back seat but as they proceeded down the road, my mother kept turning full around from the front seat to ask him questions. As he animatedly told me the story he weaved and bobbed and swung his arms in mock imitation. That was unnecessary of course. I had experienced it before. “My mother’s doing great Jimmy. I’ll tell her you were asking for her…”
My husband became aware of my mother’s driving reputation when we first visited my parents in the Hamptons. Pulling into the garage he spotted a large refrigerator tucked against the wall in the back. After more careful inspection he noticed the front door was severely dented. As we entered the house and greeted my father my husband inquired as to why the door was so dented. My father who was sitting in his recliner reading the newspapers, did not look up. He responded “Mary uses the fridge as a way to tell she is fully pulled into the garage. She knows the car is all the way in once she gives it a good whack.”
Then there was the time through nothing more than an act of love, she drove from Long Island NY to Villanova PA to visit her homesick daughter at college. This was the very first time I had actually seen my father nervous when he learned of the road trip as my mother was not used to driving on major highways. When we had not heard from her hours after she should have arrived we were frozen in fear. But then the call came. It was my sister. “Mom just got here!” She was a little late because she missed a turn and ended up in Delaware but she just wanted everyone to know she arrived safe and sound.”
But in all the years and in all the fender benders, we were blessed that nothing truly serious ever happened to my mother, her occupants or other drivers. Quite simply, my mother although not the best driver, loved driving and the freedom it allowed her after all those years of walking through the suburbs to the supermarket and relying on the goodness of strangers and friends to give her lifts. She was determined to pass that road test and pass she did regardless of the amount of times it took to do so.
Oh, and our postman, he came to my younger sister’s wedding.