Until recently, I assumed your father taught you to drive, or maybe it was one of your brothers. In most of the family stories, it was the men in your family who did most of the driving to town and on the farm, and because of that I made a wrong assumption.
Dad had tried to teach me how to drive a standard transmission when I was fifteen. But thanks to my brother David snorting and laughing from the back seat, I ended up taking summer Driver’s Ed and driving an automatic. Then, in a heartbeat, it seemed, your granddaughter Molly was sixteen and learning to drive. The male tradition continued when she asked her dad to teach her to drive a standard transmission. After all, the girls of her generation were really into proving they could drive a stick shift as well as the boys. So Molly and Jim went to Coronado High School’s empty parking lot to practice in the evenings, and her dad never laughed, cringed or said a harsh word as Molly jerked the car in circles around the lot. Soon she had it mastered.
We all have our stories about learning to drive, Mom. I didn’t learn yours until I was going through one of your old writing folders and found several versions of your article, “The Driving Lesson.” Your father had died in 1933, and Grandma had one car, a 1931 Model A Ford Roadster he purchased for $425. You were sixteen when Grandma said to you one afternoon, “Let’s take a ride out to the farm. It’s time you learned to drive.”
Some of the article versions are longer than others, but they all end the same way. You wrote that the more at ease you became with the Ford, the more apprehensive Grandma was. “I’m not going very fast,” you assured her, laughing as the breeze ruffled your hair. Then two miles from home, at the foot of a hill you faced a sharp turn onto a gravel road. Grandma yelled for you to slow down, but it was too late. You gripped the wheel and turned, and kept turning and turning…until you landed in the ditch with a bounce.
“Oh, my God,” Grandma said in terror. According to your article, her exclamation was more frightening than the accident itself. Grandma never even said “Gosh.”
“Mother!” you said, horrified. “You took the Lord’s name in vain.”
Grandma didn’t miss a beat. She took a breath and said sincerely, “That wasn’t swearing, Mary Elizabeth. That was praying.”
She gave you a few words of advice, guided you out of the ditch, and you drove home safely. And every driving memory of you in my life time is of a relaxed, confident and competent driver. A little reluctant to wear a seat belt, but as soon as your granddaughter refused to start the car and drive until you fastened the belt, you smiled and made it a habit. At least in her presence.
Well, Mom, if we ran a contest to see which of the females in our family had the best driving teacher, who would win? That’s a hard one. Two of my favorite men, my husband Jim and my dad, were both wonderful driving teachers. And as much as I hate to admit it, my brother turned out to be a driving ally, too, so the men in our lives really do deserve a vote of thanks for all their help.
I think, though, that Grandma–Letta Naomi Hoover Smith–deserves the first place prize. The Missouri country lady who kept the farm going and five children thriving after her husband died, also taught her hair-blowing-in-the-breeze sixteen-year-old daughter to drive a 1931 Model A Roadster on a country road.
That was your mother, my grandmother. She did whatever needed to be done, taught whatever needed to be learned, and punctuated it all with prayer.
I love you both very much.