Learning to Drive Taught Me to Understand My Mom

Illustration: Angelica Alzona (GMG)

My familial politics have always been a complicated thing to explain. At my birth home in Michigan, my parents began the slow and messy process of their divorce when I was eight years old. It took four years of court dates, arrests, and tears before the threads of two lives had finally been untwined. They treated it like it was a battle to be won, with my younger brother and I the pawns that a single clear victor would snatch up. At the end of the process, my mom and her new husband moved to Texas in defeat. My dad claimed his children as his prize.

I grew up quickly in those four years, but that was nothing compared to how quickly I’d have to grow up under my dad’s care because—poof! Just like that, he was gone. Working. At a girlfriend’s. In a fit of anger that threatened to bring the whole house down. Whatever the case, there was no time left over for the kids he’d fought for. I learned to operate in stealth mode to avoid the fury that saw the police sitting in our driveway month after month, over things as simple as a dirty cup on the counter that no one wanted to claim. There was no one to raise me but me.

I won’t go into the dirty details of an angsty teenagerdom, so you’ll have to trust me when I say it was the kind of difficult that haunts your every waking moment with the specter of fear that sits heavy in your stomach, keeps you in a perpetual cold sweat. My mom had custody of us on long breaks from school, a time that soon became a little blip of hope in what were some complicated and confusing years.

Illustration for article titled Learning to Drive Taught Me to Understand My Mom

Which isn’t to say I enjoyed that time spent with her. She and I had had plenty of messy fights during the divorce. I was a petulant preteen who didn’t believe her dad could do anything wrong. Mom didn’t spill a whole lot of details as to what was going on, trying to keep her kids out of the middle of it. I like those long breaks down in Texas because it offered me two things: privacy, and a stable Internet connection. That was it.

My dad taught me the basics of driving before he threw in the towel and made my mom teach me the rest. He took me out to the ice-covered parking lot of my high school one January evening during my freshman year of high school and ran me through the basic functions of our 1989 Pontiac Grand Prix Turbo. Gas is here. Brakes are here. It’s an automatic, so all you need are drive, reverse, and park. Okay, go.

It was a disheartening experience that left us both miserable on the way home. His car was long past its prime—the brake pedal required far more advanced skill and foresight to operate than it should have. You’d have to press it almost all the way to the floor before it started to catch. From there, it required a gentle touch to ease the car to a stop, otherwise you’d be lurching against your seatbelts. I hadn’t mastered that finesse. There was a lot of hard braking on sheets of ice before dad got fed up and called it a day.

“This would be easier if you just fucking listened to me, Elizabeth.”

Those words haunted me every time I got behind the wheel, and it saw me putting off signing up for drivers’ ed training until my junior year. I didn’t want to drive with my dad again—a fact that didn’t really matter, because any time I asked, he turned me down. I stopped asking. I was learning that it was easier to just not talk to my dad about big things, like learning how to drive, or signing papers for school, or even what I was going to do about college, which was looming over my shoulders as teachers and guidance counselors beat us over the head with all the details on how to apply. Any time I needed anything, his answer was the same: “Why don’t you ask your mother?”

But that meant I’d have to drive with my mom to rack up the 50 hours I needed to get my license. It was more appealing than driving with my dad—but, I thought, only marginally so.

I don’t remember the very first time I drove my mom somewhere, but I remember the general impression: awkward. It wasn’t a mark against her personally; I’d never had a chance to settle into comfort with a parental figure before it was whisked away. I didn’t like driving then. I wasn’t keen on having to spend the 50 hours of supervised driving I needed with anyone at a point in my life. And, yes, I was still holding onto some of that preteen drama. We hadn’t learned how to communicate as I grew older, and my life in Michigan had taught me that a parent is nothing to trust. Those first few drives were dead silent.

I ran a lot of errands. We went to the grocery store. I shipped my stepsister to gymnastics and hung out with my mom, the two of us reading. I made frequent family trips to our cabin, located an hour and a half away, and to San Antonio for shopping excursions. On one particularly memorable drive, I was escorting my mom to a doctor’s appointment when an 18-wheeler blew a tire right in front of us and swerved into our lane, just inches away from the bumper of the car.

The longer we spent cooped up in the car together, the more we started talking. It was a survival technique—neither of us were going to make it through the summer if we didn’t have a chat during all those hours spent on the road, all those hours spent at the places I’d driven us to.

Illustration for article titled Learning to Drive Taught Me to Understand My Mom

We talked about friends. School. Grades. Family. The different paths our lives had taken. Life in Texas. Small talk about the weather, just to pass the time and fill in some of the awkward silences that were usually only punctuated by whatever popped up on the radio. I laughed at her jokes. She listened to my encyclopedic knowledge of 1990s industrial metal. It started to feel, well, normal.

I turned right out of my mom’s subdivision onto a quiet road at the edge of a growing city that slowly petered out into countryside: scrub brush, deer, gently rolling hills. One of the late-night drives I’d need to accumulate the ten hours that needed to take place in the dark. I was calm, entirely relaxed in my mom’s presence.

It hadn’t been a sudden shift, that comfort—my mom just didn’t do conflict, not like my dad. It had been a smooth transition, founded on a sense of familial comfort that I thought I’d been craving since my parents got divorced. Both of us, my mom and I, were ready to move into the next step of our relationship.

I didn’t even flinch when my mom popped one of those questions that teens fear: “What are you thinking about doing for college?”

At that time, life after high school was something of a dead end. My dad had never talked about it, and, given that college was expensive and we had to make two hundred dollars of groceries last a month in a family of six, it was something I’d hesitated to bring up. I knew, vaguely, what he wanted from me: live at home, work a full time job, go to a community college in Michigan for something practical (hopefully engineering, his chosen trade) on a full ride scholarship, marry a nice boy and move in next door. It wasn’t a life I wanted for myself, but I’d also never had the perspective to imagine something greater.

“I don’t know. I want to go, I just don’t know where.”

“Well, what do you want to go for?”

I knew the answer right away: “English.” Reading and writing, the things I’d loved since I left the womb.

“Have you thought about coming to school down here, in Texas?”

The soft thrum of the local rock station filled the noise of the silence between us. No, I hadn’t. I’d never considered Texas as an option for anything other than the tri-monthly visits that enabled me to hold out through some serious bullshit. Hell, I was still at a point where I was ordering the most American I could find on the menu in Mexican restaurants. (I’ll take your most authentic chicken strips, please—and go easy on the black pepper.) I’d been primed to exist in the comfortable confines of small town, rural Midwest life.

My mom continued, choosing her words with what I now imagine was spectacular grace. “Well, I just want you to know that it’s an option. I’m here to help you, Elizabeth. I’ll help you as best I can while you’re going through school.”

I nodded, but I couldn’t fathom a word out of my mouth. How are you supposed to react when your whole perspective on the rest of your life shifts?

“There are a lot of good schools around here, if you want to look around—it’s a big state, so anything goes. I’m here if you want to talk about it. But I want you to know it’s an option.”

I don’t remember what I said, if I said anything at all. I remember the emotions battling for prime position in my body: misplaced betrayal against my dad clutching my throat, desire tickling in the pit of my stomach, anxiety-slash-excitement at the prospect of possibility sending my heart rate through the roof. I liked the idea of attending a big school, living on my own, doing things I love.

I remember how quiet the night was, the comforting embrace of Interstate Love Song, the sound of tires on a road. I remember understanding—vaguely and without words—that things could be different. That I had options. That, beyond anything else, I could connect to my mom.

My mom’s proposal opened up a new door in our relationship. Before I knew it, we were having conversations. Actual conversations—something I don’t think we’d ever had before until that summer.

I started to hint at the state of my life in Michigan, which wasn’t much of a life at all. At that point, I wasn’t allowed to leave the house or use the home phone to call friends. No one would let me work, but they wouldn’t give me food for lunch money. I was allotted certain foods in the house to eat, and I wasn’t welcome outside of my room (which also became a point of contention—how come Elizabeth never leaves her room?). My dad’s girlfriend and her two kids had moved in with us, and her son had attacked me with a knife while I was in bed about to fall asleep, had tried to hit my dad over the head with a rock. He made my life at school a living hell, since we were the same age. Home life wasn’t much better.

These were things that I’d never imagined coming out of my mouth, but somehow, it felt okay. I was growing comfortable behind the wheel, growing comfortable with my mom. Once the driver side door closed and the engine kicked to life, I was in my element. I could talk about the shit that I couldn’t even write in my diary because someone would always find it, read it, and tear me a new one for it.

In turn, she shared details of a life I’d only tangentially known. The years of pain and mistreatment that led to filing for divorce. The stalking, threats, and violence. The ache of leaving your two kids behind in an environment you knew would only hurt them, but needing to do so for your own mental wellbeing. A side to the story I’d lived but never heard. Context.

I got it. I got my mom. I could understand where she was coming from, why she’d taken the actions she’d taken, why she’d stayed in a relationship that was destined to fail for as long as she did. It was the same reasons I was still considering spending a life in Michigan living out the plans my dad had prescribed for me, despite the offer from my mom: We were as afraid of the consequences of leaving as we were with those of staying.

But driving with my mom that summer made those decisions a hell of a lot easier, because for the first time in my life I could taste freedom. Not just the freedom of the open road, but the freedom to live a life that wasn’t dictated by the fear of what would happen if I said “no.” The freedom to dream big, because there was someone there to support me no matter what path I was going to choose. The freedom of realizing that I could have a big, beautiful, full life.

I clocked in the last of my driving hours on the annual family excursion to the beaches of Port Aransas. We were only about one hundred miles into the trip, still a few hours away, when my mom let me know: “Alright, girl. You did it. Fifty hours, done. If you want to switch off, you can pull over for gas.”

So I did. As much as I’d grown to love driving, I did not enjoy it with a trailer full of beach supplies tacked onto an already long Yukon Denali—and everyone who’d had to drive with my that year was annoyed at the overly-cautious right-lane-only style it would take another year to shake.

But I scooped up the passenger seat before my stepdad could lay claim to it. I might have been done driving, but I had a hell of a lot more to learn.

Weekends at Jalopnik. Managing editor at A Girl's Guide to Cars. Lead IndyCar writer and assistant editor at Frontstretch. Novelist. Motorsport fanatic.


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