It’s strange to think how far we’ve come in one generation although I suppose that every generation feels the same. My parents didn’t grow up with cars. My mother’s first experience behind the wheel of a vehicle was almost her last. My Dad was away at his job for the Department of Highways back in the late 1940’s and Mom was at home on the farm near Noelville in Northern Ontario.
They had hired a man to help with the hay while Dad was at work so she and the hired man were forking hay into the wagon when the unthinkable happened. Mom decided she needed a drink of water so she gave the pitchfork she’d been using a hard thrust to stand it upright in the hay that lay knee deep where they stood. The hired man straightened with a grunt and Mom glanced over, a question in her eyes.
“You stuck the fork through my foot,” he announced in a calm voice that was at odds with the way his face drained of color.
“Oh, no!” she cried dropping to her knees to brush the hay aside. Sure enough, the fork had gone straight through the top of his foot to pin him neatly to the earth. She lifted tear filled eyes to stare at him and tried to think through her panic. It was a disaster and it was her fault.
“You’d better pull it out,” he instructed through gritted teeth… “One quick pull.”
She took a deep breath and pulled the fork free, tossing it aside before helping him to the front seat of the truck he’d arrived in. They managed to get his boot off and staunch the bleeding with a couple of handkerchiefs but she knew she had to get him to the Doctor and there was only one way to do it. She never could remember how she managed to get the truck started and into first gear or how she was able to keep it on the road and pointed in the right direction on that drive into Noelville. It was only later, sitting in the parking lot at the hospital that reaction set in. The hired man had been admitted and she sat behind the wheel of the truck in a state of near paralysis. A policeman happened by and stopped to ask what the problem was.
“I can’t get home,” she responded in a forlorn voice. “I don’t know how to drive.”
It was at least fifteen years before Mom worked up the nerve to try driving once again. We owned a black Volkswagen Beetle and my oldest brother, Richard, decided he would teach her. My Dad was only too glad to let him. He could guess at just how stressful that undertaking would be and he wisely chose to stay out of it. Mom couldn’t seem to get behind the wheel without falling into a state of near panic. It was a tribute to her force of will and Richard’s determination that they persevered. The first time Mom drove on the highway she got a ticket for driving too slowly and holding up traffic. In the end she couldn’t pass her road test because she got so flustered when she attempted to parallel park that she ended up backing over the curb and up onto the sidewalk. No matter how hard she tried to correct the problem she wound up back on the sidewalk each time. Much to her disgust, her second road test also failed and for the same reason. She refused to give up though. She practiced relentlessly and it was on her third try that she finally succeeded and came home a fully licensed driver. It gave her a measure of independence that she treasured.
Of course, that didn’t mean she was a great driver. She never fully relaxed in a car. Even when my parents went from a standard to an automatic she still used both feet to drive. She always gripped the steering wheel with her two hands, knuckles white with tension. She would sit leaning forward with her chin thrust out and her shoulders hunched, a look of intense concentration pinching her face. It didn’t inspire confidence in those of us who were passengers. I always imagined that was exactly how she must have looked on that long ago day when she drove the truck all the way to Noelville to get the hired man to the help he needed. Back then the hired man had problems of his own and probably didn’t notice.
I have to admit that in spite of her anxieties or maybe because of them, she never had an accident in all her years of driving. She may have looked awkward and even a little frightening in the driver’s seat but she managed to stay safe all the same. I can’t be too critical since she was the one who ended up teaching me when it was my turn.