I spent yesterday with a friend. We are new at this friendship so I think of it as cultivating a friendship. Then we tend friendships if they are to have something last within us. She’s a great driver. Now don’t stop reading, there’s a point to this. My father was a great driver, he taught me the nuances of being on the road.
When I was a baby he was the salesman for American Thread and all of Pennsylvania was his territory. He drove from our house in Levittown (the second of the Levitt Brothers developments) to Wilkes-Barre and Reading and all sorts of other places where there were mills to make clothing. He was gone from our home at least three days of the week, as I recall. And then for summer vacation, he’d drive his family of five to Portsmouth, RI. He did all the driving. I remember how my mother, who didn’t smoke, would lite cigarettes for him with the lighter. (I once mentioned this to my sister and she didn’t remember this at all.)
We’d stop in Stamford, CT and then again in Mystic, CT to go to Howard Johnson’s. Then over small roads to the Newport Ferry, before the bridge. We loved the Ferry. When my parents were both living, (they divorced when I was 16) they would both bemoan the, “Are we there yet?” and “Is that Mimi’s water?” All stoney, salt water beaches was Mimi’s Water, the name we called our grandmother, our mother’s mother. There was little left of my father’s family. As an only child, his parents had died long before I was born and he had distanced himself from first cousins. . . well, to be honest, I met his first cousin at some fancy party in Fall River years later and she told me that his mother kept him separate from the other kids in his neighborhood. The telling intimated that my father’s mother was controlling. I wonder if it had to do with the fact he had bad lungs, asthmatic before inhalers.
After my parents divorced, I would visit him in Connecticut in his apartment. My sister and brother were in the area. But I have this clear memory of him telling me to take the wheel and we drove up RT 7 to Danbury. I don’t remember why but clear in my mind are the tips to attentive driving. How to use mirrors. How to ease into a curve by laying off the gas but not jamming the breaks. . “hold the wheel, you are in control of this vehicle. The car is not in control of you.” I loved that day. I wanted to be a great driver like him. I wanted to drive like a man. . .it was 1976, my mother was a skittish driver and it drove me nuts.
If I am truly honest with myself, I want to be very good at all my endeavors. Friendship included but I used to guess at that and not listen to my instincts. I also would change my ways, sublimate feelings to have the friend I thought I should have. Most of this happened after I was a mom. When I was a single parent I had no friends.
I had neighbors and acquaintances. I had people who were around but no intimate connections, nothing that took hold and grew. I have this one regret because I did not model friendship for my son. I was Mom. . . and a dad. And while I shared this memory of a driving lesson, the other side to my father was a man addicted to alcohol and perhaps other things but booze was all I knew about. He was a Jekyll and Hyde. The intellectual readers was volatile after drinking and I hid from the rage. I thought I could be both for my baby and well, I was (am) a good Mom and a mediocre dad.
I don’t owe this declaration due to gender or skills. I mean I could have married someone like my dad and that guy could not have taught my son how to catch or hit a ball. My father was a bookworm, loved reading anything about the Civil War, especially Robert E Lee. But when there are two to raise another human being and set them off on a path to adulthood (when does that happen?) you have two skill sets, two different takes on how the world works, faith, art, and perhaps how to use hand tools and pitch a tent (wait, I know that, I just don’t like to).
What I did do when my son was an infant was to take stock of what both parents gave me, taught me, or as we say now: what they brought to the table. I looked at what seemed to me were the positive and negative. I chose the positive and then learned the rest as he grew from age to age. There was lots of reading in our house. There were Muppets and Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. There was lots of music and on Friday nights I went out on the town (local bar) and he watched “Dallas” with his grandmother and stayed up late.
When he was 12, I met the man I would marry. He and I and now our teenager, walked and tripped our way through high school and all those charms. . .we read together. My guys ‘got’ each other and there were a few times my son reminded me of how good Charlie is when I was angry or hurt. But one of the real moments in those years that stand out are these: I got worked up, pissy-wet-hen-I-am-MOM and was about to storm out the door and let loose my wrath on the 18 year old smoking cigarettes and, talking on the phone, pacing in the back yard. My husband saw my steam build and blocked the door. He put his hands on my shoulders at arms distance and said, “Leave him alone. He can never do all the things I have.” He said this soft, full of love and respect for the boy he had come to call, my son.
He doesn’t drive. I really wanted to teach my son to drive but it has never happened and I stopped asking. My father died in August of 1998, both our fathers died that year. It was a hard passage for me. My friend, a great driver because she loves to, said as we wandered the north shore of Lake Travis, that she has no relationship with her father. I get it. Sometimes we need to let go, get distance (I’ve gone years without speaking to my sister and brother for a variety of reasons) and find our lives. My friend has a disorder that she will live with the rest of her life. I have my own stuff and we can talk about it openly without guilt or sadness. We laugh and yesterday in a saloon in Lago Vista, we both said: I love my life.
I would not give a farthing for any other life. After my father got sober at 60. He reinvented his life and said to me, I’m sorry. There were twelve wonderful years when I got to have the dad I always wanted. No more Mr. Hyde. . .and I know I learned in those remaining years that life was meant to be loved and not regretted.