We had just pulled into line for the tollbooth to the San Francisco Bay Bridge. The previous twenty minutes, in the driver’s seat of my little blue Honda station wagon, with Dad as my passenger, I had merged through heavy traffic onto Interstate 80.
My father had started this journey vigilant, craning his neck to watch for enemy cars. He’d barked out a warning to me once, while his left leg pumped like an oilrig as he worked his faux brake on the passenger side.
By the time we reached the Bay Bridge tollbooth, he’d fallen silent. He stared straight ahead. I knew that, as a driver of country roads and small cities, Dad had never seen traffic like this. And now he was in his daughter’s hands. The sense of power over my father—a first—made me smile.
I had driven this route hundreds of times, having lived for five years in the Bay Area. I was a confident driver.
At fifteen, I took Drivers Ed in summer school, but I didn’t learn to drive in class. That happened after school, when my father met me at the bus stop in his sparkling maroon Buick. Descending the steps of the small, yellow bus, I would start to sweat, as if heading to a guillotine. Dad would get out of the car, walk slowly around to the passenger’s side, and watch while I plunked myself clumsily into the driver’s seat.
Self-conscious, as gawky as a newborn calf, I’d always do something wrong: drop my books in the road or slam my skirt in the door. Once, finally settled in to start the lesson, I turned on the ignition, only to hear a terrible grinding sound. Instinctively I turned the key a second time. Same loud teeth-on-edge, grating noise. Had I killed the car? No. My father had left the Buick running. In my anxiety I hadn’t noticed.
I remember his half-sigh, the tick of his tongue: disgust and resignation at yet another one of his daughter’s mistakes. It was never what my father said to me: it was the silence and the little sigh/snort when I cut a turn too close or braked too suddenly. His standard was perfection, his belief in me: zero. I always felt I had fulfilled his expectations.
Freedom was worth his scorn. It was something every kid in tiny Sandy Creek, New York, understood. In that town, where the population was sparse but the distances long, driving meant you could get away – from your parents, from your neighbors, from all the constraints of small town life.
Twenty years later, as I wove through the heavy Bay Area traffic with my father silent in the passenger’s seat, I knew he was watching me. It evoked those summer afternoon driving lessons. I felt fifteen again, uneasy, too aware of my body. The cars were backing up ahead of us, and I downshifted into second.
Then he said it. I guess you’ve become a good driver after all.
The only compliment he ever gave me.
My father cared deeply about his cars — Studebaker sedan, 1959 Chrysler with its elegant tail fins, the Buick, a Ford Mustang. He always kept them spotless, with fresh oil and a full tank.
In my 30s as I trained to be a psychotherapist, I had a supervisor who said something I never forgot. Always listen hard when your clients talk about their cars. They’re really talking about themselves. I couldn’t help but be reminded of my father.
I think Dad’s cars reflected how he wanted to be seen: smooth, stylish. He took care of them in a way he could never take care of himself
I can’t remember exactly when the alcohol took my father over. It was coming on, I know, when I was in high school. Dinners became tense. Gradually the scotch was turning my father mean.
I didn’t come back to Sandy Creek much during college. And in May of my senior year I found a job to put a thousand miles between my father and me. With B.A. in hand, I’d go to South Carolina. For graduation, my father gave me a used red Ford Pinto with a standard transmission. I’d only driven automatics.
I was going to have to learn to drive all over again, and Dad would have to teach me.
Trapped with my father in that small, red tin can, I‘d be sweating, frantically moving my hands and feet as if playing a pipe organ. Next to me, silent except for sarcastic little laughs and the occasional cry of Clutch! Clutch!, my father worked his imaginary pedals while his right fist simulated the shift.
Motivated to put Sandy Creek in the rearview mirror, I learned more quickly this time.
In 1984 Dad drank his way through my mother’s fatal bout with cancer. I took a leave of absence from my San Francisco job to come home to be with her. It was autumn in Sandy Creek, leaves yellow, orange, and dying, and the evenings getting colder. By the ash-laden fireplace with no warming blaze, he’d sit in his recliner, sipping scotch, the television tuned to football. In the next room, beside the newly delivered hospital bed, I would read to my dozing mother.
Back in San Francisco, I telephoned him every few days in the months after my mother died. I made sure it wasn’t in the evening, east coast time, but it became clear I could never call early enough if I wanted to catch him sober.
There wasn’t much to talk about. I don’t think he even drove the two blocks to downtown anymore. The liquor store delivered.
I’d end my cross-country conversations with I love you, Dad. There would be a pause before he’d slur, Thank you.
My father died in 1991 at age 74. Kidney cancer. He drank until he couldn’t hold a glass. My brothers were grateful that I’d go to Florida to deal with the body.
I found myself at a Dunedin funeral home, in a dimly lit, burgundy-colored room that smelled like cheap perfume. I was alone with Dad’s body. He was wearing a limp, brown suit, his face already skeletal. I stood there for a few minutes, then left my father, closing the door behind me.
I have a photo. Black-and-white, 1954. Side by side: my father and his amber Studebaker, Dad’s hand placed lovingly on its roof. Both the car and my father’s dark hair glint in the sun. My father’s expression is pure satisfaction – with himself and his handsome, elegant car.