Driving with Dad


I was never a daddy’s girl. My dad didn’t treat me like a princess, or even an expensive doll, and I refused to act like one.  He talked to me like he’d talk to anyone else, straightforward, with a slow Midwestern drawl.  He was, and still is, a great storyteller. His stories would meander with a rhythmic flow, illustrated with specific details—what someone was wearing, what they drove–and then suddenly, cut straight to the punchline.


There are a variety of reasons why I wasn’t a Daddy’s girl. First off, my father didn’t go in for the clichés; his way of connecting to his daughters was to share knowledge. It might be how to plant green beans or properly and thoroughly sweep the sidewalks, but he had a method for everything and that was his gift to us. While I appreciated not being treated like a porcelain doll, in my own quiet way, I wanted to do it myself.  As a child, and even today as an adult, I often find the best way to beat being afraid of something is to do it anyway. As a kid that was scared of everything unknown, this was a feat unto itself.


This independence clearly rubbed against my father’s way of caring for me. Really, it rubbed against his deep-seated fear that I would suffer a hurt that he couldn’t fix. I was a difficult teenager, not because I experimented with drugs or got poor grades. No, I simply didn’t take his advice. I can hear my father’s plaintive yell echo in my head “You never listen.”  I never really understood what the big deal was—if you told me not to jump off a cliff because there were rocks at the bottom, I’d figure out how to do it anyway, just to find out.  It wasn’t spite, it was the spirit of facing the challenge.  In my self-centered teenaged world, I couldn’t fathom why it would make any difference to anyone else whether I tried and failed or not. My dad, however, was imagining my broken body at the bottom of the cliff, the horrific tragedy that could be around any corner and my unwillingness to listen was infuriating.


I feel pretty confident that everyone in my family recollects the years I was in high school as one long, tense argument. My dad wanted to show me the way and I was pointedly taking my own route. There were times in my adolescent years when my family and I were able to table that mutual exasperation for one another.  My mother and I would take long walks.  My sister and I usually managed to digest whatever disagreement we were having while baking.  But perhaps the most pivotal time for me was driving with my dad.


Aforementioned independent streak might have something to do with my obsession with having my own wheels (or at least being able to borrow them on occasion).  I took the permit test the moment I was able, passed, and was ready to learn.  My mother couldn’t stomach the process. She’d white-knuckle the door handle and gasp dramatically when I turned a corner.  The job then fell to my father.


It was a far more appropriate job for him anyway. Every Sunday it became our routine.  We’d eat breakfast and I’d sip my tea and read my book while he finished reading the paper or whatever household project he’d undertaken.  He’d then stand expectantly in the door and say “Sarah, I need to go to the hardware store,” or “Your mother needs us to pick up something for dinner.”  He’d dangle the keys and I’d take them delicately, and we’d be off.


Uncharacteristically, he never gave me too much instruction.  He’d recline the seat as much as he could in the little four-door Corsica so that he could stretch his long, tired legs.  Every so often he’d offer a pointer, “treat the accelerator like there is an egg under your foot. Slow and steady.” We’d talk about politics or some other local issue, or we’d sit in comfortable silence as I maneuvered the car through the neighborhoods of our small town, past the city limits and onto the winding back roads.  The further we got from town, the more relaxed I felt, like I had melded into the upholstery and was cradled in the chassis of the vehicle.


When I finally got my driver’s license, driving was like flying. I was free.  I drove when I needed to think, when I needed to cry or yell; my cars have seen more tears from me than most people.  The car continues to be my vessel for emotion.


While my father instilled in me the ability to safely operate a motor vehicle, he gave me more than that in those Sunday driving sessions. Or, perhaps they were instilled much earlier, but awakened as we drove down the open road together.  Whatever the case, I have the same itch to wander than he has.  He taught me about the beauty of the journey.  Years later, I’d meet and marry a man that had a love affair with every part and parcel of driving—the mechanics, the skill, the systems.  He taught me to drive a stick shift and how to drive fast on the curvy country roads—where to brake and where to accelerate through turns.  We bonded over our mutual affinity for driving. Unfortunately, the relationship eventually died a slow, painful death. It was poisoned by a difference in philosophy: he loved the machine and I loved the act of going somewhere and the challenge of getting there.


I came into this philosophy naturally.  A wanderer himself, my father spent a number of years in his youth traveling across North America.  Even after settling into his family and career, our family vacations as a family reflected this mantra.  We’d pack up the car for a week and head out for points unknown.  Usually there was a vague destination in mind, but the course itself had yet to be plotted; my parents rarely made reservations anywhere. If my sister or I inquired, my father’s response invariable was “You don’t need to worry about it.  Look out the window and enjoy the scenery.” He would ruffle at our concern—he’d take care of us, not to worry.


When I lived in St. Louis, MO, my sister lived in Denver. I drove the twelve hours from St. Louis to Denver fairly often; my friends thought I was crazy for driving at all, and certainly for going it alone.  As I drove through the vast openness that is the Kansan plains, I was nearly brought to tears by the stark beauty of the landscape.  The golden fields, the turquoise sky, both occasionally dotted with the sharp shadow of a hawk flying low. I was astounded that so many people complain about the monotony of the drive—I thought I was the only one that thought this way until my mother chuckled and said “Your father loves that drive.”


As I grow older, I find that my fierce independence as an adolescent has tempered and serves me well.  I continue to feel anxious and unsettled when I go too long without the open road to open my eyes to new and different vistas.  The older I get, the more I realize that those Sunday drives were the impetus for so much more. My father, who never treated me like a princess with kid gloves, but still harbored a small flicker of fear that I’d be hurt somehow, trusted me.  He trusted me enough to recline in his seat and let me take the wheel.  As I’ve gone through my own trials and victories, he continues to worry, but for the most part is content to stand back and watch me maneuver my way through.  He has faith in me.  As I’ve grown more adept at listening and making my own decisions, when the hint of doubt creeps in, I find solace in that faith, and a sense of pride when I’m able to look out at that open road, and the bends in the distance and feel secure.