We have a new driver in our house. She’s 16. Two weeks with her new permit means she is spending a lot of quality time with her driving partner — me, the mom. Potholes, one-way streets, treacherous left-hand turns, faded yellow lines and pedestrians have screeched to the front of my reality.  

She’s driven on the highway, twice; parallel parked, once; driven at night, once; almost driven the wrong way down a one-way street, twice; pulled out into the wrong lane in front of a cop, once; almost (to my now passenger-seat perspective) hit several parked cars; missed backing into a telephone pole by 2 inches, and, after traveling Forest Avenue for her entire life, asked, “Is this Forest Avenue, Mom?”

I’m developing tics. My knees knock together with the force of a bell if I sense danger, and I’ve started snapping my fingers at oncoming traffic, left-hand turns and on-ramps.

Can we talk about left-hand turns? Seriously, there’s a lot going on during a left-hand turn: Get in the correct lane, inch forward and God forbid if there is something blocking our (yes, our) vision. Hello, snowbanks, can’t wait! I just want to be the right-hand turn parent.

Many streets in Portland are missing their white and yellow dividing lines. And, news to me, there is supposed to be a bold white line at the end of every street before a stop sign or stoplight.

“Huh? What white line?” I said when my daughter started talking about this mysterious white line at the end of the street.

“Mom!”  “Gawd.” “The white line! You are supposed to stop before the white line and then inch forward, look both ways and go,” she explained.

Well, darned if she wasn’t right. There are bold white lines everywhere, and it’s so helpful when I stop, inch forward and then go.

It took me three tries to get my driver’s license in the mid-’70s. When I finished the road test for the second time, my mom and I waited in the car for the results. When the guy (it was always a guy) said that I had failed, again, I melted to the floor on the passenger side and cried like a baby.

My mom, the most sympathetic person I have ever met — after I gained 30 pounds one summer, she looked me straight in the eye and told me that I looked wonderful — assured me that I would pass the next time. Well, let’s hope so, I thought. It was the end of my world as I knew it.

With five kids, my parents already had two on the road and one, me, desperately trying. The fourth was just 18 months away from driver’s ed. She was a better student than I, and history proves that she passed her road test on the first try.

The second and the only boy had technically been driving since he was 8. He used to drive my parents’ car up and down the driveway for hours when my parents were not home. Or maybe they were home and it kept him busy. 

The fifth child, 10 years from even thinking about driving, was my parents’ bonus baby — one of a crop of bonus babies in 1969 in our small central Maine town and possibly our parents’ way of flipping off those naked hippies on TV. “Free love? I’ll show you free love.”

My dad was one of the adults in charge when we all learned to drive. The other was my grandmother, who had not driven a car since 1952.

My dad was a totally chill driving instructor. I don’t remember him yelling or even commenting. I think it was an excuse to get out of the house. He sat back, smoked his pipe and gave us the occasional, “You’re doing great.”

My grandmother, who had retired from the Skowhegan woolen mills by the time we all started driving, kept her license current and voluntarily put her life in our hands, one grandchild after the other. Her imaginary passenger-seat brake and the fifth of whiskey she packed in her suitcase when visiting her only daughter’s out-of-control children kept her safe.

When my dad was not playing driving instructor, he was a world-class yeller. He grew up in a supersized family, and our relatively small family of seven brought out the fight in him.

Like all parents, I am determined not to repeat my family history. I check myself whenever I feel my voice rise.

If I do raise my voice, for example, to prevent crashing into a car or, say, hitting a cop, my daughter experiences it like I’m beating her with a stick.

“Mom, don’t yell at me,” she pleads in her tiny little voice.

“Breathe,” I respond. 

Jolene McGowan lives and works in Portland with her husband, daughter and dog and has no plans to leave, ever. She can be contacted at:

[email protected]


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