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The Toyota Yaris swerved and jerked forward; first slowly, like it was casing a potential crime scene or scanning the streets and neighborhoods looking for a lost cat. Then, a sudden burst of speed sent it shooting forward before it came to an abrupt stop. Slowly, it started forward again, gradually picking up speed for several seconds before its next unscheduled (and quite sudden) stop.

As I watched this scene play out, I knew exactly what was happening. What’s more, I’d been part of just such a situation many times myself. As I walked along the sidewalk bordering the large, empty parking lot adjacent to the high school football field, I could see a large man (Dad) uncomfortably jammed into the passenger seat of the subcompact, with his arms extended, hands firmly planted on the dashboard as he awaited the next lurch or sudden stop.

At that point, I didn’t see the driver, but I didn’t have to. I already knew who it was; this guy’s 15 or 16-year-old son or daughter, awkwardly trying to master the finer points of driving. OK, from what I saw, they hadn’t yet reached the “finer points” stage. They were working on more of a rudimentary level. Put into the context of another of life milestones – learning to walk – this kid was in the “stand up/fall down” stage.

As I walked, sometimes at a faster pace than this student-driving team as it made lap after lap around the empty (thank God) lot, I was transported back in time to this very same place; where I was the “passenger dad” riding along as Kate and Will learned to drive.

It's been a few years, and with time, memories become fonder, stories funnier, and anxious moments less angsty. That said, I remember looking forward to and enjoying the practice sessions I had with both kids. Usually, it would be a Sunday, and interestingly, I’d have to bring up the topic to get them – usually with a moderate level of reluctance -- behind the wheel.

“Let’s do some parking lot driving,” I’d say enthusiastically. Usually, the kids’ response was less energy, often something like, “How about next weekend?” or “Uh, I’m kinda tired. Maybe later.” While I was usually not one to push the kids into doing something they didn’t want to do, I knew two things about both of them: 1) they wanted to drive and 2) they didn’t want to have to learn to drive.

They weren’t alone. I remember when I was 15, and it was time to get me behind the wheel. My mom (bless her) was the parent the universe chose to ride shotgun (replete with the imaginary passenger-side brake we all hit that never seemed to work) while I careened and lurched around in a seabass green 1974 Dodge Dart, wondering why I needed a chaperone.

My mom was either the bravest, most confident parent ever, or she had a death wish because when we went driving, it wasn’t in an empty parking lot. It was on city streets. And unlike Kate and Will (who both had a healthy respect for the gravity and potential risks of driving), I was always more than ready to hit the open road and show the world what they could expect when David Haznaw turned “street legal.”

During one outing, we were driving on Western Avenue, a four-lane street with a median. Things were going well. Mom was reminding me – in her unflabbable way – to “Watch your speed … OK, let’s take this to 5th Street and turn right.” It was my third or fourth time out, and I was really starting to get the hang of it.

Until I wasn’t.

Suddenly, Mom just said, “Car.” I didn’t think much of it, since Mom’s version of raising her voice during an anxious moment was … well, she didn’t. She just said it again, with the same tone and affect, almost under her breath. “Car.” I looked at her (not a good idea when one is driving) just in time for Mom to point forward and say, “Don’t hit that parked car.”

I didn’t, but it was close.

Another time, Mom took me out on a country road so we could work on driving at highway speeds. After successfully navigating my way out of down without incident, Mom indicated to “turn right on Country Trunk Y” and, in her words, “Let’s see how this goes.” (If you know my mom, you’d know that “Let’s see how this goes” was her way of saying, “You can do this. I believe in you.”)

“And how did it go?” you ask. It went well at first, as I firmly but calmly kept my hands at 10 and 2, the proper hand positioning back then. (I think now kids are taught to keep hands at 9 and 3, maybe because it gives the airbag installed in the steering wheel more room to deploy after impact). Anyway, I felt good, really good. What I didn’t know back then (and still often forget) is that generally, when I start to feel really good about an activity, the other shoe is about to drop.

By then, I’d gotten to the point where I could hold a conversation while driving and not use all my brain power to remember all the things necessary to keep a seabass green 1974 Dodge Dart on the road. Mom and I talked and drove through the countryside on a perfectly delightful afternoon, as though we’d been doing it for years.

As I rounded a curve, I cut the corner too close, and the right front tire hit the gravel shoulder. Immediately, and without waiting for instruction (there was no time), I overcorrected, sending the Dart barreling into the left lane. Luckily, my cat-like, 15-year-old reflexes allowed me to crank the wheel back to the right, just missing the ditch and picking up a little more gravel from the shoulder before I had us back where we belonged.

I never stopped driving; didn’t say, “I’m done, you drive” or “Oh my God, I almost killed us!” No, I just kept going, slowly (too slowly for this two-lane highway), and kept my eyes forward.

The silence was heavy, and after a minute or so, I looked out the corner of my eye to see the look on Mom’s face. It was the same as always. She wasn’t upset, she wasn’t scared (on the outside anyway), and she didn’t tell me to pull over or say something like, “We’re done. You obviously aren’t ready for this.”

No, all she said was this: “You need to speed up, we’re on a highway.” We never talked about that incident. It was like it never happened.

Several months later, on a snowy February day, I got my license. And two weeks after that, I got my first speeding ticket. And during all those practice sessions, my mom never blinked, never flinched, never gasped, never even put her hands on the dashboard to keep her head from hitting the windshield.

Instead, she acted like everything I did while practice driving – the good, the bad and ugly – was happening exactly the way it was supposed to. And I tried to bring that same level of calm when I was a passenger for our kids.

I hope I did (only they can confirm or deny). And I hope that those sessions with them improved their confidence in themselves … and their trust in me. I hope it told them, “You can do this. I believe in you,” whether it was driving a car or any of the countless life decisions they’ve made and will continue to make.

Just like my mom did.

© 2023 David R. Haznaw

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