Yet Intact
stories from a life in progress

Driving High
Harilyn Rousso


When my mother announced that she was giving me driving lessons, our family doctor did not approve. Given my disability -- cerebral palsy involving some involuntary movement in my arms and legs -- he said he'd be afraid to be on the road with me. "So take the train," my mother suggested.

I, too, had doubts about my driving, but these had little to do with my physical reality. The image of myself as a driver was incongruous with some internal experience I had of myself of needing to be cared for and directed, of not being able to be in the driver's seat of my own life. There was something comforting and familiar about being driven around, of being picked up and delivered. Some of my fondest childhood memories were adventures in which my mother was behind the wheel, taking me shopping in some exotic store or to an out-of-the-way restaurant. My preference for passenger status held fast even though I was otherwise radically independent, stubbornly making my own life decisions regardless of what anyone thought.

My mother recognized this incongruity or lapse in my independent self and sought to remedy it by insisting that I become a driver. Although it would take her several years of coaxing to overcome my resistance, she was persistent. She understood the dangerous consequences of surrendering to the impulse to let others take charge. My mother was strong and feisty and in many ways epitomized the independent woman. But when it came to major family decisions, she too often succumbed to being submissive and a "good girl"-- Dad ruled. This was partly how she came to find herself living far from friends and family in suburbia. In this situation, learning how to drive, largely without the help or blessing of my father, became her salvation.

I remember my mother's stories of how she conquered the gray 1951 Oldsmobile in our driveway. After my father went to work, and we went to school, she would slowly back the car out, careful to avoid decapitating the red and yellow tulips around the edges of the lawn, and then practice right, left and U-turns in the tree-lined neighborhood streets now devoid of school children. As she described it, parallel parking was the trickiest to master without the help of an experienced pair of eyes to guide her. But she would pick her victims carefully -- already bruised cars that wouldn't mind another notch on their fenders should she miscalculate as she maneuvered to park behind them.

Our neighbors were far from pleased. "I'll call the police if you don't stop driving without a license," the woman living next door yelled. "Mind your own business or I'll report your son for playing hooky," was my mother's immediate response. For her, taking on the police force seemed less daunting than being imprisoned in our less-than-stimulating neighborhood. She secured her license only after repeated tries. Then the world was hers. "Have you heard from Mom?" became my father's most frequently asked question, as he waited for her to show up, hours behind schedule, to cook his dinner and behave like his wife.

After learning to drive, my mother was eager to teach others in need of liberation; I was her most resistant pupil. It was the prospect of renting a car in the British Isles during an upcoming vacation that finally got me to succumb to her wishes. By then I was in my late twenties and no longer living at home. It was grandiosity to think I could drive on the left side of the road when I had not yet mastered the right. But I was still young and eager to please my licenseless traveling companion, a childhood friend who had lived in Scotland and promised to show all, if I would do the driving. My mother seized her moment and showed up on my doorstep two or three times a week for almost two months to give me driving practice. I remember almost smacking a bus once, and going the wrong way down a one way street, but none of my misjudgments seemed to faze my mother. She showed fearlessness and perfect confidence that I could do this, I would do this, and I would like it. The promise of a delicious steak dinner at the end of each session and her unshakable will got me through those initial near-disasters.

As skill replaced images of myself lying dead on the highway, I was surprised to discover an amazing sense of mastery and freedom emerging. I could drive myself anywhere in the world, not dependent on anyone else's desires or whims! My fantasies started nationally as I imagined driving to New Mexico to eyeball the magnificent red, orange and purple sunsets while pretending to be Georgia O'Keefe, or journeying to Cape Cod to talk with the ocean and walk naked on the beach. Then I became more expansive, imagining myself driving to kiss the Blarney stone and speeding past our family doctor to give him the finger. As I shared with my mother, tentatively at first, my new found sense of freedom, and began reeling off all the adventures I might undertake, she shrieked with pleasure and said "Let's go." Her enormous enthusiasm surprised me. I suppose I had feared abandonment; I thought that if I truly become independent, she would be gone. But clearly she would not let me go so easily.

When I got my license on the first try, we celebrated with steaks, but as an appetizer she insisted on teaching me how to get on and off the Long Island Expressway so that I could drive to her house. The trip to the British Isles never materialized, but it had already served its purpose.

When I drive now, almost a quarter of a century later, whether on expeditions to freedom or journeys to fulfill burdensome responsibilities, my mother is always there, calming me in stalled traffic, beckoning me to undertake outrageous adventures, and warning me against the temptation to be a passenger.


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