Driving

The first time I tried driving, my mother took me to the same spots she had taken my three siblings. We started in our church parking lot, which went quite well. She was so confident in my ability that she let me hit the mean streets of Mohawk. Everything was going fine until it started raining, hard, at which point I fiddled switches until I had my lights and wipers going. By the time we got home, we were getting angry beeps and shouts. My high-beams were on. (In retrospect, I’ve seen people do this and while people might get irritated, it seems like all these people were having a REALLY bad day, excessively freaking out.)

My mother was at the end of her rope. It wasn’t a huge deal, but she angrily slammed the door and muttered throughout the kitchen that she “couldn’t do this one more time; three was enough.” I understood. She had already diligently taught my brothers and sister how to drive; her wits were shot. But, it still saddened me. 

But, then appeared a beacon. My normally quiet stepfather chimed in. “I can teach her to drive. I’m sure she’ll do great.” 

It was the first time that I found myself excited to spend time with him. For the previous two years, I had made life for Jerry a veritable hell under our roof. He was one of the kindest people I had ever met, yet the simple idea of him and his entrance into our family, I took like an immature brat. There was a lot of hurt in my heart and I thrust it all upon him in heaps of the silence treatment and corrections (I’ve always been the grammar police, but his intelligence has always been of a technical/mechanical ilk; thus, I attacked). 

So, we hit the road a few times. 

That summer, I signed up for driver’s ed classes. The instructor had warned us not to do “too many lessons” since he’d have to fix incorrect driving methods. Unfortunately, I was stuck with a different fellow and had next to no skills aside from the occasional drive. He took to taunting me in other classes (a friend relayed to me) and cut my confidence down. Far. I learned next to nothing from the man but to fear driving and hold the wheel. I improved, much to his chagrin, but only from Jerry’s efforts.

The only bright spot that summer were the rides I took with Jerry. Getting behind the wheel with him was a joy rather than a lesson in humility. We would listen to the oldies station (which we both enjoyed) and he would simply tell me to drive. He would sometimes lean back in the seat and pretend to take a nap; he was actually quite awake, keeping an eye on me, but silently reminding me that he trusted my driving. I only got us lost once, and he immediately knew what strange back road I had happened upon, getting us back on track without a single scold. We would often end up at a local ice cream joint before heading home. 

Any time we had an errand to run, I drove, learning how to park in the busiest of situations. He took me a couple of times to try 3-point and parallel parking; with him, it was easy and simple compared to the high-stress situation at summer school. When I suddenly returned knowing how to park, the instructor was palpably frustrated. It felt great.

I “passed” my class, but continued driving with Jerry. He brought me to my driving test and happened to know the gentleman overseeing the thing; distracted, the man signed off on my sheet before I had clicked my buckle. Luckily, I did fine (well, my parallel park was kind of crappy; I’ve since mastered it) and earned my license.

That winter, as a good-sized squall started outside, he called out to my mother that we needed to go pick up some ice cream. Why on Earth he wanted to get ice cream was beyond me, especially with an impending blizzard, but I went. He hopped in the driver’s seat. After driving a block, he pulled over and told me to get out. We switched seats and headed to the next town, back tires shifting and sliding in the building slush. On the way home, the snow had become white-out conditions. I was at the front of a row of drivers, but he kept me calm. He explained that I should follow the ruts of the driver before me and how braking is an entirely different beast in the snow. Every time I’m caught in snow (which, in Central New York, is about half the year), I remember that experience. 

I have since learned countless other lessons from this man. He couldn’t wait for me to get my first house and help me fix it up; turns out, he also ended up teaching my husband (who has been such an eager learner, I couldn’t be prouder) about plumbing, electrical, and hundreds of other home improvement things. Now that Jerry’s older, we find ourselves sad to think that he won’t be as hands-on with any future home we finally hunt down.

But, beyond those practical lessons, he has become a guide. Time changes minds and hearts, and through his quietness, occasional common sense opinions, and dry but hilarious sense of humor, he has made himself an essential cog in our family. There was a time that I insisted that any child of mine wouldn’t call him “Grandpa”, but today I welcome the name (although Hadley actually refers to him as “Papa”, which is just fine). There was a time I wanted Mom or maybe my dear grandfather to walk me down the aisle; on the special day, I instead asked Mom and Jerry, both, to be at my side. 

There was also a time that I could picture him outlasting all of us, with a youthful energy and endurance to undertake more puttering and heavy-duty outdoor tasks in a day than a man a quarter of his age. Unfortunately, while he’s still as virile as any of us, he has been forced to slow down by some health complications. We are reminded that we will not always have our practical guide to turn to, and it brings me tears to think we’ll lose another father. When I hear people younger than him complain about getting older and “not being around forever”, I find myself angered that they don’t do more with their youth while they have it. Jerry is no self-pitier, nor should anyone be.

So, with Father’s Day upon us, I hope this year to salute not only the father of my children, whom I am grateful for on a daily basis, and all the fatherly figures who have touched our lives and hearts in so many ways, but specifically Jerry, who gets little credit for the huge job he has happily taken on. For those fathers who may not be related by blood, but have quietly fought their ways into our rude little hearts. For those fathers who had a choice, and regardless of the mountainous task ahead, took that choice to be someone’s father and to fill the role.

And for teaching me how to check my oil, I thank him. 

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