Am I Going To Be Okay?
A Memoir by Debra Whittam
The Driving Lesson
“Am I going to be okay?” It was the summer before I started kindergarten. I had just turned five that June and was sitting in the back seat of our neighbor’s 1961 Buick listening as Gladys tried to teach Mom how to drive. Mom was crying and struggling with the stick shift attempting to drive down a long, lonely stretch of road aptly named Thousand Acre Road. We were about a mile from our house just outside of our village of Delanson, New York, but it seemed as though we were in the middle of nowhere. “Am I going to be okay?” It was the first time I remember hearing those words. It would not be the last.
Mom was 4’ 11”, weighed 95 lbs. and was petrified of being in that driver’s seat. She needed to sit on two large phone books to see over the steering wheel and to reach the pedals even though the long, bench type front seat was pulled as far forward as possible. Gladys, who was a large German woman, was pressed up against the dashboard and now was more ornery than normal. Mom was begging Gladys to stop the driving lessons. She didn’t want to do it anymore.
Gladys was a part-time nurse at Ellis Hospital in Schenectady and had very little patience. I can’t imagine how she became the choice to teach Mom how to drive but here we were idling on this dirt road waiting for something to happen. Mom continued shaking and crying each time she stalled the car, trying unsuccessfully to get it into first gear. Gladys firmly commanded her to stop crying, let out the clutch, push on the gas, and “drive the goddamn car!” This only caused Mom to escalate into a higher level of panic. She looked over her shoulder at me with tear-filled eyes, pleading for help, “Debbie, am I going to be okay?”
“Yes, Mom,” I said in the most reassuring voice my five-year-old self could come up with. “Isn’t this fun?”
“Oh, for Christ sake, Judy,” Gladys bellowed from the passenger side, “Let your foot off the clutch, push on the goddamn gas and drive!” She didn’t want to remain in that car much longer either. I took in the tension of that scene, wanting to be as calm, clear-headed, and loving as I could be. I knew Gladys’ harsh ways wouldn’t work. Interestingly, most people Mom was surrounded by were like Gladys – Dad, my aunts and uncles, and friends – all impatient with her fears of everything.
“Mom, you are going to be okay,” I encouraged her as I repeatedly jumped up from my seat and leaned over the long, hard ridge along the back of her seat. My stomach ached from balancing on it so I could show her the gears and pedals. There were no seat belts in those days so I was free to see and be a part of the drama unfolding before me.
Mom was in her early twenties when I was born. At this point, five years later, she realized if we waited for my father to drive us anywhere, like to the movies to see Disney’s Cinderella, it wasn’t going to happen. Dad had far more important things to do. He felt his time would be wasted doing something as silly as a movie. She and I were on our own to see the ‘magical world of Disney’ or any of the rest of the world at all. She had never wanted to drive, ever. I remember thinking if I could drive at the age of five, it would’ve been fine with her. Mom’s desire to get out of town for the 25-mile drive to Schenectady motivated her to overcome her anxieties and get off the sofa and learn to drive. We were both excited to plan a trip to “the city” for a movie at Proctors Theater with lunch at Carl’s Department Store afterward. It was a very high society thing to do back then. Plus the thing that motivated Mom most was my aunts could all drive, and she wanted to keep up with what they were doing.
It was second nature for me, even that early on, to reassure her that everything was going to be okay. The reality was, with Mom at the wheel, we were not okay at all. I was sure from my perch balancing on my stomach that I had a far better view of the road than she did.
Mom was peaceful, calm and content only when she was lying on her right side on the left corner of the sofa. Any plans or action much more than that could cause her anxieties to rise dramatically, sometimes even bringing her to the point of blanking out.
It took every kind of fortitude for Mom to stay in the car and attempt again and again to make it move forward. Her anxieties were equal to a commander of a shuttle about to blast off. This car was way too much for Mom, and she wanted to be at home on her sofa.
Gladys had been our next-door neighbor for three years now ever since we moved into the three bedroom ranch home my parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles worked hard to build in 1959. She had talked Mom off the ledge many times before this. Once, I got my finger stuck in the front screen door of our house. Mom screamed and ran to Gladys’ house, leaving me stuck in the door. Left there to fend for myself, a pattern that followed throughout my life, I had a twinge of panic that she just might not come back. I jiggled the handle of the metal door and finally got my finger out by myself.
I was crying when Mom and Gladys found me sitting on the front porch sucking on my finger. I wasn’t as upset about the pain of my smashed finger as I was scared and needed my Mom. As the two of them walked across the grass between our houses, there was no more panic in Mom’s eyes. They were giggling and looked like there was some inside joke. Mom looked at me and said, “Oh stop crying. You’re fine.”
She and Gladys went inside the house as I sat there on the cold cement, confused. That didn’t seem very nice. I needed someone to tell ME that everything was going to be okay. I still wanted to be taken care of. It was ever so subtle but the message was clear. It was almost as though I had done something wrong. Shame and subtle ridicule was the sound of Mom’s reassurance. Most problems I encountered in my young life, either physically or emotionally, were either because I had done something wrong, or there was something wrong with me. Those were the choices. Let the ridicule begin.
However, back on that day of the driving lesson, I took in every look on Mom’s face as she struggled through the hell of those moments. Here she was trembling with fear behind the wheel of this monster moving vehicle and enduring being bellowed at by Gladys. “Can we just go home?” she asked. She was finished for the day!
From an early age, I was intensely aware of her every worry, every fear. It became a normal part of my life. I took in every look on Mom’s face, every choking catch in her throat. I wanted to rescue her, help her, and make her fears go away. I wanted to make her happy. Years later, I had more of a love/hate relationship with that part of her, but at the time, her survival was my main concern.
I kept reassuring her, “Mom it’s going to be okay – just let go of that pedal thing, push on that pedal over there and the stick thingy does an H. First, go up on the top – on that side of the H.” I pointed to where she needed to have her hands and feet to make the car move and not stall. I had paid close attention to Dad when he tried to teach Mom to drive many times before. In Dad’s car, Mom needed three phone books and chunks of wood taped to the pedals in order to see over the steering wheel. Dad wouldn’t let her move the seat forward. He refused to be smashed up against the dashboard. My guess is Gladys took over those lessons when things with Dad didn’t go so well. But, at least, I learned. He was my role model for everything, like being strong, courageous and powerful. I wanted to be just like him.
I watched how he did most everything and I still have many of his mannerisms and sayings today. “Shit or get off the pot” is one. It flows right off the tongue. So, in that car with Gladys, it was now my turn to help Mom… to be the one who saved her with kindness and patience. She paid attention to me when I did that.
“Yes, Mom, you are going to be okay.” It was exhausting work to reassure her since these emotional upheavals happened often. I don’t remember hearing her say those things back to me. But, she must have.
Finally, figuring there was no other way out of this mess, Mom shored up the courage from somewhere, managed to push on something right, and the car moved forward without stalling. I looked at her saying softly, “Yea, Mom!” She turned to look at me, and her body relaxed just a little bit. I was relieved to see her less terrified. Mom was going to be okay, and I was, too.
Mom smiled with pride as she continued driving 20 miles an hour down the road. Then, Gladys said, “Jesus Christ, Judy, you need a five-year-old to get you to push the goddamn gas.”
Mom did eventually learn how to drive and passed her driver’s test after two attempts. The one and only time she ever got drunk was at the celebration party the neighbors gave her the following weekend. It was as though there was a collective, “Thank God, the driving lessons are over.”
Mom and Gladys remained good friends until Gladys passed away in 1999 from Multiple Sclerosis. Mom visited her often through her last years bringing baked goods and helping Gladys as best she could, and as much as Gladys would allow.
Mom never touched a cigarette to her own lips denouncing Dad’s smoking as a filthy habit. Yet, she held many a cigarette up to Gladys’ lips when Gladys could no longer maneuver her fingers on her own. These two women were always there to support one another.
Mom continually asked whoever would listen in any given situation, “Am I going to be okay?” It bothered the hell out of all of us. However, when I was that young, being able to help my Mom feel better was one of the first thrills of my life. It was gratifying to hear her say, “Oh, Debbie, thank you. I don’t know what I’d do without you!” In that moment, she needed me.