TBT: My Car, My Step-dad, and Me

This week’s posts about timid drivers and the discussion about bad day birthdays got me to thinking about my stepdad.  Specifically, some experiences we shared while I was learning to drive.

When I turned 16, I bought a 1972 VW bug in bad need of a paint job from my grandparents.  I paid them something like $50 a month for a year.  In the months and years leading up to that birthday, I had insisted that I would take any car, ANY car, except a bug.  I don’t know why I hated them so much, but I did.  By the time I turned 16 though, an 18 year old hand-me-down bug for $600 seemed just fine, thank you very much.

Now, this car had more issues than peeling paint.  It also had a sticky throttle.  Sometimes I’d pull up to a stoplight and the engine would begin to race.  I’d have to put the car in neutral, engage the parking brake, run around to the back where the engine was, pop the ‘hood’, push the throttle thingy back down, and then race back to the driver’s seat, put it back in gear, and take off before the car behind me honked.  If I was lucky, I was transporting either my little brother or my boyfriend, both of whom had been trained to hop out and do it for me.  Sometimes I wonder how much experiences like that keep you humble.

Anyway, before I was trusted to drive around by myself or with other young passengers, a lot of time was spent driving around the neighborhood with one of my parents.  It was a manual transmission, quite different from the automatics that we learned with in my Driver’s Ed class at school.

The neighborhood had a lot of hills and I’d typically pick routes that would not force me to stop on a steep uphill incline.  I hadn’t yet mastered the (now probably lost) art of balancing my left and right feet on the clutch and gas to keep the car stationary and then gently transition to forward progress.  It seemed like a good plan to get good at that on flat surfaces before attempting hills.

My stepdad had a different view of the world though.  He was more in the tradition of “sink or swim” training.  So one day, he directed my progress and it resulted in me stopping at a stop sign at the top of the steepest of steep hills in the neighborhood.  I protested as we approached, saying I wouldn’t be able to start up again.  He said yes I would.  Shortly after I stopped, a car came up behind me.  I began to sweat.  I rolled (yes, actually manually rolled) down the window and tried to motion them to go around me.

I can’t remember now what happened next.  Maybe I’ve fused several memories into one.  I don’t remember if they went around me or refused.  I don’t remember whether I stubbornly stayed put or gunned it.  I don’t remember if I successfully (but with a really revved up engine) passed through the intersection or if I killed it or rolled all the way down the hill.  It seems like I had all of those experiences.  Obviously, I eventually left the hill.  All I know for sure is that I was irritated with him.

I doubt it was that same trip, but on one such neighborhood tour, he insisted when we returned home that I back into the driveway.  I’ve noticed over the years that most people don’t back into their driveways.  Most pull in and then back out.  Both my mother and my stepfather, however, strongly believed that you should back into the driveway and pull out.  The best explanation that I was given was that on icy days, it was easier to exit if you had previously backed in.  If I pointed out the unlikeliness of getting iced-in during the summer months, for example, I’d be told that it was important to keep good habits.

Anyway, I began to pull into the driveway one day and he told me to back in.  His car was already in the driveway and I told him I wasn’t comfortable backing in with it there.  He told me I needed to learn and to do it anyway.  I insisted that I wasn’t comfortable.  He insisted that I do it anyway.

“Fine!” I finally responded angrily.  I pulled either down the street or into the drive across from us, threw my arm over the seat, and looked over my shoulder as I began to maneuver into the driveway.  Likewise, he looked over his right shoulder to watch my proximity to his car.

“You are getting close to the Ford,” he said.  I corrected my motion some.

“You are getting too close to the Ford!” he said again.  I made another adjustment.

“You are getting too…” {{BAM!!}}  “…You just hit the Ford!”

I quickly adjusted the car and hopped out.  So did he.  We were both angrily yelling at each other about the accident that had just occurred in the driveway.  He was yelling about how he had been telling me I was getting too close and I didn’t adjust.  I was yelling about how I told him I didn’t feel comfortable backing into the driveway but he just wouldn’t listen.  My mom came hurrying down the sidewalk from the front door: “What is going on?!”

“She just hit the Ford!”

“He made me back into the driveway!”

I don’t remember anything after this.  I think they made some deal about them paying for repairing my car and painting it if I just did XYZ.  I never did XYZ.  I don’t know why.  I came to love my little bug in serious need of a paint job and a nice dent in the rear passenger-side fender.  It was a very nice match to my platform shoes, bell-bottom jeans, and rainbow sunglasses that I wore to the band’s “hippie dance”.  And it got me where I needed to go.  Most of the time.

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Your Laugh

Dear Papa Bill,

I thought about you a lot tonight. It was my first year to participate in Relay for Life since shortly after Hal was born. I lined up next to the track for the Survivor Walk and before the first survivor reached me, I was fighting back tears. You were a survivor for quite awhile but eventually cancer took you from us. I was 32. Jane was 5. Daryl was 2.

Mom moved on. She’s happy again. I think you’d be pleased to know that. It wasn’t an easy trial to pass through but she’s doing alright. She has a good man in her life. He knew you and respects your memory. Five years ago, they sold the house that we lived in all those years and moved across town.

I was pregnant with Hal and picked the move day to share that with her. It might not have been the best idea I’ve ever had. Telling her that news on such a fragile day. She burst into tears, which surprised me… until she explained why. It was you. You wouldn’t ever meet Hal. Wouldn’t hold him, smile at him, make him laugh.

That was one of the last things that you and I talked about, there in the hospital when we all knew it was the end. You wanted your grandchildren to remember you. You were pragmatic about it. You knew that Aaron’s kids and Daryl were too young.

And so it was that I found myself walking the track tonight, holding Daryl’s hand. He asked me why I was sad. I told him that I missed you and then he asked why.

“Because he was my Daddy,” I said.

“I thought Grandpa Ed was your Dad.”

“He was. And is. Papa Bill was my step-dad, but really he was my daddy too.”

“Oh.”

“Do you remember him?” I held my breath. I was pretty sure I knew the answer.

“Not really.” {long pause} “Wait. Didn’t he have like a little beard? And glasses! I remember his glasses.”

Maybe he just remembers you from pictures or maybe he really remembers you, but I’ll take the comfort he threw my way tonight.

Later on, I was walking the Luminaria Walk with Jane. We walked hand-in-hand as I thought about you. And Aunt Barbara. And the kids’ godmother. And other people. But mostly you.

I thought about how we were so close when I was little and how we had grown apart when I married. I thought about how you weren’t perfect, how I had struggled with that once I was old enough to see it. I thought about how much you loved me and Aaron and mom. I remembered when I scratched my initials and yours in the wallpaper of the bathroom with a plus sign in between and “= love 4ever” after it. And then I began to sob.

Jane wrapped her arm around me and we continued to walk in a silent hug. I was grateful for the dark that hid my tears but even more grateful for the beautiful, wonderful girl walking beside me. I battled inside about whether to ask her the same question I asked Daryl. I was scared to hear the response.

You see, when we talked that last time, you knew Daryl wouldn’t remember you. It hurt, I could tell, but you accepted it. It was vitally important to you, however, that Jane remember. You were confident that she was old enough. Your greatest fear was that she wouldn’t. You didn’t want to be forgotten.

She remembered you intensely for a very long time. She’d burst into tears at random moments and tell us that she missed her Papa Bill. For a couple of years, she was very sensitive about sad events. She cried watching Because of Winn-Dixie because it reminded her of losing you. Now, everyone cries at the end of Old Yeller, but when she cried, she was thinking of you.

Most everyone moves on, given enough time…especially if they are young, and eventually she did too. I can still hear her little preschool voice saying “Papa Bill” – she said “Bill” more like “Bea-ul”. But now, her life is full of many things. I didn’t know if she remembered you or not.

So I kept warring with myself on whether to ask her. To know that she did would warm my heart. To know that she didn’t would break it.

She let go of my shoulders and took my hand, mumbling an apology about it being too hot. I tentatively asked her if she remembered you.

“Barely,” she responded, with a careful look at my face. “I remember what he looked like. And I remember his laugh.”

She remembers your laugh. I think that if she was destined to remember only one thing, that was the best thing to remember. She remembers your laugh and I hope that’s enough. I love you and miss you.

Your daughter,