Driving Backwards


            I was sixteen years old and held a long coveted driver’s permit in my wallet. My fingers trembled as they adjusted the rear view and side view mirrors on my father’s 1963 Chevy Impala, it’s turquoise blue paint job sparkling in the sunshine of an autumn Saturday afternoon.
            “Start the engine,” Daddy said.
            I twisted the key in the ignition and the car shuddered into life. I pulled away from the curb using the proper hand signals and set off for a practice drive. At the corner I slowed for a stop sign and heard the familiar admonition from Daddy, “It says STOP, not SLOW DOWN.” But he said it good naturedly and with the hint of a chuckle. It amazed me how patient and happy he was, despite the fact that he probably hated teaching his children to drive more than anything else. He was a truck driver, and he much preferred being behind the wheel and having control of the car. Any time we went anywhere with members of the family, he insisted on doing the driving, even though my uncles were also truck drivers for the Rheingold Beer Distributor my father worked for.
            I had already mastered the parking lot of John Glenn High School, so this would be my third trip out on the road. I maneuvered the car, what my mother called a lethal weapon when cautioning me on the responsibility of driving, through the streets of Greenlawn. I remembered to STOP at all the stop signs and to give a wide berth to pedestrians walking on the side of the road where there were no sidewalks. And when I forgot to do that Daddy would reach over and steer the wheel.
            I had trouble keeping the car moving ahead in a straight line and overcompensated when I drifted to the left or the right.
            “Look straight ahead,” Daddy reminded me. “You already know where the car is, keep your eyesight ahead of you so you can see where you’re going.”
            As with almost everything Daddy said, there was a life lesson here. Keep your eye on the future so you know what to do next. Know your goals so you can take the right steps on your journey to your destination. If you know where you are headed, you will discover how to get there.
            Once out of the neighborhood I drove along curving country roads with barely enough room for the car in each lane. I would drift to the shoulder when a car came along in the opposite direction. But Daddy directed me to stay put, and have confidence that the other driver didn’t want to hit my car any more than I wanted to hit his.
            We came to a particularly steep curve in the road where I began to drift in and out of my lane, not sure how to control the speed or direction of the car. But Daddy believed I could succeed at anything I tried. He made me drive through that curve over and over again until I got it right.
            “Slow down before you get to the curve and let the pitch of the road steer the car. Then speed up as you enter the curve to pull the car through.”
            Looking back on that I see another life lesson: When things get hairy, slow down and think, then once you find the solution to the problem, pick up speed and work your way through.
            It was a pleasant afternoon of driving practice. The car windows were open and the crisp autumn breeze blew my long blonde hair, and carried with it the scent of rotting leaves, apples and pumpkins. In between driving directions and hints, Daddy and I shared happy conversations about the family, about my high school activities and my future plans to go to college and become a teacher. And, as always, there were the wonderful stories of his childhood in the hills of Kentucky.
            Once I had managed that curve correctly several times, we headed for home. Back at the house Daddy told me to back into our driveway.
            “I can’t drive backwards,” I said.
            “Sure you can. It’s the same as driving forward, only in the opposite direction.”
            The humor in his voice and in his blue eyes was a reassuring anchor.
            With ongoing hints and hand-over-hand help, I adjusted the car so that I could back into the driveway. I made several attempts that missed the mark and then I gave up.
            “I can’t do this,” I said.
            “You can. And you’re not getting out of the car until you get it right.”
            His smug smile made me laugh as I remembered the curve I just mastered and knew I had to keep trying till I got it right. Eventually I managed to straighten the car and steer backwards so that the car was straight in the driveway. I shut off the engine and withdrew the key, handing it over to Daddy.
            “See,” he said. “Now in the morning we can just pull out straight ahead.”
            I smiled and got out of the car, eager to eat dinner, change my clothes, and meet my friends for the homecoming football game.
            But Daddy’s words come back to me now, so many years later, as yet another wise and helpful life lesson.
            Sometimes in life we need to take a few steps backwards in order to move ahead. Maybe make some changes in our goals, or our steps toward our destinations. Or maybe we need to reassess life as it is, take a few steps backwards and move ahead in a new and straighter direction. And maybe, too, we need to speed up once in a while to pull us through the rough times.
            Every time I back my car into my parking space at work I remember Daddy’s words and know that at the end of the day I can move forward toward home, toward my loving husband, and toward my blank computer screen or blank notebooks, and know my direction lies in my writing, no matter how many curves I encounter along the way.


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