HeartNote, February 5, 2020: One From The Vault: Driving and My Mom

I have had the extraordinary opportunity to teach two people to drive: my youngest daughters. They are both well past any influences I can impose on them now, and as a result, they feel they have reached the ages that they can now make jokes about their memories of my driving and my teaching ability (or lack thereof). They commiserate on how much better their driving is than mine ever was, or ever will be. For two girls in college, they seem awfully smug for their age and a bit short on insight and wisdom. Little do they know, but they were taught by an awfully good driver. Actually, they were taught by an excellent driver, if I do say so myself. I am wonderful at weaving, speeding when no police are around, yelling at the drivers in front of me to hurry their expletive deleted butt up. My daughters take for granted how much faster the traffic moves because I have yelled at it, and it has obeyed my commands. I have held dominion over traffic for years while taking my girls for rides to Lord knows where. You think they would have learned a little something from just being in the same car with me, something other than what to hold on to, and exactly how deep they can dig their fingernails into the dashboard.

I figured that I was called upon to teach them how to drive because of my skills, and not because their mother couldn’t handle the stress. I was sure they had asked their mother first because they didn’t want to hurt her feelings, not because they felt she was a better driver or better instructor. Although they both insist that they could have cared less about her feelings and really wanted to avoid anything that involved me, a car, and my instructions, I figured this was a cover so their mother, as I mentioned, wouldn’t get her feelings hurt. In hindsight they tell me they should have put sedatives in her cornflakes and handcuffed her to the car—anything to avoid being in the car with me riding shotgun.

They now insist that had their mother taught them, she probably would have kept my middle daughter, on her second lesson, from hitting the car in front of us while making a left turn. She says she wouldn’t have hit the car had I not said “punch it” just as she was putting her foot on the gas. It should be known that, in the Ed McShane book of driving instructions, “punch it” is a perfectly acceptable term to encourage assertive acceleration. They obviously were not acquainted with that part of the book before their driving lesson.

In my defense, I was taught by possibly the fastest, most capable driver between zero and 60 ever to grace a seat belt. My mother was the apex of aggressive driving. She stood no more than five foot four, with doe-brown eyes and a disarming demeanor. But put her behind the wheel of a car and you could see the other cars wince. They knew what they were up against; they knew who just took the road. No car, no driver was any match for my mother.

She drove a Lincoln Continental. When I was a kid they came with an eight cylinder, 408 horsepower engine. It flew. Although I was little, I swear that on several occasions, the front of the car shot skyward as my mother hit the gas.

She also drove in Chicago. Rain, sleet, snow, dark of night, it didn’t matter. My mother always drove the same. Fast. In a straight line. Without much regard for the other driver. This was not to say that she was rude. On the contrary, she was annoyingly polite. If, let’s say, she cut somebody off, she would invariably beeped her horn and, with an extraordinarily compassionate tone in her voice, always said, “Thanks.” If she forced somebody in a ditch, she beeped and said “Thanks.” She sideswiped a bus full of nuns on their way to church: beep, “Thanks”.

And curves were no match for my mother. One of the most legendary curves ever was the S curve on the “outer drive” as my mother called it, better known as Lake Shore Drive. It wasn’t until I was 18 and drove downtown Chicago myself that I realized how much of a curve this truly was. My mother made this 90 degree curve seem like a sway in the carriage.

But it wasn’t just her aggressive driving, or her adept handling of the car in spite of the conditions of the road that made her amazing. She could do two things that were astounding. First, she could speed through traffic with the velocity of a bullet and the grace of a bird. But this was a talent that she had to develop in order to get anywhere before the sun set. My mother never left the house on time. Ever. She always took a little extra time getting herself ready and then, like clockwork, as she put on her coat, grabbed her keys, and headed out to the garage, she would announce that she had to go to the bathroom. And, just as predictably, somebody would ask her why she didn’t go before she put on her coat and grabbed her keys. She would always answer them by giving them the explanation that she didn’t have to go when she put on her coat, she had to go right then.

Then, after taking what seemed like an hour in there, she would emerge from the bathroom, without her keys, without her coat, wearing an expression of “OK, so what were we supposed to be doing?” Somebody, usually the one with the veins popping out of their necks—could have been any of us—would inform her of our destination, to which she would grab her keys, grab her coat, dive into the car, strap herself in, and whip that stallion to points unknown. She would get my father from Granville and Lakewood on the north side of Chicago, to 500 North Michigan in 13 minutes. Time yourself someday. See if you even come close without the use of a helicopter.

Secondly, she could beat a ticket without the use of money, influence, or coming to court with members of the mob. She stood in front of a judge who, without explanation, had sentenced fourteen people in about twenty minutes to pay their speeding ticket fines. At the fifteenth person, my mother, the judge paused, looked down at my mother (who had been tagged for going, I think, 29 miles over the limit) and said “So, Mrs. McShane, you’re not going to drive this fast anymore, are you?” She insisted that she never, ever would again. The judge dismissed her ticket. The gasp from the courtroom was audible on the street. The bailiff shook his head. My mother kept thanking the judge as she left the courtroom. The judge, an absolute dead-on double of George Raft, smiled and waved. My mother was ticketed about three months later by the same cop. He remembered her name, remembered her court appearance, put his ticket book away, and asked her to pleeeeease slow down. Right then, she should have run for mayor. She had the cops and the courts in her pocket.

So I can’t help the way I drive. I was in the presence of a legend. I learned from her, and her example has served me well. Unfortunately, my kids never got to drive with my mother. The closest they ever came was the Space Mountain at Disneyland.

I’ve been through both. My mother wins, hands down.


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