Until I reached my early 50s, I did not participate in three driving-related activities:
- Making left turns
- Driving on freeways
- Pumping my own gas
In most other ways, I’m a highly functioning, independent, and self-supporting adult. But I guess everyone has a gap, or 47, in their life skill set, as well as justifications. Like, I was married to an alcoholic and lived in perpetual chaos for nearly 30 years so I attempted to minimize risk in every endeavor outside of that relationship. Combine this with the fact that I came from a long line of women who had the same odd quirks. My mom rarely turned left because she’d once read that left turns are one of the most dangerous driving maneuvers. Unlike many of my mom’s other rather magical beliefs–including her unwavering opinion that running would make my uterus fall out–left turns are truly hazardous enough that UPS routes its drivers to only make right turns. Meanwhile I inherited my no-driving-on-freeways gene from both of my grandmothers. One was a California resident for decades. Imagine navigating Los Angeles solely on surface streets. And none of the women in my family ever pumped their own gas so I never learned how, although I kept thinking, “One of these days … ” Over the years I had several semi-horrified friends who tried to teach me. But their lessons were offset by my recurring nightmare of accidental self-immolation at the gas pumps so my friends’ lessons went unrealized.
That is until my divorce when I was solely responsible for taking care of my children. It was suddenly an imperative that I face these three irrational fears, and others, in order to drive my kids in a timely and, let’s face it, sane and normal manner from one end of the Phoenix metropolitan area to the other for sports competitions, school activities, and their burgeoning social lives. And truth be told, I was embarrassed by my limitations and tired of hiding my inabilities. I had missed too many events that were gotten to via the freeway or demanded gas that I couldn’t buy until one of the two full-serve stations I frequented–one 3.6 miles to the north from my house, the other 3.7 miles to the east–opened up again during regular business hours. I was wasting time and money by catering to avoidance, my old friend.
Left turns were the easiest to check off the List of Shame. I started driving on major streets with dedicated left turn lights, then graduated to free range left turning lanes. Yeah, I was initially That Driver who the other drivers honked at for waiting too long to turn left. But I was cautious and I was learning. I was also flipping off the honkers below the dashboard so that they couldn’t see that I was giving them the bird. I’d never behaved this way before but I took it as a sign of my newfound empowerment.
My first freeway venture was driving my younger son, H-boy, 37 miles from Phoenix to Queen Creek to a golf tournament. To prepare, I printed out three pages of MapQuest directions that H-boy read to me. I stayed in the right lane the entire trip, went at least five miles below the speed limit, and gripped the steering wheel so tightly that my back began sweating. But I did it. H-boy gave me a high five in the parking lot.
He also showed me how to pump gas when he was 16 and already a veteran, and self-taught, gas pumper.
“Six easy steps,” he told me. “Unscrew the gas cap, swipe the credit card, plug in your zip code, choose the grade of gas, start pumping and, for hands-free, throw down that little metal clip.” For several months thereafter, I made him stand beside me for moral support, as if I were a new server at a restaurant being awkwardly shadowed by a veteran employee. In those early days, while the tank was filling, I gripped the gas handle as tightly as I had the steering wheel for fear that the nozzle would jump from the filler neck like a spouting flammable whale. But in time I found that the nozzle was more stable than I realized so I started living dangerously and now fill up hands-free. Bam! Progress.
One Thanksgiving a few years ago, I drove my kids to their dad’s house for the holiday meal. But first I stopped at the gas station and filled up the tank. Then I made a left turn from the gas station onto a major street before entering the freeway frontage road.
As I drove onto the freeway, my older son, T-bone, asked, “Wait, what is happening? Who are you?”
H-boy laughed from the back seat. “We don’t even know you,” he said.
Me either, I thought as I pressed the accelerator a little harder so that I was driving five over the speed limit as I moved into the fast lane.