The air was still and even when it came to dislodge more yellow leaves off the maple tree, it was cool rather than cold. The sun shone high in a sky of pure azure, untainted by any clouds. Light came in seemingly through every window in the small two-story little place we called home. On our front porch, an arrangement of pumpkins and gourds sat at the foot of an inflatable comic rendition of Frankenstein marking the first holiday of the fall.
A distant rumble prompted me to fire up the tractor and the gas trimmer to pretty up the front yard. I changed into old jeans and a ratty sweatshirt and walked out into the sun, greedily inhaling the cool air. Once I was done with the trimming, I brought the tractor around and started rumbling through the yard when I became aware of a pair of eyes locked on me from the front door.
My four year old daughter Kendra stared wistfully at me, a sure way to earn herself an invitation. Successful in her attempt, she hopped down the concrete walkway and seemed to glide on the grass as she came up to me. I readied a pair of earplugs and helped her put them on. Then I sat and propped her up on my lap, her small hands firmly holding the wheel.
The rumbling of the engine made conversation difficult so I just hooted and hollered as she cut the wheel sharply, making the rear tires spin on the grass. I could not see her face but the tilt of her cheekbones bespoke of a wide grin as she drove. At that moment, the years fell away and I was suddenly transported back to when I was fifteen…
Dad reluctantly put away his coffee mug and seemed to buy himself some time as he moved slowly to the door. He moved with the easy grace of an athlete, my father, my best friend, my hero. Perhaps I found it easy to put him on a pedestal because today, Dad was taking me driving.
He offered me the keys, but was still standing still as I opened the door and climbed behind the wheel of our camel brown ’79 Chevrolet Chevette hatchback. The last time he had let me drive his car, I was eight and the little mini Austin pickup kicked up gravel and dust as I let the clutch out too quick and Dad’s face turned white with fright.
Seven years later, taller than Dad, I felt the same fright emanating from him as I pulled out onto the road and tried hard to repress the building laughter as he checked mirrors and every window, while telling me to keep my eyes on the road. I had not broken 25mph when he told me to slow down, his foot pushing a hole through the floorboard on an imaginary brake pedal.
We drove up a steep street into a network of back roads that led to the high school. I figured I would spend the day driving in the safe realm of the school parking lot but to my surprise, Dad signaled for me to go past the school.
There were a few scares as I nervously edged away from oncoming traffic while Dad literally jumped off his seat to take control of the vehicle but after a half hour, a curious thing happened.
Dad’s shoulders fell as he leaned back in his seat. He told me about one of his bosses, who told him to learn to drive because it was part of the culture. The man had practically forced him to drive his Mercedez Benz.
The blacktop unfolded like water under a bridge and it felt more as though the road itself straightened out rather than the wheels turning to conform to its curves. We commented on that, the same way we had years before when I was a little kid.
I graduated into a main road and we followed it through a beautiful New England fall landscape as we drove through Huntington and into Trumbull. I must have been doing impressively well, for Dad had me take the highway to get back home.
The speed matched my spirits, not because it was one of the first times I was in control of a car, but because I was with my dad, sharing an intimate experience that I knew I'd remember forever...
And here I was now, back in the present, with my daughter, experiencing the same thrill I had felt all those years ago.
She cut the wheel right, then left, then right again, and squealed with delight when I pointed her to the dirt and gravel lane near our house we so fondly call “The Buggie Forest”.
Kendra and I drove the tractor under a canopy of pine needles bouncing on the gravelly road before emerging onto our street and heading back home. At only four years of age, she has a pretty good idea of how to keep the tractor on a straight line and I beam with pride at her prowess.
We pulled up in front of the front door where Mommy nervously smiled at us from behind the glass. Kendra shut off the engine, removed her ear plugs and jumped down to tell her all about it. I was smiling, shaking my head with joy as I watched her. Then she stopped and ran back to me. I thought she would want to jump back on but she put her hands on my arm and sweetly thanked me for the fun she had.
I thought of the unfamiliar look on Dad’s face when we walked back in the house after our drive and for the first time, I understood what he'd been feeling at the time. That mix of pride and joy and utter love that is intoxicating in its power when as parents, we see our kids do well. I knew then that Kendra would never forget the experience as I will never forget mine.