It was through her mother’s insistence that Lorraine Sommerfeld learned what driving is all about
I grew up understanding that my mother always got what she wanted.
This wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. Her family came first and she usually wielded that power on our behalf. But over time I came to understand that if I wanted something – or wanted something to happen – Mom had to want it, too. In psychology books this is called manipulation; in real life this is called running a household.
When I was 17, I had grand plans of attending university in some distant place. My parents knew we could only afford for me to commute to the next city. I’d put off getting my licence, mostly because I had no pressing need. Recognizing I’d now be driving to school, Mom told me to go pass my test. Before I could pout about missing out on living away from home, I was also told I was free to use the family cottage on my own. I started to understand the true meaning of driving, that knitted matrix of freedom and independence. She pressed the keys into my hand.
Though both of my parents were drivers, they fell into the fairly typical pattern of their era when it came to long hauls: Dad drove. Whether it was across the prairies or down into the U.S., north to the cottage or an hour outside of town, Dad was behind the wheel and my mother sat beside him pressing on an imaginary brake pedal and avoiding eye contact with people he’d found a way to piss off.
My Dad was actually an excellent driver in many respects: he had lightning fast reflexes and eyesight like a hawk; he also had an undeniable belief that he owned the road. But if Dad wasn’t driving, the running commentary from the right hand seat was often more than my mother could bear. She wasn’t aggressive enough for him, and he saw so many lost chances to teach another driver a lesson. He was like a middle-aged Mufasa holding an orange AMC Matador station wagon aloft for his entire kingdom to behold. My mother simply wanted to get from A to B without anyone throwing up.
A funny thing happened when I started driving. Turns out I was a decent combination of my father’s confidence and my mother’s care. As my father’s health began to falter his struggles were the elephant in the car. With lungs full of asbestos after decades in a steel plant, my mother was now dealing with not just a lion, but one hobbled by a thorn. “Rainey needs the practice,” she told him, not thwarting his freedom, not threatening his independence. She pressed the keys into my hand.
It was a deft sleight of hand, that move. It was something that would benefit my father without acknowledging it was a need, it allowed me to gain valuable wheel time for a career that even then required it, and it took my mother out of the line of fire for driving errors, both real and imagined.
I’d moved out by the time Dad was strapped to an oxygen tank 24 hours a day, but we knew he had to stop driving. Imagine pulling up to a light and noticing the driver beside you is wearing an oxygen mask. Now picture him scowling at you like you’re the crazy one. This talk – The Talk – is more loaded than any ocean going freighter. As Mom watched my father dutifully renewing his licence, she silently beseeched her grown daughters, all of us considering her own declining health. Family problems always require family solutions.
Because actions speak louder than words, we showed my father there was nowhere he wanted to go that we wouldn’t take him. A man who gladly stuck close to home anyway, one of us was on call for scheduled appointments if Mom was busy, and invitations always included pick up times. I took him to check out the cottage, and drove him to auctions for things he couldn’t possibly need but might find he couldn’t live without. I couldn’t limit his freedom or remove his independence any more than I could ignore my mother’s fears. I quietly took the keys from his hand.
My mother was in charge of just one car purchase in her life, the car we all knew Dad would never drive. She loaded it up with all the things he’d always eschewed: the air conditioning, the plush interior, the cruise control and the FM stations she’d never listen to. Dad entered care just six months after it was delivered and he died a year after that.
Where Dad dealt with loss by denying it, my mother instead faced things head on. As her health ebbed and flowed she filled her days with grandkids and family and friends. She desperately sorted out photo albums to make sure each of us had the only important thing that is ever left: images of where we came from and the stories we tell.
Mom fought for many things, both in living and in dying. But there were no steely stare downs over driving as there had been with Dad. I wasn’t going to have to convince her of something she already wanted. Looking back, I realize she’d always searched for the safest, most peaceful outcome and she’d been the better driver for it. As she pleaded with first the calendar, and then the clock, she saved her energy for a different battle, one not remotely about freedom or independence.
She pressed the keys into my hand.