By Kathryn Milam
You’ve made up your mind. There’s no changing it. You decide, and you mean it as much as you meant your wedding day vows. From here on out, you won’t waste another single blessed minute being dependent on your husband or a taxicab or the bus to go places. No more waiting until Tony gets home to take you to the A&P for rump roast and a sack of potatoes for tomorrow night’s stracotto, him tagging along questioning every apple or box of cornflakes. No more chatting with the cabbie about politics and that “I am not a crook” President Richard Nixon on the way to Midway Shopping Center for a pair of stockings and a birthday present for your mother. And for pity’s sake, no more taking the 140 bus to the dentist in Berwyn to get your teeth cleaned only to discover that you’re in for a root canal.
Nope. This year, 1974, will be as different as the moon from the sun, the dog from the cat, the Sicilian from the Roman. At least it will be as soon as you figure out the gear shift and the clutch and the brake pedal. Before long, you’ll take your own self anywhere you want. No tagalongs. No restrictions. Forget there’s only one car in the family, the blue Chevrolet Bel Air bought used and for a song, which Tony clings to like he would to his ma were she still alive. Forget that Tony never once in eighteen years of marriage thought you should learn to drive or do much else except cook and clean and try your best to get pregnant (which he still insists might happen). And forget that you’re just a little scared and more than worried that you’ll change too much and fall hither and yon into moral turpitude.
You’ll deal with that after you get your license because the time has come. Life is taking a turn for the better, and you’re going along for the ride.
Furthermore, the man who’ll help you is one Stan Barlow, owner of Stan’s Driving School, Chicago’s most reputable driving program, one that guarantees to give you the freedom of the road in four easy lessons. It’s printed right on the brochure.
Stan says roll down your window and feel the breeze in your hair, Marlena, and you do. He has a second set of foot pedals on the floor in front of him on the passenger’s side in case you start to slide through an intersection when the light is about to go red. He hasn’t used them yet, but every now and then, you see him put his hand out to touch the dashboard as if that small gesture could slow a speeding car.
It’s your third lesson. You and Stan have been practicing in the parking lot of the K-Mart at Hoffman Estates, and now you’re ready for the real thing. You’ve gotten really good at backing in a straight line, making a three-point turn, easing up on the clutch as you shift from first to second to third. Today the car lurches a bit, and you worry it will knock off. But it doesn’t, and for the first time, you are confident. The wheel beneath your hands feels smooth and turns like a charm. You ease into the street, and suddenly you’re overwhelmed with the sense of going somewhere.
Stan tells you to head out of town where the traffic’s light and you can experience the open road. You press your foot on the gas and believe with all your might you were meant in your deepest bones to be driving a car. You imagine pulling into the shopping center and parking in front of Hines Shoes. You imagine going in and discovering a pair of kitten heels, red python with black piping. You imagine wearing them with a flowy silk dress and telling Tony you’re going out with friends for the evening and you’re not sure when you’ll be back.
“Have you said anything to your husband?” Stan asks. You and Stan have talked about your personal lives, and you’ve told him what Tony thinks about you and automobiles. He’s told you his wife does the office books and the scheduling and he’s glad to teach because it gives him breathing space usually missing from his day.
“Nope,” you say. “Not a word till I have that paper in my hands.”
Stan says he’s going to find some music on the radio. “It’s relaxing,” he says. He switches from station to station, landing on the news. The announcer says the Supreme Court has decided that President Nixon must hand over some kind of tapes to Congress. You think about what would happen if someone recorded your conversations with Stan and played them for Tony. He certainly might take them the wrong way. And truth be told, you might not blame him.
You remember that somewhere you read Pat Nixon is the ultimate good sport, and you think about this and tapes and husbands and presidents. You downshift as a car in front of you slows, and the engine doesn’t sputter at all. You shift back into third. Your left foot eases off the clutch, and you speed up to the posted fifty-five mile per hour limit.
Stan praises your skills and says why don’t the two of you stop for a bite of lunch. You consider for a moment two things: Tony waiting to direct the afternoon’s grocery shopping, and Pat Nixon with her sad, wan smile, taking one for the team, and you say yes, yes, you believe you are hungry and indeed what a fine thing it would be to have lunch with a nice, friendly guy like Stan.
“Let’s try the next place we see,” you say, boldly, and you feel the whole world is opening up, pulling you hard and fast along the path toward all the great expectations ahead.
I liked this, Kathryn. Thank you 😉
I loved this story from start to finish! Great details and nostalgic feel, yet it is a timeless topic that can still relate to every woman. Well done!
I felt myself learning how to drive all over again, as if it was a new chapter in my life, and the beginning of something daring and new. Life is full of possibilities. Great story Kathryn.
Captures the feel and emotions of a woman of her generation.
Great story. It reminds me of the fifties era, when women were really tamped down Stepford wives, and expected to be happy about it. (That’s probably why “I Love Lucy” TV shows were so popular, even for decades after; it signified housewives’ desire for their own identity and recognition, to be appreciated for themselves, not just accepting the pseudo identity of their husband’s status.) The sixties and seventies were burgeoning women’s independence.
Thank you for the response, Gail!
Great story! I can just picture this woman getting her liscence. My mother never learned to drive. She was in an accident i her twenties and was afraid to drive. Daddy took her to the grocery store every Friday. She always depended on other people to take her places. This story rang a bell!
Great story. A flash from the past. Thankfully, things have changed so much, yet somethings will forever remain the same. Now, cars drive themselves.
I really like this, Kathryn. It captures what life was like for women at that time period, yet hints at the timeless appeal of trying something new at any age and any time.
Thanks so much, Chrissi!