By Robin Vigfusson
The summer before I turned ten, my mother taught me to drive.
“You can’t tell anyone,” she said. “Not any of your friends, not your teacher, not anyone. Especially not Daddy.”
My mother got her own license after six torturous years of learning to drive. She’d been taking driving lessons on and off ever since we’d moved to the suburbs from Jersey City. First, my father had tried to teach her, but she claimed he was impatient. Not that he yelled; it was his attitude. He thought women, in general, made precarious drivers and my mother was nervous to begin with.
A couple of neighbors on the block had offered to teach her, but my mother felt that would put her under a microscope and these women told each other everything. She went through three driving instructors, and did manage to pass her test the first time. God knows, she’d had enough practice.
She grew up in the Bronx where people didn’t need to drive. Her real name was Clara, but she’d shortened it to Claire when she was in high school. At the same time, she got rid of her New York accent by studying the elocution of Myrna Loy. My father, Ben, came from Newark. They were both children of immigrants, members of an eschewed minority known as “Jews without money,” but we followed no religion. My Aunt Sonya disdainfully referred to us as “cardiac Jews,” because the only religious instruction my mother gave me was the adage that “God is in the heart” and a Little Golden Book called Prayers for Children. My mother even let me go to Bible classes with a Methodist friend named Sharon Oliver. All I recall now are red felt cutouts being placed on a flannel board by a teacher who lovingly spoke of them as “the precious drops he shed for us” and everyone singing “His Name is Wonderful” like members of a fan club.
The street we lived on was split between Catholics and WASPs, and our house was right in the middle. What we had in common with our neighbors was white skin and a meager income and this was enough of a bond to secure us in their good graces. All of them were straight off the farm, people who’d earned their way with no help from anyone. It was after World War II, and antisemitism was particularly benign since everyone had witnessed its manifest conclusion. The worst I remember are swastikas soaped on our windows on Mischief Night, which my father washed away before he went to work.
Aside from the burgeoning tolerance, my parents were the most accommodating neighbors you could find. My father was modest and soft-spoken, and my mother was a very attractive blonde. Men on the block felt comfortable enough to invite Ben to go hunting with them, which he deftly demurred, and Claire had a charming quality of never assuming anything about anyone. She seemed to find all people interesting, especially these Protestant men who had the wherewithal to build their own garages, and their wives who’d known how to drive since they were girls. Anna Lindstrom, the woman next door, could even handle a tractor. “She’s so capable.” My mother said that as if it were the highest compliment you could pay someone.
At the end of grade four, my teacher had written in my report card: June is a model American girl, and I think that comment convinced my mother to teach me to drive. She’d raised a “capable” child and after all these years of being stranded in a small town, relying on others for rides, she must have thought it was imperative. She made driving seem synonymous with handling life itself. Once you knew how, you could do anything.
“I’m going to drive us somewhere where no one will see,” she told me, our first day out.
She turned on the car radio. “Daddy says not to play the radio while you’re driving, but I think that’s old-fashioned.”
The station was playing “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On.” “I still like Jerry Lee Lewis,” my mother said. “I don’t care what anyone says.”
“He married a thirteen-year-old girl,” I told her. I’d read that in a friend’s Photoplay.
“Girls mature faster in the south because of the heat,” my mother explained. “Even the kid he married said, ‘girls can marry at ten down here as long as they find a husband.’”
“He married his cousin.” I was uncomfortable with her defense of this man when everyone else on the block was scandalized. I guess I was more conventional than she was.
“Down south, they all do that.”
We drove all the way to Branch Brook Park in Newark. It was lined with cherry blossoms. A road ran through the park, but there was hardly any traffic. All the local driving schools took students there to practice. My mother parked the blue Nash Rambler next to a lake.
“Now watch me. Here’s the key. It starts the car.” She put the key in the ignition. “You turn it just like getting into the house.” She revved the motor. “Now look at these pedals. This is really easier than riding a bike. You don’t even have to keep your balance. This pedal makes the car go, and this pedal makes it stop. And you put your hands on the steering wheel to make the car go in the direction you want, just like you steer your bike. See? That’s all there is to it.”
I was surprised at how simple it was. I’d thought it was a far more complex process, one that only adult brains could master. My grandmother had taught me to knit, and this was easier than that.
“Do you want to try?” she asked me.
I nodded, feeling excited. We got out of the car and switched places.
“Okay. Put your hands on the steering wheel and just get the feel of it,” she told me once she’d adjusted the driver’s seat. “When you want the car to go right, you turn the steering wheel to the right. When you want it to go left, you turn it to the left. Mostly, you just want to go straight ahead.”
She handed me the key. “Now start the car. It won’t move. I’ve got it in park.”
I turned the ignition and felt a chilly elation right above my stomach, the same sensation when your car climbs up a Ferris wheel.
“Step on the gas,” she told me.
I put my foot on the gas pedal and laughed out loud, releasing the power. My mother laughed, too.
“Isn’t this great? We’re just going to do this today. Get the feel of the car. Get accustomed to it.”
While I practiced steering and starting the car, my mother smoked cigarettes and talked as if free-associating. She told me everything, things she told nobody else. Mostly, she talked about life in the Bronx. She was full of contempt for her neighbors and family. “What a bunch of peasants. You have no idea.” I really couldn’t reconcile her description of her mother with the sweet old lady who even took her false teeth out whenever I asked, just to entertain me.
“She’d yell at me from the window like a fishwife, then come outside and slap me right in front of my friends,” Claire told me. She was no slouch herself when it came to doling out punishment, but she’d never hit me in public. That was low-class.
She especially loathed her oldest brother, Harry. “He still has to go for shock treatments,” she confided as if kicking him in absentia.
“What are shock treatments?” I asked, turning the lights on and off.
“They give them to mental patients to make them act normal. It’s electric shock. Nobody knows why it works, but it does. And he’s the one who called all the shots. I was running a fever the day of my father’s funeral. Harry said I was pretending to be sick, so I wouldn’t have to go. I was four years old. Can you imagine?”
I did wonder why we had to drive all the way to Queens to visit Harry and his family if my mother hated him so much. It made no sense.
“He stopped me from going to Smith College,” she said. I heard this accusation a lot. Usually she yelled it at my grandmother and the two of them would argue; once she got so heated up, she even slapped my grandmother. I didn’t see it, but I heard it. My mother had graduated second in her class at Washington Irving High School and she could have gone to Smith on scholarship. She spoke of Smith as if it were the guarantor of an exalted life that had been ripped away from her. “Instead, I had to go to ShittyCollege at night and work during the day.” She rarely cursed in front of me, but always referred to City College that way, especially to Grandma. “I had to bring in money. That’s all they cared about.” She’d ended up dropping out.
After an hour and a half, she told me we’d practiced enough for one day. “You did very well. Let’s go for ice cream.” We stopped at Dairy Queen, then drove home.
When we got to the house, it was five-thirty. My mother put the TV on in the living room. One of her favorite movies, The Sea Wolf, was on The Early Show. Edward G. Robinson played a tyrannical sea captain and she admired his performance for personal reasons. “He got your Uncle Harry down pat.”
She heated up Chef Boyardee ravioli for dinner just before my father’s car drove up. He worked as an editor on a local newspaper, the Star-Ledger. I thought that sounded important, but my mother said he made a “kid’s salary,” which was why we couldn’t afford to move to an upscale town like Cedar Grove or Montclair. He’d finished NYU on the GI bill, but she said he had no ambition. “Flieger is the perfect name for you,” I heard her snap at him, once. Flieger meant “airman” in German, but she wasn’t referring to his stint in the air force.
“Remember you can’t tell Daddy what we did today,” she reminded me before he walked in the door.
After dinner, I went out to play badminton with Susan Lindstrom, the girl next door. Susan had rackets and a birdie, but no net, so we improvised, tying a jump rope between a tree and a picnic table. We played until dark, and it didn’t even cross my mind to tell her what I’d done that afternoon.
The next day, we returned to the park. This time, my mother let me drive very slowly on the road while she told me about some of her old boyfriends.
“There was one guy, Peter Steiner. He thought I looked like Carole Landis. He was very wealthy. A dentist. He wanted to take me on a honeymoon to Paris.”
“Why didn’t you marry him?” I asked.
“I wasn’t in love with him.”
“How do you know when you’re in love?”
“Oh, you know,” she grinned.
“How does it happen? How long does it take?”
“You can fall in love on a coffee break.” She lit another Salem. “There was someone else before Daddy,” she said darkly. “A guy named Phil Levin. A dead ringer for Cary Grant, but what a bum. He gave me the runaround for years. Then, after losing a leg in the war, he decides to propose. “‘You know you’re still crazy about me,’” he told me and I said, “Phil, they should have stopped you for good.”
The anecdote seemed like a threat, a warning that she was not to be toyed with.
“Well, we’d better get home, June,” she said, looking at her watch. “You did very well. I’m proud of you.”
We didn’t go to the park again until the next week, since she had to catch up on shopping and laundry.
We drove very slowly around the park while she told me about her dog, Prince, who had been killed by a hit-and-run driver in the Bronx and died in her arms.
“He was so beautiful,” she said. “A bulldog mix. He looked just like a calf.”
“I wish I could have a dog,” I told her.
“Yeah, and I’ll be the one who ends up taking care of it.”
“No, you won’t. Honest, Mommy. I would walk him and feed him and everything . . .” someone was honking in back of us and I panicked. Whenever we’d encountered traffic before, the cars had driven around us.
“Pull over and let him pass,” my mother said, annoyed. “Just pull over.”
I didn’t even know what that meant.
My mother turned the wheel and as she did, my foot hit the gas pedal and the car hopped the curb, hitting a telephone pole. I bumped my head against the steering wheel.
“Jesus!” she screamed.
I opened the door and threw up on the grass.
“Oh my God!” my mother was yelling. “Look what the hell you did!”
There were dents on the front fender, but worse than that, the right light had been smashed. My mother was beside herself, screaming about how the insurance would go up and how my father had never had an accident in his life.
She started slamming me with her pocketbook. I shielded my head with my arms and didn’t make a sound. I knew from experience that crying made her even angrier, as if her sympathy was being played on.
“Get out of the car!” she ordered. She was ashen and shaking. “Go in the back seat and sit there! Get out of my sight!”
I did exactly what she said. I wanted to lie down, but was afraid of offending her. She might not think I was taking her seriously.
She rolled up the windows and started screaming. “You’re like a cat! You suck the life out of people! Do you hear me — you suck the life out of people like a goddamned cat!” She hated cats.
I felt dizzy. I closed my eyes and fell asleep, just as I had under ether when I’d had my tonsils out the year before.
When I opened my eyes, I was still in the car, but my mother wasn’t there. I sat up and looked out the window. The sun’s glare put a harsh, white film over everything. The car was parked in front of Swinton’s Drugstore in town. A man and woman came out of the store. The man had his hands on the woman’s shoulders as if trying to comfort her. For a second, I thought I was at the drive-in with my parents, watching Vertigo, then realized I was looking at my mother with one of our neighbors, Mr. Harris. My mother called Mr. Harris a “womanizer,” which I took to mean that he was entranced by all things feminine. He flirted even with me.
While my mother talked to Mr. Harris, her face looked distressed but also soft and appealing. No wonder I’d thought I was a watching a movie; she was acting.
I lay down again, not wanting them to see me. The car door opened, and Mr. Harris leaned over and whispered in my ear, grinning and reeking of motor oil. He was a mechanic.
“Oh, Junie with the dark brown hair, your mother tells me you’ve been a bad, bad girl.”
I was startled. Had she told him I’d driven the car?
“I told Mr. Harris what you did,” she said. Her voice was stern, but controlled. “About how a bee got in the car and you started screaming and scared me so much, I drove into a telephone pole.”
I didn’t say anything.
“Mr. Harris is doing us a huge favor. He’s going to fix the car before your father sees it.”
“Don’t worry about anything, Claire. I’ll knock out the dents and replace the light,” Mr. Harris winked. “Ben won’t know the difference.”
“I can’t thank you enough, Bill,” she said earnestly. “You’re an absolute doll. Let me drop her off and I’ll meet you there.”
Mr. Harris waved and smiled at us while we drove away as if the whole situation pleased and amused him.
When we reached the house, my mother pulled me out of the car and marched me up the walk. She couldn’t resist slapping me up the side of the head.
“Get in the house!”
Once we were inside, she slammed the door. “Get up to your room!” she yelled and disappeared into the bathroom to fix her hair and reapply lipstick.
I snatched The Partisan Reader from the bookcase in the living room, as well as a magazinecalledCoronetthat was lying on the coffee table. There was no telling how long I’d have to stay in my room, or if and when I’d ever be forgiven. This was the worst thing I’d ever done — worse than cutting my hair or getting ink on my good dress, two infractions that had unleashed a fury in my mother that seemed interminable.
From my room upstairs, I heard her slam the front door again on her way out.
I took off my sneakers and got under the covers. I thought I might throw up, but the nausea passed and I felt light-headed, all the events of the day merging together like colors running off a paintbrush.
When I woke, it was dark and I could hear the television on downstairs. The house was a postwar Cape Cod, built on the Levittown model, and every sound traveled through the ceiling and walls. My parents were watching Sergeant Bilkoand I heard my mother talking.
“I don’t know what hit her,” she said. “I think it’s a virus. She didn’t want any dinner so I put her to bed.”
I heard her coming upstairs and pretended to be asleep. She opened the door and turned on the light. “Wake up and get undressed. Put on your nightgown, June.” She wasn’t smiling, but at least she’d said my name.
The next morning when I got up, I didn’t go downstairs for breakfast. I knew not to leave the room until I was given permission.
To ward off boredom, I drew for a while, copying pictures out of Coronet from a picture essay called “Can’t Wait to Grow Up,” about a ten-year-old who dressed like a teenager. I was going to turn ten in October, and I wore my hair in a ponytail, rolled up my jeans, had a charm bracelet, and so did all of my friends. I didn’t understand why this girl was even newsworthy.
After that I read a story in The Partisan Reader called “Benefits of an American Life.”It was about a Greek shepherd who came to America, couldn’t find work and earned money by entering dance marathons. I thought dance marathons were supposed to be fun, but this story made them sound as grueling as torture chambers. At the end of the story, the Greek contracted TB and went back to his homeland to die. I really couldn’t see the point, unless it was the idea that he shouldn’t have left Greece in the first place.
I fell asleep again and was awakened by voices outside my door.
“June, you have guests,” my mother was saying brightly. She entered with three girls from the neighborhood: Judy Aldrich, Kathy Gamble and Kim Marshall. They were carrying stacks of comic books.
“It’s drizzling out, so your mother said we could read in here,” Judy said.
They put all their comics in the middle of the room. I always kept my own stash under my bed and now pulled them out. My favorites were Archieand Betty and Veronica. I studied each issue as if it were a manual for my future life in high school. I already planned to wear my hair shoulder length, with bangs like Veronica Lodge.
“I’m going to put on the radio,” Kim Marshall said.
I didn’t like Kim; she couldn’t be trusted. She always pitted friends against each other and I was positive she’d stolen my Ginny doll. My mother said there wasn’t much I could do about it except hide my more cherished possessions when she came to visit. When I said I didn’t want Kim in the house ever again, my mother insisted that I had to get along with everyone.
From the pile of comics, I chose Ripley’s Believe It or Not, which was full of gruesome facts and cryptic knowledge. It was Kim’s contribution.
The radio was playing “Charlie Brown,” and we all sang along at the top of our lungs.
‘“He walks in the classroom cool and slow . . .
Who calls the English teacher Daddio?’”
We sang along to a few more songs like “Wake up, Little Susie” and “What Again Is Love — Five Feet in Heaven and a Pony Tail?” then read for a while, and Kim told us some dirty jokes. She had two older brothers who provided her with an endless repertoire.
She told one about a boy who decided to clean his rabbit’s cage by feeding his little brother its turds. “He tells the kid, ‘These are smart pills,’ and the kid keeps eating them, and he finally says, ‘You know, these taste like shit.’ And the older brother says, ‘See? You’re getting smarter every minute.’”
We burst out laughing. It was strictly forbidden for children, particularly girls, to hear or use language like “shit” at that time, so whenever we did, we felt high.
My mother knocked at the door and came in with a tray full of sandwiches.
“You sound like you’re all having fun,” she told us. She put the tray down next to the comic books. “Help yourselves,” she said sweetly and left.
She’d made tuna fish sandwiches, lacing the tuna with chopped celery. Claire was always conscious about being a good hostess. I still feel I owe my childhood social life to her; the reason I had as many friends as I did was due in great part to her hospitality.
We read for another hour. Then the girls left because my headache had come back, and I needed to lie down. I’d probably sustained a concussion and being hit with a pocketbook hadn’t helped.
When I woke, it was evening. My father had turned the light on in my room. It felt as if I hadn’t seen him for days.
“Hi, cutie,” he sat next to me on the bed. “Mommy tells me you’re not feeling well.”
“I’m okay, Daddy.”
“Do you want to come down and have dinner with us?”
My mother had heated up Dinty Moore beef stew for supper and also corn on the cob. After dinner, I cleared the table while she washed the dishes. She still wasn’t talking to me, but she was singing to herself, “Only a poor fool never schooled in a whirlpool of romance . . .”
We joined my father in the living room. He was watching Ernie Kovacs. Kovacs was making fun of the Howdy Doody Show. Instead of Buffalo Bob, Kovacs was playing a mustachioed foreigner who drank wine. He got mad at Howdy for interrupting him too much and cut his strings, to the chagrin of the kids in the Peanut Gallery. The studio audience applauded, which struck me as hostile. Maybe parents really hated Howdy Doody. Even so, I still found the skit wildly funny. I even fell off the couch laughing.
“She’s acting punchy,” my mother said. “She’s still not up to par. June, go upstairs to bed.”
I didn’t dare argue, though I wanted to see the rest.
The next morning, she woke me for breakfast. She was cheerful and animated and everything was back to normal. Later that day, my friend, Denise Morton, came by and invited me to go swimming in her new aboveground pool. The water felt therapeutic.
The summer passed and my mother never mentioned driving lessons again. It was as if they’d never happened. But things had changed. My perception had been readjusted, maybe in the way a shock treatment worked. I still loved my parents, but I no longer trusted them. The unquestioning adoration was gone. If she had meant for driving lessons to make me independent, then I suppose she had succeeded. I no longer felt safe with them and I knew what I felt was not unusual.
Not long before, one of my friends, Ginger Ryan, had once come to school crying, and confided to me that she was afraid her mother wanted to kill her. Ginger had accidentally broken a vase and her mother had threatened her with a steel nail file and even scratched her arm with it. I’d felt the same fear toward Claire. Nothing would ever frighten me like that, again, not even being robbed at gunpoint or getting a cancer scare. It was my mother who’d made me drive the car in the first place; I hadn’t asked for it. She’d told me to keep it secret because we were breaking the law. She was the one who’d behaved hazardously, even if she blamed me.
Once I’d heard Mrs. Moore, the lady who lived behind us, shrieking through a screen door the same way my mother had screamed at me in the car. “Mommy, Mommy, Mommy — Mommy’s sick of it!”
Parents couldn’t protect you from the world because they were a part of it themselves. It had marked them indelibly before you ever arrived. By the time you reached the theater, the second act was underway, and the best you could do was try to surmise what had already happened..