Please note: Each of my public radio essays was written and aired at different times between 1999 and now. None of them is posted in chronological order. Hopefully, the ideas and insights in each of them will transcend the times and places about which I’ve written. I hope you enjoy what I have to offer.
I was a late bloomer when it came to getting a driver’s license. Growing up in an urban family for whom driving a car was an exotic, somewhat fearsome ritual, I graduated –kicking and screaming- from the passenger’s side to behind the wheel when I was an old man of twenty six. I suppose I should have seen it coming: that dreaded day when, a year before the end of graduate school, my wife firmly reminded me that our home in Manhattan would soon be a distant memory as job offers in the suburbs beckoned over the professional horizon. What followed were my first tortured miles on the road. My attempts to become a driver almost totaled friendships after near fatalities practicing in friends’ cars. Three failed road tests at the hands of bored and sadistic examiners drove me into therapy, as I tried to figure out a possible connection between my childhood anxieties and my troubles with driving. By the time of my fourth road test, I was experiencing an emotional multiplier effect. My inability to pass the road test turned from a minor nuisance into my uphill battle to become a real American adult who was free to move about his life. A kind examiner took pity on me the fourth time, and later my wonderful wife rescheduled the “driver’s license party” for me that she had canceled a number of times before. Joyous that night in the company of friends and family, I had finally arrived.
I vowed that when each of my kids came of age and prepared for this rite of passage I would not fail at this parental duty of helping them to get their licenses. They would not be condemned to be pedestrians forever. For the past six months I have taken to the road with my son as one of his driving instructors. We have bonded around these lessons, the latest of our shared driving experiences that began when he was eighteen months old. Back then, he and I left my working wife behind and took a vacation car trip for ten days to visit family along the Eastern seaboard. All these years later, I gladly (and with surprisingly little trepidation) hand him the car keys and teach him the skills of automotive manhood that I dream will spare him the infantilizing humiliation that was mine. Little league dads and stage moms revisit and repair their early traumas and ambitions through their children’s endeavors. I am what you might call a parallel parking parent, seeking through my son to exorcise the demons of my dark driving past, as well as facilitate his coming of age. Yet there are hard lessons that I the teacher have had to learn in that driver’s seat. One day I took him on a practice road test, barking at and failing him for any and all infractions, like a real life examiner. Growing uncharacteristically testy, he barked back: “You know, maybe that’s how they did it when you took the test in New York City, but this is Albany!” We returned home in surly silence. As he turned away from me into his room, I stopped him. “I’m sorry I did that to you. This is not about you, it’s about me. It was humiliating for me, failing all those times.” With a characteristic adolescent mix of filial tenderness and curtness he shot back, “Yeah, I know.”
The impulse to live or re-live through our children is like the sports car we see racing around on the car commercials above the little words, “Professional driver, do not attempt.” It seems like such good fun, performed with effortless grace and skill. Then, we get behind the wheel and try to drive our children’s lives –albeit for the noble purposes of helping them that we have rationalized for ourselves. Unsurprisingly, those car rides some times crash- and- burn, or simply go nowhere. The poet Kahlil Gibran was right. Once they leave the womb, our children are not our children. That is the awesome, heartbreaking mystery of loving these young ones and letting them go…but not before they pass the road test.
Dan Ornstein is rabbi of Congregation Ohav Shalom, and a writer living in Albany.
© 2010 By Rabbi Dan Ornstein.