The car was on loan from my Granny, my mom’s mother-in-law. It was approximately 900-feet long and did not have air conditioning. We would rumble down the highway with all the windows rolled down. The hurricane force winds coming through the windows whipped our hair into a frenzy.
In the back was a rear-facing seat that my cousins loved and I detested. I wanted to see where we were going, not where we had been.
We christened the car La Bamba. Because it was a bomb. Not because it was a hot Latin dance.
While driving the car, my mom would drop me off at the end of the long circular drive in front of my school. She knew without my saying that I hated the car and all the changes it represented.
The first car she bought post-divorce was a secondhand ’79 Mercury Cougar. It was white with a maroon pleather interior and an alternator that often left us stranded on the side of the road. This was the car we owned when my mom decided it was time for me to learn how to drive.
The first time I backed down the driveway at my grandparents’ house, the back wheels landed firmly in the shallow drainage ditch across the street.
“Momma, this is useless. I’m never going to learn how to drive.”
“Yes, you will. Pull forward and try again.”
She made me practice until I perfected turning the steering wheel at the right angle and in time to align with the street.
During my sophomore year of high school, Mom bought a brand new, bright blue Toyota Corolla. The first brand new car she had ever purchased on her own. Her face beamed when she jumped from the car in front of our tiny apartment.
“Come on. Let’s go for a ride,” she burst out while dancing around the car. Her excitement charged the air with static electricity. I felt my skin buzzing as I slid into the front seat. Glancing down, I noticed, to my horror, that my mother had purchased a car with a standard transmission.
“Uh, Momma, this car is a stick shift.”
“I know!” She raved. “Isn’t it great!”
The Cougar was an automatic. I knew as much about driving a car with a standard transmission as I did about brain surgery. Seeing as how I was set to get my license in a couple of months, I did not think it was the least bit great.
“But I don’t know how to drive a stick.”
“I know,” she replied, popping the car into gear and pulling out of the driveway. “I’m going to teach you. All girls need to learn how to drive a standard.”
She proceeded to tell me a report she saw on the news. Two girls were abducted, and the one who could not drive a standard was put in the trunk. She pushed in the clutch and switched gears. The car gathered speed. “I never want you to be the girl in the trunk.” My lessons started soon after that.
While I mostly learned how to drive a stick shift, the speedy little blue Corolla and I had a troubled relationship. I scraped the side with a guardrail while reversing. I knocked off a section of the bumper after running into a fence. I damaged the passenger side when I pulled out in front of a car full of guys who had zero interest in my calling the cops to report the accident. Finally, I damaged that side of the car bad enough to need a tow truck when I ran a stop sign. In my defense, there was a tree growing in front of the stop sign.
When my mom arrived to assess the damage and take me home, I handed her my driver’s license. She studied my tear-stained face. “What’s this?” She was angry.
“My license. It’s pretty obvious I shouldn’t be driving.”
She pointed the plastic card between my eyes. “You put this back in your wallet and don’t you ever let me hear you say that again.” Her voice softened. “Now, let’s take care of the car.”
My family tells the story of the time my dad purchased a brand new pickup truck with a manual shift on the steering column. He knew my mom didn’t know how to drive it. Never one to be put in a corner, my mom taught herself how to drive that truck with nothing but stubbornness and an “I’ll show you” attitude.
To my mom, a car and the ability to drive meant control over your destination. It meant safety. It meant freedom. It meant no one putting you in the trunk or leaving you trapped at home.
She may not have taught me how to be a very good driver, but she did teach me how to never give up. How to be independent. How to fight for the things that are important to me.
My senior year of high school, my mom bought me a ’79 Monte Carlo. I took the car with me when I left home that summer. For the next five years, I drove it back and forth on Interstate 10 to work and college, windows rolled down, hair whipping in the wind, eyes always on the road that stretched out in front of me.