Three Important Lessons

For surviving a trip to the DMV, and maybe for Life

Lesson Number 1. Things take time. Nothing moves quickly at the Department of Motor Vehicles. Not lines, not people, and especially not cars. We almost arrived on time for our 1:45 appointment, not that anybody was checking, armed with the child’s passport, his birth certificate, and his father’s death certificate, which it turns out we don’t need, even though all the instructions warn that both parents’ signatures are required for the permit. It’s a bit unnerving to carry Sam’s death certificate around, but it doesn’t take our breath away like it used to. The boy doesn’t’ want to see it, which is fine by me, I’ve stared at it long enough for all of us.

We’ve also got the certification from the drivers’ education school, a printed confirmation of our appointment time, and my physical checkbook, which I had to make a special trip for, because who carries her checkbook with her anymore? In the DMV time warp, however, they do not accept credit cards. We do get the so-called red carpet treatment because we have an appointment, which means that we wait our turn on the dingy red carpet inside the air-conditioned building. For this, we are most grateful, because the other line goes out the door and around the building, almost the length of a block. Even so, we’ve been at the DMV for over an hour.

All of humanity is here, which is part of what my husband and I love about living in Los Angeles. We have everybody – all ages, cultures, genders and orientations, every color, bodies in various shapes decorated by pearls and tattoos – each of us united through stretching the limits of our patience in the labyrinth of the DMV. I hear snippets of conversations in English, Spanish, Chinese and what I’m pretty sure is Armenian. There’s a woman with her teeny tiny baby in a stroller, and I can only imagine the urgency of the matter that brought her to the DMV with her newborn and her aging mother in tow. I’m dying to tell her that she’s not going to believe that before she knows it she will be sitting next to her child, who then will be taller than she is, getting ready to take his permit exam, but I don’t, because I don’t want to be that crazy old lady at the DMV who tells you that before you know it you will be sitting next to your child, who will then be taller than you are, getting ready to take his permit exam. But I am thinking it.

There’s a man who looks to be in his 60’s, accompanied by a woman who could be his daughter. She is reading the application for renewing a driver’s license to him and noting his responses on the form. I wonder why he is not reading it himself. I don’t think he’s blind, because otherwise he wouldn’t qualify for a license at all, and I remember that my own father was here 8 months ago, cataracts and all, memorizing the eye charts so he could renew his own license. He had given up driving, but he wasn’t ready to give up his actual license. The man is telling his daughter “Yes, I’m a citizen. Yes, I’m a veteran. And No, I don’t want to register to vote. I served in the military for fourteen years, I’ve been a citizen for my entire life, and I have never once voted in any election.” Again, I say nothing. But believe me, I am thinking it.

My first-born child was several weeks old by the time I realized that my driver’s license had expired on my birthday while I was up all night nursing a newborn. In my sleep-deprived and somewhat brain-damaged state, I had completely neglected to complete the paperwork required to renew my license. I had neglected a lot of things, but not the baby. For many years, the photograph on my driver’s license showed the straps of the Baby Bjorn carrier (but not the marsupial himself who was sleeping contentedly within). I’m confident, thinking back now, that some lady was sitting with her teenager on the cusp of driving himself, watching me with some nostalgia.

The baby’s mother hands her child to the woman I presume is grandma, who looks at me and smiles. Two blinks later, her child has a child. And so it goes. Time moves slowly at the DMV, but if you are paying attention to the snapshot, you will see life zipping by.

Lesson Number 2. They change the rules while you’re not looking. The first representative we talk to informs us that they added proof of residency requirements in July. Nowhere, mind you, is this information published in a medium that might be available to the general permit-seeking public. In fact, the sole evidence of the changes seems to be found on a worn photocopy they keep behind the counter, the upshot of which is that I need to provide two more pieces of documentation demonstrating both my last name and our home address. For the record, a DMV issued driver’s license does not count.

Under normal circumstances, it might not be a huge hairy deal, but I did not change my last name when I married Tim. One of the challenges of a blending family is the matter of the name change. It was easy enough to change my name the first time I got married; I was 24, with a short credit history and a shorter resumé. I wanted to share the same surname as my husband and my future children, so the traditional decision was straightforward. But after I was widowed and remarried, everything was more complicated. I chose to keep my already-changed-once name, which happens to be the same as two of the children. On the other hand, having a different name than my now husband can often create confusion and a frustrating absence of supporting evidentiary instruments. These are the times I despair of ever having all my affairs in order before I get hit by the proverbial bus, as my children might never forgive the former trusts and estates attorney the mess she left in her wake. Another reminder to look both ways and proceed cautiously.

I imagine the traffic building at this hour between this governmental office and my files, and I do not believe I could get there and back with the additional documentation in time for my son to begin his written test by the 4:30 deadline. We call for help. Mercifully, the child has this amazing stepfather who’s willing to bring the appropriate documentation to us; he scares up a Form 1099 showing about $16.00 worth of interest for the year, a Member Fees statement from the State Bar of CA, so I guess that JD is worth something after all, and a health insurance bill. We are given the green light, which means that we are sitting again, now waiting for our number to be called.

Of course, this whole scenario strikes me as amusing in its predictability. The boy, however, does not find this experience humorous. I text my nearest and dearest: “We’ve been at the DMV for over an hour, and the boy has learned: 1. Nothing moves quickly here and 2. They changed the rules in July.” The boy does not find my commentary even remotely entertaining. “Mom,” he lectures me, “Think about how boring this is for us. Now think about how boring it’s going to be for her to read about this.” Which makes me laugh even more. They can change the rules, but they can’t take my sense of humor.

Lesson Number 3: Objects in mirror appear worse than they actually are. I provide the documentation and pay the fee, the boy gets photographed and fingerprinted, and then he goes to the exam room to take the written test. Meanwhile, I sit. As I look around at the many faces navigating the system, I imagine the hundreds of stories contained in this one room, the many hours people spend waiting for loved ones and the results of exams. I think that about the fact that this is another milestone that Sam has missed, I think about how lucky I was to take one of Debbie’s sons to the DMV for his behind-the-wheel exam, and I think about how amazing it is that Tim is present for the so-called baby. Eventually, I am woken from my reverie by the presence of a handsome young man hovering silently above me.

His face bears an unusually glum expression, and my stomach sinks. He was so confident that he would pass the written exam, but instead it looks like we’ll have to come back to spend another afternoon in the bureaucratic maze. I hesitate to respond, trying to read the disappointment in his eyes. His chocolate brown eyes start to twinkle, and he grins at my fallen expression. “I passed.” He shows me the paperwork, authorizing him to get behind the wheel, and then his smile fades, as he turns to the last page, the one with the driver’s photograph. “Mom! What is with this picture? Does the DMV try to make you look ugly? Seriously, do I look this bad to you?!” Luckily for him, none of his brothers are within earshot of that question. I inform him that it’s the DMV equivalent of a snapchat filter, making everybody look uniformly ridiculous, but without any fun.

It’s not as bad as it seems. In another stroke of blind luck, he will have the opportunity take a replacement photo in about fifteen years, maybe about the time he has his first child.

***

Today, the so-called little one has his first behind-the-wheel instruction, and as he pulls decisively away, I realize he is about three blinks from his driver’s license, the SAT exam and the prom. Four blinks from taking his own kid to the DMV for a driver’s permit. Panicky, I turn toward the defective hunting dog for comfort. He is always happy to see me, and he never speaks. Not one sarcastic word. Most importantly, he will never leave me to go away to kindergarten or to college, and he will never drive off, leaving me standing at the curb, thinking two things: 1. We do not have enough crunchy snacks in this house to last for the entire two-hour driving lesson, and 2. I wonder whether it might not be the worst time to get another puppy.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And extra dark-chocolate-covered-pretzels.

 

 

 

 

Teaching a Teenaged Boy to Drive

Step 1: Don’t. If you can pawn this harrowing task off on another responsible adult, say, your spouse, or your truck-driver father with the 35-year good-driving record, do that. My husband taught our oldest son to drive, and then vowed never to teach another one. This approach has worked out brilliantly for him, but not so well for me, in light of the fact that we have four sons. I have, however, survived the death-defying experience of teaching two young men to drive, while currently an exuberant 15-year old impatiently waits his turn, so if you cannot delegate this particular parenting task, there is still hope.

Step 2: Implement a family GPA standard for driving. Make it at least as high as your insurance company’s good student discount, but preferably higher. No D’s. And yes, the GPA only counts if those good grades appear on the boy’s official transcript. If you are lucky, your son’s grades will be high enough for him to remain eligible to play sports but too low to drive. If he is lucky (and does his homework), he will put the student in student-athlete, and you will then be obligated to sign him up for Driver’s Ed, as you promised you would.

Step 3: Insist the soon-to-be driver navigate the DMV himself. This process alone might deter him from wanting to drive. But if he is old enough to drive (and has the requisite grades), then he should be mature enough to figure out the written-test/permit/behind-the-wheel/license gauntlet. Keep in mind that your primary goal is safety, and there is precious little evidence to suggest that an additional teenager on the road will improve traffic conditions. If he cannot decipher the process, drop him off at the local library so he can improve his research skills.

Step 4: Call your insurance agent. In California, your automobile insurance policy will likely cover your son while he is driving with you on his permit, and you will not need to add him to your policy officially until he earns his license. If you are really brave, you can ask your agent to give you a quote on how much higher your insurance premiums will increase after your son passes his driver’s test. I recommend that you be seated when you make this phone call, and yes, that number includes the good student discount.

Step 5: Call your lawyer. Once your son is in the driver’s seat and you are clutching the passenger door and pressing your feet into the dashboard in a futile attempt to slow the vehicle, it is too late to change your named Executor. Call your life insurance agent while you’re at it. And maybe your family priest.

Step 6: Hire a professional. Before you can legally teach your son to drive, you must pay a certified driving instructor. You will again realize that teachers are woefully underpaid and unappreciated, but more importantly, you can postpone your role in the process for another day. Or week.

Step 7: Put beer in the fridge. You cannot start drinking before you take your son driving and certainly cannot bring any road sodas on your trek together, but you will have something to look forward to upon your return to calm your rattled nerves. Trust me.

Step 8: Take a deep breath, and then exhale slowly. Continue this technique while you hand your son the keys to your car. Let him open the door for you like the gentleman you are grooming him to be. Focus all your intention on your breathing. This will keep you from gasping and shrieking, neither of which helped you, if you can recall that miserable day when your own mother was teaching you to drive.

Step 9: Speak only when absolutely necessary. If, as your son takes the wheel and eases into traffic, every thought flies out of your usually overflowing head, here is a go-to list of driver-approved commentary: “Turn right here.” “That’s good.” “Nice stop.” “Much better.” “Slow down a bit.” “You’re doing fine.” “Good job.” “A little faster.” “Careful.” “There’s a spot way over there, off in the corner, away from all these cars.” Now is not the appropriate time to discuss the disastrous state of his laundry, his latest algebra exam or his girlfriend’s piercing.

Step 10: Smile. You will both laugh about this later, much later, probably after he has earned his undergraduate degree, is paying for his own auto insurance and can enjoy a beer with you. But for now, admire the young man behind the wheel, be grateful for how far he has already come, and whisper a prayer for his safety on the road ahead. It is a privilege to sit in the passenger seat while he drives. Soon you will be waving from the curb, as he shifts the gear into drive and journeys forward on his own.

Driving Lessons

We have – on either side of our fireplace – framed portraits, each of a family of four. On another prominent wall we have a portrait of our family of six. Our goal has not been to replace anybody, but to create our own unique family. With kindness, mutual respect and a lot of humor.

It took us a long time to get here.

This is how I explained it to my sons: There is a daddy-shaped space that will be in your heart forever. Nobody will take his place. Nobody else fits. But here’s the thing about love… If somebody special comes into our lives, your heart will grow. That’s what love does. And there will be a new space just for him. It doesn’t take over the daddy space – it’s its own thing.

Fast forward a couple years, and I shared this same idea with my step-son, but he wasn’t buying it. He had definite ideas about where the wicked step-mother space should be, and let’s just say it wasn’t a prominent place in his heart.

But this is a boy who is pretty much all heart, even if he doesn’t want me to know this, so instead I appointed myself head cheerleader and president of his personal fan club. And it has been amazing what good we have done by putting our little broken hearts together. I made the decision simply to be present in this boy’s life.

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This is not always an easy task, particularly when “being there” means sitting in the shotgun seat while a 16-year old takes the wheel… Nothing brings you closer to the Almighty than teaching a teenager how to drive.

My own mother is a calm, patient, kind woman. She’s not much of a drama queen. I’m the drama queen. The first – and pretty much last – time she tried to teach me to drive turned her into a squawking, raving lunatic. Normally an articulate woman, she was reduced to unintelligible gesturing in a futile attempt to explain to me how to get the stick shift car into motion without stripping first gear completely. I eventually got out of the car and insisted that she drive us back to the house.

Dad met us at home, smiling expectantly, and my mother and I quickly wiped the grin right off his face. Slam! “I’m not driving with her ever again! YOU teach me how to drive!” Slam! “I’m not driving with her ever again! YOU teach her how to drive!”

My father taught me how to drive.

And now my step-son is in the driver’s seat. My husband – already experienced in teaching our oldest how to drive – has generously opted to let me have a turn. I vow to myself that I will not become the shrieking stress case that my mother was in the passenger seat.

My boy is very excited. The ink is still wet where the instructor signed off on his driver’s permit. After an expertly executed 11 point turn, my son extracts the car from the end of the cul-de-sac. We are on our way! As we turn onto the cross street, my neighbor passes on her way into our street. Of course, Mr. Social smiles waves and proceeds to careen dangerously close to the guard rail. Sharp gasp!! The overgrown oleander would have slapped me in the face had the window been open.

I’ve already failed. My inner squawking, raving lunatic is clawing her way right out. I clasp my hands in my lap and clamp my mouth shut. “Sorry sweetie,” I say. “I’m okay. You’re doing great.”

I remember all the times my mother attempted to stop the car while I was driving by pressing her feet through the floorboards on her side of the car. I’m not going to do this to my kid. Inhale. Exhale. I’m curling my toes inside my shoes. We are jerking forward and back. Side to side. I’m really grateful the car is an automatic. It’s not unlike Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. But without the safety features.

I start to pray. Hail Mary full of Grace, the Lord is with thee. What would Mary have done with Jesus behind the wheel? I’m convinced that she’s only a saint because she never had to sit in the passenger seat with her son at the wheel. She doesn’t have a clue! How is she going to help me?! Jesus turned her into a raging lunatic without a car! In his preteen 12 year-old arrogance – he decides to veer off in his own direction on foot and hold court in the temple. She finally finds him and loses her cool “Where the HELL have you been? Your father and I have been looking EVERYWHERE?” To which He replies “Whatever.” Or some similar tail-tweaking response endemic to teenagers.

I try again…Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb Jesus.

I think about my step-son’s mother – where is she now?! I have heard several stories about her driving prowess, none of which bode well for her sons’ driving ability. I sure hope she is donning her angel wings right now and clearing the traffic for miles around. 

Holy Mary Mother of God, pray for us sinners …

I have the conscious thought that our auto insurance premiums have been paid; and we have great medical coverage. Pray for us. Pray for us. Pray for us.

… now and at the hour of our death.

Our death? This prayer is not helping. I really hope that hour isn’t imminent. I wonder whether I’ve updated the designated beneficiary on my life insurance. I feel compelled to call our attorney to make sure he’s finalized our estate plan. And to call my mother with an apology.

We arrive safely back home. Amen.

Took my son driving again today. Truth be told, he’s already better today than yesterday.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your path. Especially when a teenager is driving.