HorsepowerEssays, Featured — By Michelle Reinhold on August 3, 2012 at 8:35 am
One of my favorite memories of my 16-year-old daughter is of when she was about three. She had this favorite ride-on toy that she almost wore out the wheels of. A small, white plastic horse with a painted-on red saddle and yellow reins. Ellen would climb on its back, kick off with her short toddler legs, and just fly over the pavement, down the sidewalk, anywhere weʼd let her go. She even rode it around inside the house in rainy weather. Once, my husband took her to the hill just down the parking lot from our condo, where there was a sidewalk that gently sloped to the bottom of our street. She set her little self on that horseʼs back and there wasnʼt even a kick-off. The slope got her going, and did she ever go!
She was so fun to watch, but it was certainly nerve-racking to see her pick up speed as she went. My mindʼs eye envisioned the cuts and scrapes her little legs and arms could collect if she wasnʼt careful. I was the one more worried about those things then (and still am today if I am honest about it), and it was difficult to let her try all the things she seemed keen on. How about just riding in the parking lot today? I would ask my husband. It was a small lot, not populated with many cars and no traffic during the day. The perfect place for a toddler to roam free on horseback.
Or why donʼt you walk along beside her? Iʼd ask. But always the voice of reason (and the advocate for all things fun) my husband somehow reassured me each time that she would be fine, and she was. Iʼm sure there was a point where she must have fallen off that little horse (more than once, probably), but she always got right back on. I donʼt recall any serious boo-boos from those plastic pony-riding days. To be sure, she has a few childhood scars on her now teenage legs and arms, but she sure had fun earning them.
These days itʼs a different kind of horse that holds her interest: the horsepower of the driverʼs education car. Granted, not much horsepower there in the compact car, but itʼs that same promise of fun, speed, and freedom that lures her now. I found myself just as reticent to see her go on her first round of driving time as I did when she climbed aboard her ride-on toy at the top of the hill all those years ago. The stakes are much higher now, I tell myself. What if she has an accident? What if she gets hurt? What if she doesnʼt come back? What if, what if, what if.
Sometimes I think I spend too much of my life in what-if land. It feels very safe there. For me, itʼs like a perpetual, empty parking lot to play in. No serious accidents to worry about, and in that vast, flat expanse of concrete, I can foresee any problems that might crop up and fix them before anyone gets hurt. At least thatʼs what I tell myself. Ironically enough, the student drivers start out their training in a parking lot, and that sounded just fine to me. But of course they have to move on to the roads and the freeways. Really, what kind of driver would anyone be if we all stayed in the parking lot? (Not to mention weʼd never go anywhere.) I was just glad I wasnʼt the one to be in the car on those first days of training.
So on her last of the six hours of required driving time, my daughter was pretty excited to be almost finished. She had already completed five successful hours and received several positive comments from the driving instructor about how confident and careful a driver she is. Her last day of driving was a rainy one–not stormy, but wet. Not having driven in rain yet, she was a little anxious about it. I tried to reassure her as we pulled into the parking lot before class, telling her that the key was to drive more slowly when it was wet out. There were other things worth telling her, but I was sure the driving instructor would be going over those with all the students in the car before they left.
It turned out that she would be the only student to drive that afternoon; the other student couldnʼt make it. So when Ellen asked the instructor if I could join them for their hour-long session, I was glad to go along, but also unsure how I would do as a passenger with her for the first time. I decided that I would sit in the back seat with my book and read, telling Ellen to just “ignore me” as she positioned her seat and checked the mirrors. “Oh, I usually do, Mom,” she told me as she checked behind her before backing out. It took a couple of seconds for me to realize she didnʼt mean she usually ignores me; she meant she usually ignores the other students in the back seat when itʼs her turn to drive.
I really did a good job of concentrating on my book as she drove down ever-busy 28th Street, following each of the instructorʼs directions with care as he led her toward the freeway. Wait! The freeway? That seemed a little too much like the sloping sidewalk from her childhood, and all of a sudden I was ready to suggest we turn around and head back to the stable for the day. I mean, really, it was raining, and she was new at this. Wasnʼt this too much to ask of my young daughter? But Ellen, confident as ever, continued to do everything right as she made her way onto State Route 131, and I could do nothing but feel very proud of this courageous young woman in the driverʼs seat.
Then as we made our way off the freeway, down the exit ramp into town, the inevitable happened at the stop light. A huge slam and crunch assaulted our sense of well being as a terrific jolt from behind sent us all straining against our seat belts. Yes, on my babyʼs last day of driving time, she was in an accident. She got hit, even though she had done everything right. And I was right there with her when it happened. Everyone was okay, but she and I were both shaken up by it. Who wouldnʼt be, right? Accidents are bound to happen, but to my daughter? While sheʼs in driverʼs ed? With me in the car? It just seemed too bizarre to be true. I mean, I didnʼt even see it coming! Iʼm the mom. Iʼm supposed to protect her from crazy stuff like that. It turns out none of us saw it coming. Like with so many other experiences in life, we were taken by surprise.
After enduring stares and rubber-necking through several cycles of the stop light (a couple of amused drivers even gave her a thumbs up sign), we were dismissed by the police, and her driving instructor asked her if she wanted to drive back. She said she wasnʼt feeling like she wanted to try, so he took over, and she joined me in the back seat. Watching her in the rearview mirror, he asked about 15 minutes later if she felt like she was ready. “Sure,” she said in a most nonchalant manner. Right back into the saddle she went, and she did a fantastic job of getting us back to the parking lot that day. She was still shaken up by the whole experience–thatʼs one of those scars that fades with time–but she didnʼt let it keep her from finishing the task at hand.
Now she knows what itʼs like to be in an accident; she knows what to do, the steps to take. And she knows that she is that much stronger now, that much more confident, that much more willing to take on the next challenge. Because getting back on the horse is one of the best lessons she will learn, and watching the grace and determination she showed as she drove back that day taught me that letting her try is one of the best gifts I can ever give her.