CJ Kaplan’s relationship with his daughter takes an unforeseen turn when she gets behind the wheel for the first time.
“They come back to you.”
That’s what all my friends with post-teenage daughters tell me. If you can make it through those brutal years between 11 and 17 when everything you do and say as a parent is wrong, your daughter will once again seek your council and revere your advice as she did when she was little. My female friends, former teenage daughters themselves, claim that their fathers became almost mythic figures once the raging tempests of hormones and high school were behind them.
Invariably, my response was the same:
For most of her life, my daughter Samantha operated under the premise that she was right and everybody else was wrong. Since I fell into the “everybody else” category, we found ourselves at odds on a daily basis. As the oldest of three and the only girl, Samantha generally fought to get her way in every situation. Without compromise. Whether it was about bedtimes or homework or trips to the mall or whether the earth, in fact, revolved around the sun and not around her, Samantha always dug in her heels.
She never took no for an answer even though my wife would constantly say things like, “You need to learn how to take no for an answer.” (File that one under Things Your Parents Said To You That You Swore You’d Never Say To Your Children) Heck, Samantha usually refused to take maybe for an answer. And the more our voices rose, the more resolute she’d become.
I never had a sister, so my experience living with teenage girls began with Samantha. My wife, Lisa, was the younger of two girls and was widely acknowledged as “the good one.” While my future sister-in-law was giving her parents holy hell, Lisa generally stayed out of trouble and did as she was asked. With Samantha, neither of us could understand where this seething fireball of disobedience had come from and why no amount of reasonable discussion could quell the flames.
So, when my well-intentioned friends told me that my daughter would someday once again sit lovingly at my side, I scoffed.
Then, Samantha got her learner’s permit.
I remember my father taking me to the elementary school parking lot just before my sixteenth birthday. He parked the car, got out and had me get in the driver’s seat. For the next hour, we drove in circles around the empty lot while he instructed on the finer points of steering, braking and using my mirrors. We visited the lot several times over the following weeks and when I got my learner’s permit a few days after my birthday he let me take us on the open road.
On a beautiful Sunday afternoon this past fall, Samantha and I were on the way home from lunch when I impulsively turned into the very same elementary school parking lot.
“You’re driving today,” I said without preamble.
Startled, she looked up from her phone with a quizzical look on her face. “But Dad, I don’t have a learner’s permit yet. It’s illegal.”
(“Really!” I screamed inside my head. “You won’t follow a single rule we set in the house, but you’re concerned about the vagaries of the Massachusetts underage driving laws?!? Are you effing kidding me?”)
Out loud, I said, “Don’t worry. I’ll take the heat if we get caught.”
I showed her where the turn signals were, how the lights and wipers worked and how to turn on the front and rear defrost. Then, we started in slow, loopy circles around the lot. She was a little erratic on the brake and the gas, but not bad for the first time out. Her turning was a bit of an adventure and several times I had to push the wheel to keep us from running up on the curb. But, beyond the driving, she was doing something she hadn’t done a lot of in recent years. She was listening to me. Maybe it was because she was on unfamiliar ground. Maybe she thought I actually knew what I was talking about. Either way, I had her attention.
At one point, another car entered the lot. It was roughly two hundred yards away from us when Samantha spotted it. She quickly pulled off to the side and put the transmission in Park.
“What’s the matter?” I asked.
“I don’t like other cars,” she replied.
“Well, I’m afraid you’re going to come across a few of those once you get on the road. So, you might as well get used to them.”
“Okay, then. Maybe that’s enough for today.”
Over the next couple of months, we practiced in the parking lot four or five more times. Then, on January 4th, the day after her 16th birthday, Samantha got her learner’s permit. That weekend, I drove over to the lot and let her chart her own course. After a couple of laps, I turned to her.
“Drive up to the entrance. We’re going on the road.”
“I don’t know, Dad.”
“You can do it.”
Apprehensively, Samantha eased her way onto the main road and then brought the car up to a speed she had never before attained—27mph. As the cars began to stack up behind us like planes over O’Hare, I assured her that she was doing great. Like many new drivers, Samantha tended to hug the right side of the road. And when I say hug, I mean that I was pretty sure I could reach out the window, open one of the perilously close mailboxes, peruse the correspondence within and (since we were traveling at roughly the speed of a mom pushing a jogging stroller) put the mail back in the box and close it.
“You might want to get a little more toward the center of the road, honey,” I said through gritted teeth as I grasped the seat so tightly that I left permanent marks in the leather.
Eventually, we pulled off into a quiet neighborhood where Samantha could tool around without causing a major traffic jam. When she travelled back down the same main road she originally clogged, she was infinitely more confident. Telephone poles and fire hydrants continued to be a legitimate danger, but she corrected herself more often than I had to. She even pulled into our narrow garage when we got home. By any measure, it was a successful first outing. I don’t even think she saw me drop to my knees and kiss the ground when I got out of the car.
Over the past month, Samantha and I have spent a lot of time driving together and she has improved with every excursion. Along the way, something even more remarkable has happened. First, she started texting me funny lines from “The Office” which she’d been watching on Netflix. She even filmed her favorite scenes on her phone and sent them to me. Up until then, our texts had gone something like this:
Her: Pick me up now.
Me: Where are you?
Me: Which Julia?
Her: Just pick me up now!
Then, she asked me to help her with Macbeth, which she was reading for English class. We’d read a couple of scenes out loud every night and then I’d ask her questions about what happened and what she thought might happen later in the play based on what we’d read. Her comprehension of the text was impressive and she accurately predicted just about everything that would befall the bloody king and his guilt-ridden wife. Last week, we had the following text exchange:
Her: I got 100% on my Macbeth test.
Me: Fantastic! Great job! I’m proud of the effort you put into understanding this play.
As far as I know, she sent that last one without even rolling her eyes.
It would be a stretch to say that Samantha and I have done a complete one-eighty since she started driving. We still have arguments and heated words, but we also laugh and joke a lot and have—I’m gonna go ahead and use the word—normal conversations. Sometimes I even think she’s listening to me.
So maybe, just maybe, my daughter is starting to come back to me.
I just hope she doesn’t run me over when she gets here.
Photo: Stewart Black / flickr