Friday, August 27, 2010

Riding In A Car With Two Boys

“What do you think you’re doing?”

The young man behind the wheel had put on his left turn signal before pulling into the turning lane. “Um, I’m letting the driver behind me know I’m making a left,” Kevin said.

“That is totally unnecessary,” said his driving instructor. “You don’t have to use that signal until you’re actually making the turn.”

“I don’t mean to contradict you, Sir,” Kevin said, “but isn’t the point of signaling to warn people ahead of time of what you’re about to do? I mean, it’s for my protection, too. They could end up rear-ending me.”

“Well, you know who gets screwed if that happens? They do. The one who does the rear-ending always gets charged. Ha! So, don’t be so frisky with that turn signal of yours.”

Kevin sighed as he stopped for the red light.

“Now put on your signal,” said Mr. Kean, the driving instructor. Kevin complied.

“Um, Sir, don’t you think that once I’m in the turning lane, other drivers will assume it’s because I’m turning?”

“Now, Son, you have no way of knowing what other people assume.”

The light turned green, so Kevin eased into the intersection as he waited for oncoming traffic to pass.

“What do you think you’re doing now?” asked Mr. Kean. “You’re going to get us killed out here!”

“I’m getting ready to make my turn, as soon as this traffic clears,” Kevin replied. “There’s still plenty of room if someone wants to pass through the intersection.”

“Back up!”


“Back up, I said! Get back behind that stop line.”

“But if I do that, the light may turn red again and I’ll never make my turn!”

“Back up.”

Kevin checked the rear-view mirror and put the car in reverse. Sure enough, the light turned red again.

After making his left turn, Kevin proceeded down Turner Avenue. Mr. Kean told him to turn left again. Kevin put on the turning signal as he edged next to the center line, then came to a stop.

“Now, Son, that was the wrong thing to do.”

“What? What do you mean?”

“I mean if you want to make a left, you should pull your car all the way to the right.”

“Why? It will block all the traffic behind me,” Kevin said. “Why should they waste their time and gas waiting for me to make a turn?”

“Why? I’ll tell you why! You’ve heard of aggressive driving, right? Well this is passive-aggressive driving. And another thing. When you do pull over to the right to make a left, don’t use your signal, just turn your wheels to the left. The other drivers will be able to tell you’re making a left by the direction of your wheels.”

“That’s not the way my parents drive,” said Kevin, making his left turn.

“Well, Son, that’s why the State deemed parents unfit to teach their children to drive and made it mandatory that you learn to drive from a bona fide, certified, college-educated driving instructor such as myself,” Kean told him. “By the way, you’re driving in the wrong lane.”

“The wrong lane? No, this is the driving lane. That,” said Kevin, pointing to the left lane, “is the passing lane. That’s only for passing.”

“Well, on some roads that’s the case, but there are exceptions and route 33 going east of the city is one of those exceptions.”


“Why? Why? You gotta slow these people down. If you drive at 45 miles-an-hour in the passing lane, that’ll force them to slow down,” Kean said.

“Yeah, but everybody’s stuck. And who made you the traffic regulator?”

“Listen, Son, don’t argue. Just pull over into that so-called passing lane.”
Kevin put on his signal.

“No, no, no! Have you not heard a word I’ve said? Don’t use your signal. Keep ‘em guessing. Just drift on over into the lane.”

Kevin shook his head as he followed instructions. He needed to pass this class so he could get his license, and it wouldn’t do to disobey this guy.

“The thing you’ve got to remember is that when you’re on the road, you have to think of yourself,” said Mr. Kean. “Don’t worry about the people around you … Now, what did you go and do that for?”

“The lady wanted to get into this lane so she could make her turn. All I did was let her in!”

“Don’t you know that’s an attack on your manhood? Never, I said, never let anyone into a lane ahead of you. You think you’re being real nice, don’t you? But do you know what she’s thinking of you now? She’s thinking what a wuss pushover you are. You’ve got to maintain control!”

Kean shook his head. He looked at his watch.

“Your driving lesson is over for today. Let’s go back to the school.”

And thus another Virginia driver is born.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Family Matriarch Hits the Century Mark

Grandma Austin turns 100 this month.

That's old. To me, Grandma has always been old. She was already in her 60s - I was 17 - when I met her 38 years ago.

In this day and age, turning 100 is not unusual. Still. A hundred years is a long time. Life was a lot different back then.

It cost 2 cents to send a letter. The average annual income was $750. The government spent $.8 billion.

The population of the United States was just more than 92 million. The divorce rate was one in a thousand. Only a third of children attended elementary school and only 5 percent graduated from high school.

Children worked in factories, farms, mills and mines.

The 1910s were a time of great transition. The first women's suffrage parade was held in 1910. The first World War began in 1914. Automobiles began mass-production.

Of course, it was the automobile that would eventually lead Grandma's family to go their separate ways. Even as an adult, Grandma's siblings and in-laws all lived within a few miles of each other. Though her children remained on Long Island, most of her grandchildren have scattered, to upstate New York, Virginia, North Carolina, Connecticut.

Living here in the Valley for the past 30 years, my daily life is vaguely connected to family. Of course, my kids and grandkids are here, but it's not very often that a birthday or other holiday is celebrated with extended family.

On this trip "back home," the husband and I stayed with my first cousin on my mother's side, who lives in a neighborhood where I lived as a child. Two other cousins on my father's side live in this same neighborhood. So I passed all their homes on my morning walk. And just driving through town, I saw a cousin walking down the street, the deli that was my grandfather's grocery store and the sidewalk where I learned to ride a bicycle.

This happens to y'all Valley natives all the time, but for me it was a reminder of my connection to a people and place.

Along with the automobile came the telephone, which has helped us all to stay in touch, despite the miles.

America was still mostly rural in 1910, so Grandma grew up on a farm. She raised her children on a farm, too. That farmland is now covered with shopping centers, office buildings and houses. Her husband, a carpenter, helped to build the first Levittown.

And so we gathered to celebrate Grandma's 100th birthday. Two of our children and their families, the four grandchildren, made the trek.

The party was held in a huge gazebo on the property of the nursing home where Grandma lives, on the south shore of Long Island. It was a beautiful day, one of the only comfortable days this summer.

While she's not mobile - she's confined to a wheelchair - Grandma is quite lucid. She remembers everything and has an opinion on everything, too. She has a great appetite and enjoys a good meal.

Some of her nursing home friends also came to the party. They all spoke of Grandma as a positive, encouraging presence there. In spite of her age, Grandma still has a bit of womanly vanity. She's quick to point out that there are several women at the home who are older than her.

It was fun to see my grandchildren with her, their great-great-grandmother. Scarlett, 4, had never seen such an old person. She stood and stared at Grandma, as if she was memorizing every line and mole on her face. Several times she picked up Grandma's hand and stroked it, examining it. What a contrast between their skins.

Of course, we took pictures. Of her three children, only one is still alive. Two grandchildren have died in recent years. This is the difficult part of living to 100, outliving children and grandchildren.

The last time Grandma visited here, at age 93, she told me she was ready to die. However, she knew she still had more years to live. As a child in a Catholic elementary school, a nun told her she'd live past 100. She has always known this to be true.

Then, the husband and I took her for a ride on Skyline Drive, where she saw a bear in the wild for the first time. She insisted that we pull the car over so she could get a better look.

"Well, what do you know?" she said. "An old lady can see something new!"