Driving with Dad

My father and I have always been close. I wasn’t a tomboy, but then I wasn’t ultra feminine either. We had a bond that we also shared with my grandfather. All three of us were first born children and we had a love for writing, so maybe it was genetic.

Very early on in life my dad tried to teach me to read his mind. He created some flashcards with names of colors on them. He would hold up the blank side of the card to me and tell me to close my eyes, focus on what he was thinking (what?) and guess which color was named on the back of the card. I can remember sitting on our sofa thinking¬†I have no idea what he’s asking me to do. How could I look inside his head and see what he was thinking which, in this case, was presumably the word on the card.

After a few hours, I could name the right color every time he held up a different card. In retrospect it probably was more because I learned the patterns he used to switch around the cards and try to trick me. Maybe there were facial tics and twitches I started to recognize, or maybe it was because of how he positioned his fingers on the cards as he held them in front of me. I wasn’t cognizant of those things at that young age, but I’m pretty sure there was no way I was actually reading his mind.

Whatever the reason, our bond was established and we remained deeply in sync for the rest of his life.

Sometimes when I tell people this, their eyes glaze over as if they’ve heard this story before and there was nothing unusual about it. I beg to differ.

As a photographer for the Orange County Register, he put a lot of miles on his cars. He always bought a new car and traded it in every two years, before the mileage got too high and the resale value of the car plummeted. Most of the cars he purchased were automatics so my mother could drive them, too. One year, however, he traded our beloved olive green Ford Mustang with a black hardtop for a blue Mazda-with-a-rotary-engine. It was also a stick shift and would supposedly get better gas mileage.

My dad was a coffee drinker, and in the days of no cup holders in cars, it was presumably easier to hold a cup while you were driving an automatic than with a stick shift, the latter of which was virtually impossible without putting the cup of steaming hot coffee in a very precarious position.

Almost immediately after the purchase of the Mazda he began training me to operate the stick shift while he operated the rest of the car. While holding a cup of hot coffee. At first there was no coffee when he taught me to listen to the changing sounds of the engine as he stepped on the clutch and moved the knobbed stick from gear to gear. I learned to look at the RPM gauge to see when the fluttering dial stopped and wavered. I learned about how high on the RPM dial each gear could go before I had to shift to a new gear. The no coffee teaching lasted about a day, although for a few days he would hold the cup out over the floor mat, just in case I had a rough transition between gears. Never happened.

I drove around with him so often that I mastered my new craft very quickly. After a while, he didn’t even need to speak to me to tell me I needed to shift to a new gear. I listened to the engine, watched the RPM gauge, and most importantly, watched his body language so that I knew when to shift gears.

We would drive around Orange County like that, whether running errands or taking a drive on Pacific Coast Highway from Newport Beach to Laguna Beach and then back home via Laguna Canyon Road. The first time we did this on the Balboa Ferry, I was terrified, especially when we were the first car on the small, three-car ferry. I worried we would drive off the front end, into the water. It was as if I momentarily forgot that he was operating the brake.

(Don’t laugh. A car did drive off the ferry recently, and I always take that as validation of my fears all those years ago.)

The relationship between my father and I in the car was a lot like how we were in life, always in sync, always knowing what the other was thinking, always watching out for each other.

Toward the end of his life, my dad became a little cranky and would say unkind things to me. I took it as long as I could before the tears started to flow. I know he was very sick and uncomfortable and irritable, but it was almost unfathomable to me how the father I was so in sync with, the man who rarely said a harsh word to me, could turn so quickly and say cruel things.

He always apologized later. It was as if some different being invaded his body for the few minutes it took to reduce me to tears, and when the old dad returned, he was mortified at what he had said. Most people told me to ignore these outbursts; after all, he had cancer and was going through an extremely difficult time. Easier said than done.

We were good when he passed away, but it makes me sad to think of the time I missed with him because I allowed myself to be hurt by words I know he didn’t mean. I wish we had one more time in a stick shift car, driving down Highway 1 along the California coast. He would have a cup of Dietrich’s coffee and I would be operating the gear stick, completely in sync for one last trip together.


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