It takes three pillows to lift me high enough to see above the Kia Soul's dashboard. "I had great visibility in my last car, a Honda Fit," I tell Michelle, as she hauls a trio from the trunk. "I'll be more confident if I can see both front fenders."
"Pedestrians, too," Michelle says, "you have to watch out for pedestrians and bicyclists. Check left, front, and right before proceeding or turning, think 'left, front, and right."'
I repeat, "left, front, and ride," hoping her mantra will guarantee that any walkers and riders in my path remain unscathed.
Michelle, who is young enough to be a granddaughter, has picked me up at 6:00 in the morning for my first driving lesson. After two hours of instruction and practice, she will accompany me to the DMV, lead me through the lines, and then wait while a tester takes over the passenger seat.
It was just four months ago, on my 77th birthday, when I decided to let my driver's license expire. I reasoned that since I hadn't driven for nearly two years, I wouldn't bother with the renewal and instead apply for a state identification card. After all, with my two legs, shared rides -- Uber and Lyft -- and the CTA, I had competently managed my travel needs.
Recently, the lack of a license started to nag: I felt my decision to forgo renewal had prematurely aged me. And the only way to reverse that discomfort was to get it back. But, first I'd had to pass a road test.
I was certain any licensed friend would be willing to escort me to the DMV, and then turn over their car for the test, but I was too skittish for that route. If I could take a few lessons from an accredited driving school, and then use their auto for the road test, I was certain my chances of passing would improve. A search on Yelp led me to the Nova Driving School, to Michelle, and to the three pillows between my tush and the Kia's front seat.
In 1952, when my dad first taught me how to drive, I pulled pillows from our plastic-covered sofa to prop me in his four-door Buick. As he flicked ashes from Camels into the butt-littered tray, he showed me how to grasp the wheel in the ten and two positions, execute the hand-over-hand turn, operate the stick shift, and play the clutch.
And he divulged secrets to parallel parking, which I have since passed down to two daughters and one grandson: Line up your car with one that is parked at the curb. Slowly, back up into the empty space as you turn the steering wheel to the right. Fix your eyes on the right headlight of the car parked behind. Aim for your target, then reverse the direction of the steering wheel. Slip in.
"Make a left at the next light," Michelle says. I push the lever down to signal my turn, step gently on the brake, and come to a neat stop at the red signal. My instructor looks pleased as I say, "left, front, and right" while checking each of the three directions.
"You've got this," Michelle says, likely relieved that despite my age and lack of practice for two years; she will not have to stomp on her instructor's brake. "You haven't forgotten anything."
"This is fun," I say, resisting the urge to floor the gas pedal as if I were a felon fleeing the scene. Muscle memory has renewed and I am once again the teenager who has been handed the keys to the Buick.
"Both hands on the wheel," Michelle orders, after my left dropped to my lap following the classic hand-over-hand.
"But that's how I always drive," I tell her.
"You could lose a point for that," she says.
When Dad drove, he used only one hand for the wheel; the left lingered out the rolled down window. His arm was tanned from finger to elbow, and the remainder white as his grocery store apron.
During the road test, I forced myself to keep both hands on the wheel. And with Michelle's meticulous instructions, and memories of Dad's lessons, I easily passed. Sadly, I wasn't required to parallel park; I would've aced that.
To keep fresh, I'll occasionally rent a Zipcar, haul pillows from my couch, and take a spin. Anyone need a lift? Costco run?