Memories. They come back to me sometimes for no apparent reason. No free-associative thought behind them, they just bubble up.
I remember the first time I drove a vehicle. It was my dad's Chevy Blazer, the one I'm still driving today, back in 1988 when it was new and unblemished. I was 15 and didn't have a learner's permit yet, but he allowed me to get the feel for driving in the parking lot of our local GE plant. The parking lot was huge, it was a Sunday and there weren't any other cars around. My little sister was with us, as I recall. Mostly I drove around in circles within that parking lot, but never got out onto the open road. So, while it was technically my first time to drive, I never really considered it a real driving experience. But it was fun, nonetheless.
The first real driving experience I had was a year later, at the age of 16, when I was living with my mother in Dallas. My older brother was going to college in Lubbock and Mom and I took a road trip across the state of Texas to visit him for Spring break. The entire way there she drove. It was the trip back, though, where she decided that she was too tired to drive the whole way. I still didn't have a driver's license nor a learner's permit, but she felt confident that I would do okay behind the wheel of her car, a 1986 Toyota Carolla station wagon, on the open stretch of road.
I was nervous, I found much to my surprise, to finally be out on the open road. I had dreamed of actually driving a vehicle, getting from point-A to point-B by means of automotive locomotion. I guess it's something that all young teens want to do at some point. And even though I definitely wanted to drive, even though Dad had expressed full confidence years earlier while watching my prowess on car-driving arcade games, I was still nervous as hell. And it showed.
The first few minutes behind the wheel, my driving was kind of... not exactly erratic, but jerky. I gripped the steering wheel tightly, my knuckles gone white with the tension I felt as I held onto the wheel for dear life, and I couldn't seem to get a feel for travelling at speeds in excess of 60 MPH. The whole time, for those first few minutes, Mom just silently watched me with a bemused expression on her face. I couldn't tear my eyes away from the road to really see this smile that she wore at my expense, but I could see it in my peripheral vision.
"It's not funny!" I protested as a Mack truck zoomed past us, which made me tense up even more. "I've never done this before!"
"Relax, Jeremy. Just relax."
"I can't," I groused. "I keep getting mental images of one of those Mack trucks ploughing us into the asphalt and I am reminded of those twisted driver's ed movies they show to people who get a ticket. You know: 'Red Asphalt' and 'Blood on the Highway.' I can't concentrate!" I felt a shiver run down my spine as my imagination kept churning out visions of horror and gore in my head.
"What do you like to do most?" Mom asked me conversationally.
"Your son, who doesn't have a driver's license, is driving a car, your car, with visions of automotive catastrophe dancing in his head and you're asking him what he likes to do most?" I chanced a quick glance at my mother to show my incredulity. "Are you nuts?"
"No. I'm serious. Nuts was me, back in the 70's, when you were living with your dad and I was trying to put my life back together. Just answer the question: what do you feel most comfortable doing?" She pointed to the side of the road. "Here. Pull over a minute."
"Gladly!" I sighed. I was under the impression that she had taken mercy on me and decided to drive the rest of the way. I was silently thanking my lucky stars. When I finally pulled over to the side of the road, I turned off the engine and started to unstrap the seatbelt.
"Where are you going?" Mom asked me.
"Uhm... I thought you wanted to drive instead," I answered lamely. This would prove to be a pattern with me that would, later in life, be very difficult to break: I hadn't taken a cue from the woman beside me before making a move myself. I should have remained strapped in the seatbelt to find out what she had in mind first.
"Don't be silly," Mom said blandly. "We're having a conversation. And you still haven't answered my question."
I stared at her stupidly for a moment and then finally decided to just get this over with, prove that I was unfit for driving her car and get back into the safety of the passenger seat. "Right. The thing I love to do most. I guess that would be my music. I love playing piano. You know that."
She nodded and then closed her eyes in deep thought for a moment. Finally, she opened them and said, "All right, then. When you're driving, imagine you're playing the piano."
Again, I stared stupidly at her. "I beg your pardon? Driving and playing piano are about as related as fucking and washing dishes." I had only been under my mother's roof for eight months at that point, but already she'd taught me how to cuss admirably. My language had gotten looser under her peculiar household rules, but I had gained a certain sort of confidence at being able to express myself without worry of remonstration.
Mom laughed at that. "All right. You have a point there, but at the same time, you're dead wrong. When I say you should drive like you're playing piano, I don't mean the physical act of playing piano, per se. I'm talking about how you feel when you play piano. I've seen you do it: you relax completely and all the worries of the world disappear. It's like you're somewhere else and you're fully focused on that piano. It's your entire world. So... try to recall those same feelings when you're driving. Put your mind into the same zone you're in when you're playing piano."
I looked back out the windshield as I thought it over for a moment. Cars continued to zoom on by briskly, not a single one of their inhabitants aware of the fact that my mother had just taught me a very valuable lesson in concentration that I would carry with me even to this day. As I turned her advice over and over in my mind, as I envisioned myself fondling those ivory keys at that moment, something extraordinary happened: I relaxed. Just the thought of playing my music caused me to release some of the fear and tension which had ruled me just a moment before. I closed my eyes as I imagined my fingers dancing across the board of a baby grand, the action smooth and quick to my touch. I began to imagine notes and melodies in my head and I think I actually felt the wisp of a smile play across my lips.
I didn't see her do it, but my mother reached over and twisted the ignition key. As soon as the engine revved to life, I opened my eyes and felt a renewed sense of calm flow over me. Where I was fearful just a moment before, I now felt confident. Where I felt distracted, I now had focus.
I grabbed the wheel of the car, checked the mirrors, put my foot to the gas and, a few seconds later, the car seemed to drive itself out onto the highway. Less than a minute later, we were trucking along at 75 MPH and the wheel seemed to obey my every thought and command. I was driving. And, more importantly, I was no longer afraid.
"Next year," mother mused quietly a short time later after she awoke from a nap, still alive while I ate up many miles of road and hummed to myself softly. "Next year we'll get you enrolled in a driver's ed course and get you a driver's license." In truth, that happened two years later, but her suggestion had been a hell of an ego boost.
My mother has done only a few things in my life which I am very grateful for. That, hands down, rates in the Top Ten of the best things my mother ever taught me.