Learning to Drive

Is that Gaelic I’m hearing?


My mom taught me. She cannot have enjoyed the experience. There was a lot of stopping and starting and sharp intakes of breath and murmured imprecations and sighs of relief. I heard every one of those sighs of relief. She also had the lovely habit of stomping her foot on the floor of the car on her side, the passenger side, although there was no brake pedal over there. She also had the startling habit of banging her hand on the dashboard on her side, the passenger side, even though I asked her several times to try to refrain from doing so, as it was unnerving to the driver to suddenly have his mom slamming one hand, and sometimes two, against the dashboard, with a resounding slap that did not bode well and ultimately, I felt, would damage the dashboard.

We started in the immediate neighborhood, and then slowly expanded our range to include most of our small town, but it is driving through the familiar streets that I remember best, because the experience was wholly different for me than it had been when running and bicycling through them; for one thing when I drove through the familiar streets with my mom, little kids sprinted back into their houses, and dogs retreated hurriedly away from the curb, and one time a squirrel with a smashed chestnut looked up, as I approached in the Fairlane at one mile per hour, and rather than offer the usual lewd and vulgar gesture, as squirrels usually did when I approached on my bicycle, this one actually, no kidding, fainted dead away, right there in the street by the nut, and I had to inch my way carefully around him or her, hardly scraping the parked cars at all.

My mom never did use foul and vituperative language when she taught me to drive, but she came awfully close, and more than once she said something sharply in another language than the American we used in the house. I asked my dad later what language this could have been and he said, memorably, your mother switches into Gaelic when she is aggrieved, annoyed, rattled, peeved, startled, furious, frustrated, despairing, enraged, frightened, terrified, vengeful, bellicose, belligerent, irritated, incensed, and infuriated. Probably it was Gaelic. You don’t want to know what she said. I know what she said. You don’t want to know what she said.

The nadir of my experience learning to drive with my mother was the time I zoomed right through a yellow light at an intersection that had eight lanes feeding into it, and my mother gasped and said something sharply in this other language, and I realized that I had done wrong, so before I got all the way across the intersection I stopped, and backed up, through whizzing traffic in several directions, until we were back where I should have stopped when the light turned yellow. I was proud of myself that I had fixed the problem I had caused, and I turned to look at my mom. She was sitting quietly, with her hands in her lap. It seemed to me that I must have been improving significantly as a driver if she was not glaring, and not saying anything sharply in another language, and not banging furiously on the dashboard with both hands, and not pumping the nonexistent brake pedal on her side of the car, and I felt proud. When the light turned green I accelerated slowly across the intersection, keeping an eye out for cars in all directions, and we headed home.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Brian Doyle, an essayist and novelist, died on May 27, 2017. To read Epiphanies, his longtime blog for the Scholar, please go here.


Please enter a valid email address
That address is already in use
The security code entered was incorrect
Thanks for signing up