What if I'd Said...Just Drive

4 years ago

I had a recurring nightmare as a child:  It started with my brother and me in a parking lot in my mother’s Pink Panther Pink ’69 Mustang convertible with a white rag top and a rumble seat instead of a trunk.  A limited number of them had been produced by Ford for the county Blossom Time Festival parade to carry all the community queens.  The particular parking lot we were in, however, was outside a crumbling brick building in a rather questionable area of a southwest Chicago suburb, near where we lived for a couple of years when I was in elementary school.  My mom was a Brownie leader, and used to leave us in the car when she ran in to buy patches [in actuality, she probably only did it once].  I’m sure it wasn’t that bad of a neighborhood, but compared to where we came from, this had a lasting imprint on me.

My brother had once hooked his diapered behind to the gear shifter in my mom’s car, and it had tumbled down the dirt driveway at my grandparents’ with her running after it, and shouting at it to stop, before my brother dove out the window and she managed to jump in and slam on the breaks.  It was an old green Ford Torino, or something.  So I may have had a subconscious desire to rescue him from that, and this dream took the two of us, somehow from said parking lot near Chicago, careening down a familiar street back in Michigan in our quaint lakeside hometown.  I am in all of third grade; he’s in first, and I’m behind the wheel where this street takes us bouncing along the bluff above Lake Michigan, careening and hanging on for dear life, until eventually I can’t keep control on a curve and we go sailing off a cliff, into oblivion.  I wake up, sweating, frightened, and feeling like a failure.

A condition that, years later, is oft repeated when I’m a single mom, trying to survive with a delightful, sparkly-eyed little toddler to care for.  Alone.  With no child support. 

Despite that, with my daughter, our meager belongings and hand-me-downs, I left behind the 1200 square foot house my mother shared with her abusive husband, three dogs, two cats (to which I was dreadfully allergic), and their new baby; my littlest half-brother, who came a year and nine days after my daughter and, although he caused my mother months of heartburn and morning sickness, whom I cannot imagine life without. 

I moved us into a back alley apartment downtown that had a ‘dining room’ just large enough to fit a half-open oval drop-leaf table that had been my grandmother’s, my daughter's high chair, and a chair for me.  Literally, that was it.  Someone had given me a piece of carpet to put down, which I had to cut with scissors and nail into place (I was twenty-one years old; what did I know of carpet-laying...what did I know of parenting?).  I think it was all of 4 feet, by 4 feet.  There was one bedroom, just wide enough for her twin-size bed and an old cane rocking chair from my mother, in which I would read to her every night before bed, and where underneath the swooping wooden arms still crusted her projectile spit-up years later.  The room was long and narrow with one closet, mine, but at least it was white, and there was room for her changing-table-turned-dresser on one wall, and an overloaded pink metal book-shelf, just inside the doorway.  There was little room for her to play on the floor, and no carpet to cover the hardwood.

I’d hand-stitched her a pink balloon valance, a blue one for our living room that doubled as my bedroom, and stayed up for almost an entire weekend straight to hand-stitch a blue-flowered comforter for myself.  I have it in the guest room to this day.  My daughter and her husband sleep under it when they come to visit from their new home in New York.  She used to curl up under it with me, on the pull-out couch, and watch Looney-Tunes on Saturday mornings while I slept in. 

She used to curl up in my lap on the bathroom floor, and lift my tear-streaked face, and say,

“Wudge you, Momma.”  Too much responsibility for one so small.  It was so hard.  Paying for daycare.  Keeping the lights on, which I didn’t always.  Keeping the heat going. 

And the loneliness. 

A cavernous loneliness from working and earning never enough; from returning bottles and cans from my dad’s office for their 5-cent deposit to buy bread and milk and eggs to feed my little girl; from raiding his change jar for quarters to go to the Laundromat to wash our clothes. 

There were boyfriends on occasion. We both had our hearts broken more than once before we met the man she would eventually call daddy, who would walk her down the aisle and cry at her wedding and dance with her under a spotlight into her husband’s waiting arms, and give her an equally impish and delightful step-sister to grow up with and for us to love and be the only person who could possibly send her off to her new life with the perfect Maid of Honor RAP.

The man who would, after six years of failure, finally give us all a dinosaur-loving little boy to add to our family and to love and fuss over and who provided an excellent source of birth control for his teenage sisters.

So, what if…?

What if the recurring nightmare that I’d remember years later while driving my toddler around that same curve in my 1981 Dodge Omni with no radio; sucking her binky and clutching her soft yellow blankie…what if instead of putting on the breaks and slowing down and taking that curve cautiously during a blazing snow-storm and thinking time and again through my tears that long winter that I couldn’t possibly do it without her—to leave her with a lifetime of thinking it was her fault—what if I’d closed my eyes, took my hands off the wheel and decided to just drive into that icy lake?

But I couldn’t do it with her either.  She was too precious.  Too beautiful.  Too full of life and personality and hugs and Wudge You Mommas.  Too full of marigolds to call miracles.  And I needed her, and she needed me, and she saved my life in more ways than I can count.  But it was all so much more than one tiny girl should have been asked to carry on her tiny shoulders. 

We made it through that winter, and another, and another after that.  We made it through me losing a job, and not being able to pay rent for a winter before we met her daddy and her sister.  We made it to the day we moved into a new place with them and I vividly saw the weight of more than two thousand days before float off her shoulders with the imagination of two little girls with the same birthday two years apart, who were both for once, just being kids; playing with the dollhouse my grandfather had made her on the floor in her new bedroom…which had more than enough room for two small girls to sprawl out on their bellies.

Thank God I didn’t…Just Drive.


[Author's Note:  This started as a sort of "combat writing" exercise--which I highly recommend--through Rebecca T. Dickson's & Laura Howard's brilliant writing prompt for JustWrite Week #4, "What if I just kept driving?"  In the spirit of the exercise, I'm resisting the compulsion to go back and edit things {it has since been lightly edited in consideration for BlogHer's Voices of the Year '13} like missing subjects, etc., etc., etc.,..., which is hard, but the deeply emotional stuff that happens when you do combat writing like that, I'm now totally convinced, is pretty magical stuff, so it's worth it.  Editors take note, however, I can do better!]


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