It used to be a joke. Women drivers! Hahaha. Hardly any of the Jewish moms drove when I was growing up in Newark’s Weequahic Section in the 1940s and 50s.
If we kids were old enough to have plans outside of the neighborhood, it was up to us to make all the arrangements ourselves, whether they were by bus or bike or foot. Only very very rarely did we enlist a father to drive us somewhere. Never a mother. So my Aunt Edna was a pacesetter, ahead of the curve, a real and true modern woman!
Edna got her driver’s license too late in life, well after her 40th birthday. I never understood why she bothered. After all, Aldine Street was easy walking distance to almost everywhere she needed to go, and the public buses nicely covered the rest. The 107 went straight to the Port Authority Bus Terminal in New York. The 8 and the 14 went to downtown Newark, via different routes, both equally convenient. There was no simple ride to Newark airport, but Edna was not a jet-setter and I don’t recall, at her premature death, that she had ever flown anywhere.
But for whatever reason, she took driving lessons and was rewarded with a New Jersey driver’s license. This gave her a sense of pride rather than transport. She never ever drove anywhere.
My own mother was preparing to drive at a much younger age. Yet she also never drove. Ever. As she explained it, she was a learner behind the wheel of her brother Dave’s 1935 Ford when someone jumped on the car’s running board, causing Mom to accidentally put the car into gear, forcing the intrepid would-be passenger to fall off the running board. Momentarily Mom thought she was guilty of death by auto. She never drove again.
On the other hand, I had yearned to drive as long back as I could remember. I grew up in a generation that expected women to become competent drivers. Luckily, I had a teen-age boyfriend who decided that he would give me driving lessons when I was 15, hopelessly illegal indeed. By dint of his own hard work and his part-time job he owned an old car. We would find empty parking lots and practice all the intricacies of shift driving, a much more complicated procedure than automatic. So I learned to go from first gear to second to third, and the very tricky reverse. I learned to use a clutch. I learned to grind the gears as well. The car had no turn signals, so learning them was never a focus. When the boyfriend — his name was Paul — thought I was ready, he showed up on Aldine Street with his father’s brand new 1956 Chevrolet Bel Air. We headed for a parking lot and that was where I dented the fender of that shiny new Chevy.
I choose not to recount his father’s reaction. It was not a happy scene!
Eventually I turned 17 and completed all the requirements for a driving test. In those days you didn’t get an appointment. Showing up ridiculously early was the only method of taking the road test. And you had to be accompanied by a licensed driver. Since my father was a working man and my mother didn’t drive, it was Edna whom I begged for the favor of coming with me to my road test on Frelinghuysen Avenue. It would require us to leave about 6:30 a.m. in order to secure a place in line.
Edna was eager to help, anticipating that it would be a one-time arrangement. It wasn’t.
The first road test, in my father’s old 1950 Buick, which he had given to me rather than trading in, proved very challenging. Without the power steering that I had become accustomed to in my driver’s ed class, I couldn’t complete the K-turn. In utter horror I needed to ask the tester to help me out. Needless to say, he would not grant me a license. It was a dismal failure, and both Edna and I were pretty unhappy.
We revisited the testing center a few weeks later, after I had honed my K-turns. Uh oh. In the middle of the test it started to drizzle. I can still remember my thinking, at that very pivotal moment in my life. Should I take one hand off the wheel and turn on the windshield wipers? Perhaps I should pull over to turn on the wipers? Or should I just tell the tester that it was a light rain and I could see just fine, which I could? I decided that was the best tactic. It was not. I failed the test again, because the wipers were not on. Oy.
Edna stayed friendly, but I’m sure she did not joyfully anticipate yet another early morning rendezvous. She and I were both discouraged.
The third time the tester was the same gentleman who had flunked me the first time. Oh no! I felt like this would never end — at least until Edna told me she might be unavailable. I performed with great skill. The tester never mentioned my previous problematic K-turn. This time my stars were aligned, and I executed the turn perfectly. It didn’t rain, not one drop. I was home free, and I was going to actually become a licensed driver then and there.
I’ve had joy like that in other circumstances. When I got married. When my children were born. And many other auspicious events. That Buick that awaited gave me many good years of service, even with its lack of power steering. Since that day until this day I’ve never been without a car. And I am an intrepid driver, fearless, whether in Manhattan or Tel Aviv or countless other foreign countries.
My father was a successful driver. He never, in more than 60 years behind the wheel, had an accident, not even a fender bender. Never a scratch. And this from a guy who didn’t believe in directional signals and who usually drove too slowly when he wanted to see the sights, or too fast when he didn’t. His cars always came with various other more trifling issues. They all had tires that he, throughout his lifetime, refused to check. He waited for the inevitable blow-out or flat to remind him that tires were never going to last forever. He became a whiz at changing them on crowded highways, dodging the traffic headed straight at him.
None of those drivers aiming for Dad ever succeeded in doing him, or his car, harm. The most terrifying of those moments was on a dark and windy night, a tire change on a bridge on the Pulaski Skyway, a bridge you, dear readers, probably know very well, a bridge, one of two, with no shoulders. Pop, my grandfather, got out of the car, mumbling his complaints in Yiddish-speckled English, and used his cane to direct the traffic away from Dad. Miraculously, the sight of an elderly gentleman wielding a cane as a weapon was entertaining enough to deter the bored drivers from crashing into Dad, and us, his helpless hapless passengers.
We all came out intact. Mom was truly saintly. She never said a word criticizing Dad.
So it was with great surprise that we greeted his news, delivered around his 70th birthday, that at age 80 he would turn in his driver’s license and cease driving. Always the optimist, he was confident that he would reach that advanced age. And he did! On that very day, May 15, he stopped driving. That was when he and Mom relocated a bit. They moved from the State of New Jersey to the State of Israel. They rented an apartment in downtown Herzliya, where they could easily walk everywhere they needed to be. Dad never drove again, although he lived another 17 years in good health.
I suppose one day that I too will stop driving. Will it be by choice? I don’t have the answer yet.
And as to Edna, she died young, falling to the kitchen floor one morning. Just like that! May this little remembrance be a tribute to her, my father’s inspiring sister and a woman I loved!
Rosanne Skopp of West Orange is a wife, mother of four, grandmother of 14, and great-grandmother of three. She is a graduate of Rutgers University and a dual citizen of the United States and Israel. She is a lifelong blogger, writing blogs before anyone knew what a blog was!