The summer I was 15, my grandfather gave me my first driving lessons. He and my grandmother had driven from Boca Raton, Florida to San Diego, California and rented a house on Coronado Island for the summer. It was my family’s first summer living in Los Angeles, and what with adjusting to our new home after spending all our lives in New York and my parents separation nine months after we arrived, teaching me to drive had not been at the top of the list of things to get done.
My grandfather’s car was a big, sturdy Mercedes four door sedan, with that uniquely Mercedes scent. Sitting in the driver’s seat with him next to me, we would slowly drive the quiet streets of the Coronado Cays, a little community of mostly vacation homes.
“Always drive defensively,” my grandfather would say. “Assume everyone around you doesn’t know what they’re doing.”
He was right, of course. No one around me knew what they were doing – not on the road and not my parents, my teachers, my new friends. No one knew what to do with me, rebellious and annoyed and thoroughly teenager-ish in the midst of all of the other swirling and tumbling things in my life.
I took great comfort in my grandfather’s attention. With a house full of family and friends coming and going, I knew that spending time teaching me to drive when I would visit each weekend was something not to be taken lightly. I loved my grandfather very much, but he was never the cuddly, jolly kind of grandfather one pictures. My grandfather was handsome, fit, and funny, with hands that reminded me of catcher’s mitts and eyes as blue as the sea. He was a little distant and a little hard to know – not that I was trying very hard to know him. All I needed to know was that he made me laugh and would sing to me a lot, his beautiful crooner’s voice one of the most wonderful sounds of my childhood.
“You’re a natural,” he would tell me. How odd it must have been for him to be sitting in the passenger seat while his 15 year old granddaughter drove him around. Neither of us really knew where we were – it was his first time staying in Coronado, and my first time visiting. The only familiar things in that car were each other.
When I was a little girl I would frequently spend the night at my grandparents’ home. We moved a lot, from house to house, so my grandparents’ home was the most familiar place I knew. I would sleep in the other twin bed in my teenage uncle’s room, and, always an early riser, be up and at the breakfast table when my grandfather would come into the kitchen. I would get a little shy around him, all clean and shiny, wrapped in his navy blue robe and wearing slippers.
When I stayed there he would always do the same thing each morning.
“I’m going to work now, see ya tonight,” he’d call as he went down the back stairs to the driveway to get the New York Times, still in his robe and slippers. Back up he’d come a few minutes later. “Wow, what a day!” he’d say. I always laughed. Every time.
My grandfather was a good driving teacher. I learned how to drive defensively, keep my eyes open and be alert to whatever craziness might be around me when I was on the road. I learned to do these things in my life, too – though that took some time. At 15 I was still too busy being irritated to be enlightened.
Many years later I was working in a department store in San Diego, having graduated from college and started my career. It was the last summer my grandparents would make the drive across the country to stay in Coronado –I didn’t know it at the time, but my grandfather had cancer. They came to the store to see me, though I wasn’t expecting them. As I rode down the escalator and saw them at the bottom, waiting for me, I could see the joy in my grandfather’s eyes as he looked up at me. Wow, what a day.