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My mother’s driving, and other strange tales


Among my mother’s group of Japanese friends, she was the only one that learned how to drive.  I would sit the back seat of the driver’s training vehicle as she maneuvered around San Francisco to the exasperation of her instructor.   Sometimes I would sit in the space between the back and front seats – clearly before child car seats became law – and play with my sister’s mangled Barbie doll, but I was never spared the driving instructor’s wrath as he desperately tried to instill simple driving techniques to my mother.  Parallel parking was an endless, insurmountable challenge, especially on hills, a skill required in San Francisco.  It took her six attempts, but she finally got her driver’s license and a brand new gold Ford Falcon.

Since we lived in the ghetto, my mother would periodically look out the front window to make sure the car was still in one piece.  In fact, the only direct attack on that car came when I threw a hotdog bun out the window and watched it land – ketchup side down – on top of the hood of the car.  It was only after we moved to the Richmond district that my mother began inflicting dents and deep scratches into the car whenever driving it into or out of the garage.  At crawling speeds, she would bang the car against the sides of the garage, letting wood chips and body paint fall.

Although she did have a license, my mother was not a good driver.  Every lane change was drama-filled as she would jerk the wheel violently to move the car horizontally instead of opting for that smooth, seamless move that is favored by most drivers.   It became a private joke among her friends and my girlfriends, and one that I would only discover after Mrs. Kusano expressed her joy in knowing that I had not inherited my mother’s lane changing skills.

If going out of town was required, my mother would rarely use the freeway.  Trips to my piano teacher’s home in Redwood City took 2 hours down El Camino Real, and we were never allowed bathroom breaks.  Because she restricted her car driving to only certain areas, the rare trip to a McDonalds in Daly City was counted as a major out-of-town experience.  I still remember that wide-eyed, fear filled moment when she almost plunged the car off the side of a steep hill at the McDonalds freeway exit.  This might have contributed to my general dislike of McDonalds..

Whenever we used the Falcon to cross the Golden Gate Bridge, my mother would let “Uncle James” drive the car.  Her fear of the bridge was so vocal and profound that I inherited this particular trait, preferring to ride the bus or walk across the bridge if I ever wanted to visit Sausalito.  One time, however, I let a unlicensed girlfriend who, buying a Volkswagen on a whim, drove a few friends of mine (Gina, Michael) and I across the Golden Gate Bridge.  She had never driven before, and both Michael and I sat in the backseat clutching for dear life onto whatever handles we could find.  For some reason, that experience broke my fear of the Golden Gate Bridge.  After that, I regularly drove my mother across the bridge for trips into the North Bay.

As she gained more driving experience, my mother would use the Bay Bridge to bring us to the Olympic-sized swimming pool in Concord.  It was a terror filled experience, and one that I never found to be worthwhile, as I watched my mother hunch over the steering wheel, her eagle eye warily looking at every other moving vehicle while she puttered along at 45 mph in the slow lane on the freeway.  Sweating would start when there was merging traffic, and she would start muttering words of self-encouragement.  My nerves would finally settle when we were back in San Francisco, lost somewhere on Octavia and Fell.

For all her driving shortcomings, she was still the only one of her group that was brave enough to tackle the auto.  Whenever another serial killer was on the loose, our little group of students relied upon Mr. Mitsuda, Mr. Horikiri, Mr. Yamashita, Mr. Kusano and my mother to drive us home from Japanese school.  She had her dizzying routes at very slow speeds, and I would stare out the window to purposefully catch the scorn of other drivers who would gun past her.  We enjoyed the ride, and she would never complain as we would yell, sing songs, chew gum and bounce around while she patiently drove everyone home.

Years later, my father would learn how to drive, and he would become my favorite driver for some very special reasons.  My father used to rear end people at speeds of under 5mph, never causing any physical damage.  However, he would always stop the car in the middle of the road, never putting on his hazard signal, and inspect the front grill with intense scrutiny.  My father was also the king of forgetting his keys in the car, although nothing ever quite topped the time he left both the keys in the car and the engine running while we enjoyed a day at the San Francisco Zoo.  It was a miracle that no one drove away with the car.  I bet the many dents and embedded wood chips on the side of the car were a major turn-off.

Eventually, the old Ford Falcon was traded in for a smaller Datsun B-210.  This was a car that my mother could easily park in and get out of the garage, which was good since she had to keep paying for damages to the walls of our flat.  The relative small size of the car made my mother far more comfortable, as it allowed for smaller blind spots and made it easier to check for cars that drove around her.  She, of course, attributed every positive change to the fact that she was a Japanese person driving a Japanese car.

After the Datsun was passed onto my sister, my mother bought a burgundy colored Toyota Corolla.  She was very proud of her Toyota, taking great pains to wash it and never driving over 25 mph.  When my mother reached her mid-forties, however, driving had become a more frightening experience.  She eventually opted to let me pick her up from work, preferring the comforts of MUNI to the stress of San Francisco driving.

It was only when we moved closer to Ocean Beach that my mother was forced to return to daily driving for work, but she opted to make her own rules for the road.  This was something my boyfriend found out when he followed a particularly horrible driver through Balboa Street one day as he was driving me home.  This driver decided to make a full stop at every MUNI bus stop sign.  His frustration was clear through the use of colorful language interspersed with incredulous laughing.  It was only when the driver pulled into my driveway that we realized that my mother had been behind the wheel.

Of course, she continued stopping at MUNI signs.  I remember once flying off an express bus one night when I realized that the traffic on Balboa street was caused by some poor guy who rear ended my mother as she stopped at a MUNI bus sign.  Ironically, her driving career finally came to an end when she was violently rear ended at a proper stop sign.

It is just as well, of course.  My mother was so brave to drive.  She wanted so much to be independent, and that has been a driving force in her life.  She was the only one of her group to become an American citizen.  She was also the only one to change from Buddhism to Catholicism (in name only, you see, as she created a hybrid Buddlicism).  She rode the MUNi everywhere, even at her leisure, took the Chinese language bus to Reno and wanted to be alone when she played the blackjack machine.  She also traveled the world, even tagging along when I went to France.  There, my mother would randomly exchange hugs and kisses with the French she encountered in the Monoprix, dismiss the whole counting coins and paper money thing by handing her coin purse to cashiers and learned to survive on her own for a week, shunning the language barrier to make friends in Cannes while I pressed on with business.  My mother danced at weddings, liked to bark at Safeway cashiers and said rude things to Japanese customer service people.  Part of her whimsey stems from her inability to care what others think of her behavior.

She has not been the perfect mother, by any stretch of the imagination.  While she has been braver and more independent than others, it was her friends that made up for her myriad of sins as a mother.  My mother and I are like oil and water, and while she has spent a lifetime deriding me for not being like her, it was the other mothers who always came to my rescue.  They let me sleep over their homes for days at a time, invited me to see baseball games, brought me along on family camping trips and let me perform terrible handwritten musicals based on the TV show “Kung Fu”.    I can never thank them enough for all they have done, giving me the opportunity to appreciate the balance of the quiet and the bold, the subtle and the loud and the beauty in all things my mother has observed as weaknesses.

My mother has a callous disregard for the feelings of others, especially when it comes to their opinion of her, but there are reasons why she is braver and more independent than most.  My mother was the third child of her parents to be given away while still a baby, and she went to live with her next door neighbors lover, the head of a very wealthy and distinguished family.  She never knew of the adoption until it was pointed out to her by a playmate who identified a tall, elegant and beautiful woman as my mother’s real parent.  That contributed to a lifetime of bitterness and anger at having been given away, and age has done nothing to temper her feelings.

When my husband, in-laws and I traveled to Japan with her, my mother flaunted her relative independence in her native country by disappearing at the Yokohama shopping mall/train station, which is the size of a small country.  I sat my father-in-law, who had gone through a myriad of surgeries on a back that had been destroyed through years of jumping out of an airplane, into an instant photo booth for two hours while the rest of us scoured the mall and Yokohama train station in search of my mother.  Our worries for my mother were well-founded.  She had a habit of leading us on the Bataan death march of mazes, always losing her direction because a building marker she once remembered in her youth had evaporated.  Several hours earlier, she had gotten us lost again, refusing any help from me, as she struggled to find the subway station to my cousin’s home.

Finally, we gave up the search.  By the time we returned home, my mother was watching television and eating snacks.   For her own personal reasons, my mother had decided to assert her independence from the rest of us by going back home, unannounced.

I was so angry that I could have rear ended her.

Happy birthday to my mother! (3/18)

(c)2014 Slow Suburban Death.  All rights reserved

Published inCarsChildhoodJapanese AmericanJapanese StuffSan FranciscoShort StoriesWestern Addition

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