Life Lessons in a Van

van driving

Still driving (vans) after all these years

I learned to drive on a fifteen-passenger van. My dad was the headmaster of a private school and he got a company car. That was our family vehicle, this large, tan deus ex machina that transported the math club and the basketball team and our family as well. By the time I was sixteen, I could parallel park with ease and had no idea that a compact car was considered one million times easier to drive.

I have a lot of great memories of driving with my dad. He was always so patient and took on an other-worldly calm as I would round corners or come to a complete stop at a neighborhood corner. “Watch that car there,” he’d casually mention, which helped to ease my overly-amped up ways. There was no need to fret, learning to drive was a safe, natural part of life.

We developed a good rapport, my dad and I. We would go out for a drive, run an errand, and here is where I learned the confidence and safety and complicated dance of wielding large machinery down an open road. I learned the nuances of my dad’s instructions, learned to trust his double-check when it was time to change lanes. Over the weeks and months of maneuvering the wheel, I learned that my dad’s yes meant yes and his no meant no. Dad is my co-pilot, that was enough for me.

One fall evening my dad and I ran up to the neighborhood grocers to grab something at dinnertime. My younger brother came with us and by the time we were heading back the sun had set.

It was dark as I pulled onto the street heading into our neighborhood, and I started the climb up that first hill towards home. I picked up speed in the dark, approaching an oncoming intersection with confidence — the other street had the stop, and I didn’t see any traffic.

We were at a nice cruising altitude, on a steady course for home when my dad yelled at the top of his lungs for me to STOP.

I threw my foot on the brake with all my strength, my level of commitment to that stop dictated entirely by my dad’s tone of voice. There was nothing else to give me pause, no other reason that I should stop other than my dad said so. I saw no car, no people, nothing in the glow of that hazy autumn evening other than a clear road ahead and smooth sailing to home.

But as our car skidded, I saw flash before us an oversized sedan in flight, floating through the intersection and sailing by the stop sign. The car, speeding down the road with no headlights and at full-force on our small neighborhood streets, would have crushed us instantly.

But my dad saw it and he told me to stop. And even though I didn’t understand his orders, I stopped in my tracks going only on the urgency in my father’s command.

It saved our life, my quick obedience. And that lesson has never left me. My ability to obey and do what I needed to do saved the lives of me and my dad and my younger brother. I was in the habit of obeying my dad quickly and in that moment it was a life-saving event.

I was retelling this story to my boys the other day, in the midst of a situation that they didn’t understand. Paul and I had reacted very strongly to something and my boys didn’t quite get it. “What’s the big deal,” they asked (respectfully), “we don’t see it.”

“You don’t have to,” we explained. There will be times, we told our boys, that the only way they might recognize the gravity of a situation is the way we react. “You might not understand, but you will have to trust us.”

It’s a hard lesson, but one I’m glad I learned early. After that near-miss in the van all those years ago, I was a teenager quick to trust her parents’ wisdom. My dad’s authority saved my life one night, that was enough for me.

This originally appeared in The Southern Cross.