The Passenger

My mother was extremely nervous when driving a car. On one memorable occasion, when I was around 3 (and Mum was 24) she drove us to see her friend in the suburbs of Hobart, while Dad was at work. In them bygone days of no seatbelts, when little kids sat in the front seat, I had a great view out the windscreen. As Mum drove onto a multi-lane ONE WAY road, going the wrong way. Into oncoming traffic. 

The Passenger

I clearly remember cars barrelling directly at us. Honking and swerving to both right and left. Poor Mum was distraught, as she just drove slowly down the road, until the next intersection. Where it was possible to turn out of the way of the hurtling traffic… 

My memory of childhood impressions of this event are completely at odds with my realisation, now as an adult, of the gravity of what happened. At the time, I thought it was all rather funny and exciting. Like being on a dodgem car ride at the fair. Or watching a madcap scene in a cartoon, or movie comedy. It would be years before I understood what death even was, and that Mum had narrowly swerved under the Grim Reaper’s scythe that day.

But at the time, with me giggling like a loon, Mum must have realised that I was not in tune with realities. I might cheerily pipe up with an account of the day’s death-defying hell-ride to our next door neighbour. Or dish out the deadly details at dinnertime, when Dad came home. She made me promise not to tell anyone what had happened. 

I also remember sitting in the back seat of the family’s Toyota Corolla, while Dad gave Mum a driving lesson one weekend, in the vacant parking lot of the University of Tasmania. We were surrounded by open empty space on all sides as Mum kangaroo hopped forward at about 2 miles per hour. Sick with the fear that she’d kill us all.

Mum’s tell when she was stressed was a “tut-tut” clicking of her tongue. Her anxiety was often contagious, and never more-so than when she was driving. Dad became agitated. Although a professional educator, he could be impatient when teaching his family. That fuelled Mum’s agitation, which made Dad more irritable. That driving lesson was a feedback loop of irritation, tension, and anxiety.

Even as a child I was aware Mum was often anxious, but didn’t see my father that way. Only in adulthood did I realise that Dad was often nervous too, and that the nervousness of others compounded his own. Often, what appeared as anger, was actually Dad’s anxiety, cloaked in bluster. And a lot of swearing (which was a tell of Dad’s). 

One time, I was a passenger as Dad drove to drop off baby brother Alex at child-minding. Which required crossing the busiest road in town. As we pulled up to the intersection, Dad hunched, with his tongue between his teeth (another tell) when baby Alex chimed in from the back seat – “Oh, f∇<k!” I had to laugh, and Dad did too. Explaining that Alex had learned to associate that word with this particular intersection. Hearing the phrase at this exact same spot every single day. 

Long after she’d died, Dad & I were swapping memories of Mum. We both had a chuckle about the time Mum & Dad squabbled while driving through the Scottish highlands, and our car landed in a ditch by the side of the one-lane country road. We were very lucky that a car coming the other way was able to pull us out of trouble. Mum & Dad were both immediately sheepish in the aftermath.

I asked Dad if Mum had ever told him of her one-way misdirection when I was small. Dad was genuinely surprised. Despite being a chatterbox all my life, and especially when I was a wee boy, I kept that long ago promise to Mum. I didn’t tell anyone, until after she’d left us.

Mum Jamie 1967 Bw
Passenger & Driver. Chillin’.

You might wonder if I’m a nervous driver too. The fact is that I’ve never driven. I’d just begun learning (getting my own cranky driving lessons from Dad) when Mum got sick. The focus for our family was elsewhere for the next year. Next, I was working in Sydney. Too broke to buy a car, I rode a bicycle instead. I was soon living abroad, in tangled Megapolises like Tokyo. Challenging places for a driver’s test, even if I could speak the language. When finally living in an English-speaking city, I’d been in the habit of not driving for so many years that it stuck. 

Besides, I’m descended from two worrywart nervous drivers. The world is a safer place without me behind the wheel. I’m frankly amazed that almost everyone else drives. 

Me, I’m a lifelong passenger. 

16 thoughts on “The Passenger”

    • Ah, the days of yore – when everybody was born smoking & drinking at all times, and nobody wore a seatbelt!
      Ha ha!
      Thanks for reading and commenting Steve. I really appreciate it.

  1. Jamie, love this story and the way you tell it. A true gift of words that made me feel I was in the passage seat of your mom’s car too! ❤️

    • Hey Ashley! Glad you liked this one. I could have expanded it (and maybe I will) because I have many memories of our family driving. Australia is a big place, and we often drove to see family living elsewhere. Long drives, long before cars having entertainment options inside. Apart from squabbling!
      ha ha!
      thanks for reading & commenting!

  2. As a professional passenger you have been spared an unimaginable financial haemorrhage, and an incalculable level of angst.
    It also goes without saying the horror I still remember as an ambulance cadet starting out at 14 years old.
    All said and done circumstance has been kind to you.

    • Jimmy, my comment above started with the intention of agreeing with, and making light of the advantages of being a non-driver but somewhere in there I found a more serious ( and darker) tone which I apologise for.
      I tried to find a way to delete the piece, but without success. I’ll be more careful in the future.

    • No worries Deane! No apology necessary. This here blog can deal with darker stuff. Death even! I remember some of your horror stories from your time in the ambulance corps. They made an impression on me as a young dork. Who knows, they may have even contributed to keeping me away from the steering wheel!
      Thanks for reading & commenting Deane!

  3. I dislike driving more each year and admire your state of perpetual passenger. Or…I should say I enjoy driving when things aren’t a madhouse — which means I often take back roads and spend an additional 5 – 15 minutes getting around.

    Also: I wish there were a say to say “Oh, f∇<k!” and have it audibly sound how that looks!

  4. You manage to make people & events both vivid & gentle, Jamie, still trying to sort out how you do it but thanks!

    I’d love to hear about the long car trips in Australia as my family spent about a month a year driving forth and back between Los Angeles and Pocatello, Idaho in the VW bug my dad bought new in 1956. The whole thing about driving for hours without any radio even was profoundly different, and if there’s nothing there, there’s just nothing there, so then what? Draw!

    Thanks again m8!

    • Yes. Looooong road trips were a big part of my childhood. VW van full of kids with nothing to do for hours on end, except getting each other into trouble with Mum & Dad..
      Might be worth a post all to itself. Though the problem would be how to capture the vibe of childhood BOREDOM without being boring to read.
      Thanks for commenting Scott!

  5. James! Wonderfully written, as always! As a suburban kid in car-centric Atlanta, I got my license at 16 and so embarked on a lifetime career as designated driver (highlights being driving on the left in the UK, commuting up and down the I-5 weekly etc) but now I’m sort of tired of the whole traffic scene, having got used to the ferry and the BART — let some other poor soul deal.

    • Commuting by FERRY is one of the nicest commutes that there is! I used to love riding the ferries in Sydney Harbour. Thank for reading & commenting, George!

  6. Yeah some similar experiences from childhood that upon reflection weren’t exactly as remembered.
    Thanks, James, please continue to provide us with real life.
    Great great picture!

    • Hey Scott! Yeah, reflecting on childhood memories is interesting isn’t it? Sometimes, when I think things through, I wonder if events truly played out the way I remember them..

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