The Gods of Talent can be capricious. Most of us receive only a limited set of skills. But there are also the gifted few, such as Leonardo da Vinci, who are bestowed with multiple, world-dazzling abilities.
Then we come to my mother, who was given a list of talents that included artistic brilliance, searing wit and a photographic memory. But she was also the worst driver I ever met.
To say that my mother was a bad driver is like saying that the Second World War was a difficult time, or that Donald Trump is somewhat self-centred. As much as I loved and respected my mom, I came to the conclusion that she should never have been allowed to command a car.
Driving ability is only one small part of a life – you can be a great driver and a terrible person. My mother was the reverse. She was an inspirational parent, and a woman of considerable elegance, with a natural, Jackie Onassis sense of style. She was a great mom who left her mark on everyone and everything she encountered – especially the cars.
By the time my mom died (miraculously, not in a car crash), she had left behind a legacy of bent metal and terrified passengers. She obtained her driver’s licence in the 1950s. I doubt it involved an actual road test.
Until I was 11, I never saw my mother behind the wheel. My father always handled the driving. But in the mid-1960s, he was deployed to the Middle East for two years as part of the UN peacekeeping force, leaving my mother alone with three kids and the family Mercury.
Although I was only a boy, it dawned on me that my mother was not a skilled driver. She clutched the wheel in a death grip and moved her seat as far forward as it could go, placing her nose millimetres from the windshield.
More than one person tried to coach my mom, but she was locked into her own terrible style. “If you don’t like it, get in another car,” she told one would-be instructor. (He did.)
My mother damaged almost every car she drove. She tore the passenger door off our Comet backing out of the garage. Our Falcon wagon had its right flank destroyed when she misjudged a parking lot entrance. She clipped a fire hydrant with our freshly waxed Opel, and backed my little Fiat into a ditch. My mother was a body shop owner’s dream.
Our nomadic existence as a military family meant that we had to deal with a wide variety of driving conditions. We lived everywhere from small-town Nova Scotia to coastal Africa to the capitals of Europe, where cobblestoned streets and super-fast highways called for road awareness and superior skill. My mom possessed neither.
In the mid-1970s, when we were living in Belgium, my mother stopped driving, prompting a collective sigh of relief on the part of all who knew her. If my mom needed to get somewhere, she was chauffeured (usually by me or my father). This was a bit inconvenient, but we considered it our contribution to public safety.
Unfortunately, this respite ended in 1981, when my mother bought herself a car. She and my father were living in Nova Scotia, in a farmhouse that she had turned into a glorious, Martha Stewart-style showcase.
While antiquing with a friend, my mom spotted a car for sale – a black Corvair Monza. Although she knew nothing about cars, she loved the Monza’s lines, and purchased it for purely aesthetic reasons.
If you’re a car buff, you will know that the Corvair was the car consumer activist Ralph Nader singled out in his book Unsafe at Any Speed. With a rear-mounted engine and swing-axles, the Corvair was a sensitive, unstable machine that demanded a master’s touch. Giving my mother the keys to a Corvair was like handing a nuclear weapon to a jihadist.
Fortunately, my mother soon lost interest in driving when the Corvair kept failing to start. This was because we’d drained the gas out of it, knowing that she’d never check the fuel gauge.
My mother’s interests and concerns did not involve mechanics or physics. She loved art, politics and design. She loved visiting her family in the Maritimes, throwing parties for her wide circle of friends, painting, writing and going to political conventions.
By the time she died of cancer in 1996, my mom had gone around the world several times, raised three children and created countless works of art. She was a remarkable, gifted woman whose intelligence and humour filled every room she occupied, and I still miss her. So here’s a happy Mother’s Day to a great mom – and a terrible driver.
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