One hot night many summers ago, my big sister and I lay sleepless in the tiny bedroom we shared. The droning of an ancient exhaust fan could not drown out our bickering.
“Yes, Mom did say Grandma is taking us shoe shopping tomorrow!” I was the baby of the family and longed to be taken seriously.
“No sir! She said maybe,” snapped Carol. She pressed her face against the bedroom screen and shouted, “Grandma might drive us downtown tomorrow!”
Hysterical laughter erupted from next door. Our first cousins’ bedroom window was only one strong squirt of a water pistol away. They laughed because they knew our dignified grandmother drove her car around town with a killer instinct likened to Willie Shoemaker’s when he pounded the final furlong at Churchill Downs.
No wonder Grandma sought an outlet for her high-spiritedness. Born in the 1890s, she grew up in a mannerly world where etiquette and corsets were equally stifling. Young ladies adhered to a long and complex list of rules.
A driver’s license changed her world. Thereafter, the feel of a steering wheel under Grandma’s gloved hands prompted her to fling her manners out the car window as if they were chewed up Chiclets.
Grandma and her 1949 Studebaker were polished, classic beauties. They were a striking duo as they raced between her favorite places: the Lutheran church, her bridge club, Eyerly’s department store, and the horse track.
The morning of our road trip with Grandma, Carol and I wavered between anticipation and anxiety. While jet planes cracked the sound barrier high above us, Grandma reduced the twenty minute distance between our homes to ten. The Studebaker braked by our front door with a force that shook us down to our saddle shoes.
“Girls, where are your gloves? Tuck in your blouses!” We climbed into the car’s cavernous back seat and perched there, hovering our bare legs above hot, itchy upholstery.
Grandma shifted into first, and at that moment her bossy nature and love of horse racing merged. She jockeyed into traffic. Wielding the gear shift like a crop, Grandma accelerated and the Studebaker leapt ahead of the pack. We were off!
Her savvy lay in shortcuts. They eliminated those pesky deterrents to her driving–-traffic lights, stop signs, and pedestrians..
We girls clung to the armrests as the Studebaker careened through alleys as narrow as an old man’s veins. Hapless citizens scattered like terrified chickens upon our approach, then disappeared in a swirl of dust and gravel.
The car lurched to a halt at the farmer’s market. We clambered out. As soon as Grandma’s leather heels hit the pavement, the etiquette lesson resumed. “Mind your manners, girls.”
Back in the car, we rocketed into the downtown parking lot that she and Granddaddy owned. Lester, the lot attendant, knew he’d better intercept the boss’s wife before she jettisoned into a space or else he’d be pilloried in the town square by dusk..
Once again on foot, Grandma was transformed into an expert on genteel femininity. “Keep your voices down...always stand back and let older people go ahead of you...don’t show off, boys don’t like girls who are smarter than they are.” And the edict we were weaned on, “Act ladylike!”
The reckless grandmother reappeared on the drive back home. She allowed us to wind down our windows and take turns sitting on the armrest. While a warm breeze stung our eyes and blew our hair askew, Grandma sang old-timey songs in a goofy falsetto. Delighted to see her silly side, we laughed and believed we would indeed live to wear out our brand new shoes.
“Change your new shoes before you go play with your cousins,” Grandma ordered. She and the Studebaker rode off, silver hair and polished chrome flashing in the late afternoon sun.
Years passed. The last race had long since been run at the racetrack. Carol and I had children of our own. Grandma was getting up in years, her freewheeling trips to town- more dangerous. Her car keys were taken away. Lester recognized the miracle of the Studebaker’s unmarked chassis. He bought it and put it out to pasture.
Grandma fumed over losing her wheels, but she adjusted. The way she saw it, command control simply shifted from the left side of the front seat to the right.
“Now just pull right up there in front of that other car, Carol. Go on. They knew you were here first. Some people have no manners! Dana, honk the horn!”
Nowadays, Carol and I occasionally drive our own grandchildren to the store. For the most part, we use good driving manners. If we have an occasional lapse and leave less adventurous drivers eating our dust, we can’t help it. We were raised that way.