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  • Behind the Wheel
  • Nona Kennedy Carlson (bio)

In the summer of 1978, in the way a bird molts its feathers, I shed my childhood and grew into a very young adult. At the beginning of that summer I learned to drive, and by the end, I was drinking coffee like a bleary-eyed shift worker. I was ten. A kid wise beyond her years, who had seen things. A kid who took on adult behaviors and responsibilities out of necessity, as a means of survival.

My father taught me important things, or so it seemed, when I was a child. He taught me how to ride a horse, how to dig postholes and mend fences, how to wrestle calves for branding. That summer of 1978, my father bought us a little blue Jeep, like the ones they drove in M*A*S*H, and taught my older sister and me how to drive. The Jeep had a manual transmission and this was important. We lived on a ranch in North Dakota and “learning to drive stick” was a necessary skill. In a pinch, we might be asked to operate the tractor, run lunch up to the fields where my father planted alfalfa or bailed hay, or fetch the mail from its box atop a metal barrel a mile from our house. My older sister and I had already spent years steering our father’s truck in low gear while he stood in the back tossing salt licks and mineral cakes to cattle, or guiding it along a ridge while he scoped for coyotes. The summer of 1978, though, we were doing more than steering. This was full-fledged driving and it opened up all sorts of possibilities for me. I’m not sure where I thought I might go, but I knew I could drive away if I wanted to, if I had to. My mother had done so earlier that spring. I’d caught her in the driveway, just in time.

“Where are you going?” I asked. “Can I go with you?” I knew my mother wasn’t driving to the grocery store or to a neighbor’s. My younger sisters were nowhere in sight, so this had to have been planned. Though I loved my father, terror swept through me at the thought of being left behind. There had been [End Page 103] many late-night arguments that year, after my mother held dinner for hours, after my father returned home drunk. They were the kind of battles that wake a kid from a sound sleep. Dresser drawers flung, beds torn apart, breakables thrown. Maybe I worried that with my mother gone, I might end up my father’s opponent.

“Get in” is what I remember my mother saying, although I can’t be sure she even gave me permission. I may have simply opened the passenger door and decided for myself. No suitcase, no toothbrush, no change of clothes. This is how it was. You had to be ready. My older sister stayed behind, not even trying to come along, which makes sense. Even at that age, I understood that she and my mother had a difficult relationship. She simply asked, “But what if I get my period while you’re gone?” My sister was only 11, but it was hard to know how long we would be gone, if we would return. Our lives were unhinged, and we had learned a sort of practiced unpredictability. My mother, though, had prepared my sister for puberty and simply said, “You’ll know what to do,” then drove away.

The trip I took with my mother didn’t last and this saddened me. I had high hopes of leaving my father behind, at least for a couple of weeks, and setting out with my mother, just the two of us. We could always go back for my sisters later, I thought. I never had time alone with my mother and it felt like a gift. I dreamed of living in the city, getting a small apartment, eating exotic food like spaghetti, which my mother only substituted variations of meat and potatoes for when my father was traveling. It was...


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pp. 103-109
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