Driving with Sophia

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sophia yellowYou are tall for sixteen, the year you get your driver’s permit; a recent visit to the doctor for the annual physical, a requirement for running cross country, put your height in the 97% percentile. Back at the old place your dad would measure your height and mark it on your bedroom doorframe, always the same: a little dash and next to it, the date in tiny, neat printed letters.   The marks start at age five, and move up the frame only incrementally until you are nine, when the increments become noticeably, stealthily larger.

Each time a new hash was added you would compare your height to mine, standing on tiptoe and minimizing the distance between the tops of our heads, which always made me smile, remembering how my own dad marked my height on the inside the doorway of mom’s yellow kitchen in just this way, and how afterwards, I would examine the vertical hash and then announce to my mom “Look, I am almost as tall as you.” Not quite yet, she would laugh. But soon.

When will I be taller than you, you would ask. Watching me seriously as I took pencil to paper and calculated your rate of growth from age six to seven, seven to eight, eight to nine. As I made the projections, I explained the calculations with you nodding soberly as if following it all, and then wrote the number 11, and circled it. There, I told you. That is how old you will be when you will be taller than me. You seemed skeptical that you would grow taller than me while still in middle school, but the only thing hard to believe about the projection turns out to be its truth; you are indeed the same height as me the year you turn eleven, for about five minutes.

By the time you are thirteen you are sometimes borrowing my jackets and shoes, and when you reach the age of your learner’s permit, your legs and arms seem as long and spindly as the spiders we call daddy longlegs that we would sometimes find walking daintily along the windowsills on the back deck of our garden. Baby longlegs, I call you, and you grin your shy slightly crooked grin; you might be getting taller by the day, but your smile is still pretty much the same smile you’ve had since you were two and so is the tug at my heart.

When your half sister was the age you are now, she was considering two universities: one east coast, one west. To help matters, I promised her my car, so that, should she choose the west coast option, she would have an easy means to get to the city and visit us. It was a straight up bribe, of course, and what teenage girl can resist the siren song of a yellow convertible? On a fall day in Palo Alto, she proudly took possession of what has to be the perfect vehicle for a design student to drive. To my surprise, I would be the one to teach her to drive a stick shift, an instruction she found less nerve wracking coming from me than your dad – not because your dad is harsh, but because she was able to recognize the extreme pressure she put on herself to perform well in front of him. She needn’t have worried – she, like you (and your shared dad) is a careful listener and a quick study; within a week of learning she was making the long drive from Palo Alto to San Francisco mostly without incident.

It’s nice you are so close, people tell me. You are both lucky. I smile but say nothing.  Luck, I read somewhere, is a contextual grace, relative rather than absolute. Meaning, I think, that we create our luck; it is our circumstances that recognize the preparation and reward it.

Growing up, motherhood was nothing I imagined for myself – my context didn’t encourage that. The saving grace of my childhood was not luck, but rather my sister. I am your step mom but find myself often thinking of you, even speaking to you, as a little sister. Which is not surprising, I suppose – my sister is, has always been, the closest family I have, and talking to your serious 7 year old self automatically made me my 9 year old self, looking out for you as I looked out for my own sis, she of the scarred skinny legs and the indignant sense of justice. “Take your sister,” my mom would say as I banged out the door. I didn’t always want her tagging along with me, something she knew without making me feel bad about it. On those days she’d lag behind a little, probably the first time I felt that familiar tug at my heart.

There is nothing, no one, no love, like a sister’s love, I tell you. You are curious about this person so important to me, whom you have never met. We are less than two years apart in age. When we were young, our mom dressed us identically; I was puny for my age, and the similarity in our height combined with the identical outfits led many to ask , are you twins? No, we’d say in unison, just sisters. I’ve read about the twin connection, the shared secret language, the seemingly encoded personalities, the way twins raised separately often ended up with the same dog breed with the same dog name, and driving the same make and model of car. I think of how I can call my sister, and in my first word, just a “hi”, she will know immediately if something is wrong – if I am sad, sick, hurting, wronged. It means I have to be careful of the when of my calls to her, whether shopping or driving or taking the dog for a walk; the immediate love and concern that flow toward me crumples my defenses and can find me unexpectedly weeping in the aisle of the grocery store or behind the wheel at a stoplight.

There is nothing I haven’t told my sister, nothing I couldn’t tell her, nothing I couldn’t hear from her, nothing I don’t know about her. Nothing changes this: not marriage, not divorce, not illness, not mistakes, not even long separation.

One night she came home with a still white face and eyes that would not meet anyone’s, not even mine. I went to her room, and sat quietly on her bed, asked the question I dreaded the answer to, and waited for her to tell me what I already knew. How did I know, she asked later, and only then did I tell her the story I’d been too scared to tell anyone, sure it was somehow if not my fault, my responsibility. More than thirty years have passed but it is still one of my clearest memories, the feel of her, gasping and hiccupping, so small in my arms, my heart raging with helplessness.

For all my life, my sister has been the most constant, reliable synonym for love I know. And that remains true; but now there is you.

Your own half sister is ten years older, and for a long time that in itself was enough to make you seem very different. But that was an illusion: your sister looks, at twenty six, much as she did at sixteen, which is to say, much as you look now. And so we are treated to this vision of you two sisters grown into your alikeness, pointed of chin, pale of skin, long of leg, the same intelligent regard, the same quiet, watchful beauty.

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This summer we took a week-long fly fishing trip, the longest period of time the two of you have been able to spend continuously together. You learned the skills of fly fishing together, including cleaning and cooking your catch.You floated on the glassy surface of the lake, or wandered into the woods to target practice with throwing knives, axe and slingshot. You spent quiet afternoons reading side by side in the warm California sun, and long hours in the tent together, after dark, your headlamps dimly glowing inside the fabric walls, talking softly. Just a few feet away, your dad and I fell asleep each night to your indistinct voices murmuring late into the night, the only other sound the crickets and the skittering of squirrels in the surrounding trees.

The writer Joan Didion famously said, We tell ourselves stories in order to survive, and on one of these nights, I knew, your sister would tell you a story nearly identical to the one I heard in that long ago bedroom I shared with my sis; it is a story I know she will cry in the telling of, a story I know will untie your heart, as it did mine.

One of the dictionary definitions of sister is “a fellow woman seen in relation to specific shared life experiences” and in this story your sister tells you in the star-lit darkness of the Sierras mountains – this story that is also my story, and my sister’s story, and a story many women would hear and say “yes, me too – it’s my story too” – we share a cross-generational sisterhood that I intend for you never to be granted entry to. Your sis and I pinky sweared on it.

At the end of our fishing trip we spend what seems like a day washing a week’s worth of camping dust from our clothes, shoes and selves. Your dad even washes the car inside and out, so that when we roll back into the city it’s like we’re already viewing the vacation – like the sleeping forms of you, your sister and Jake the chocolate lab piled untidily in the backseat – from the rearview mirror. As we pull up to the house, where the yellow convertible sits like a smile  in the driveway, awaiting our return, your dad gives me a wink. There’s a sight I’ve always looked forward to, he grins and I grin and, remembering, we burst into laughter. What, what! you girls want to know, but it’s the kind of story that leads to another story – the story of how we met – and though it’s one you’ve both clamored to hear, it’s another story for another day. I associate the car with good things, is all your dad will say.

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I was nearly your sister’s age when I bought the car, which is now older than you yourself are.   It was, in many ways, my declaration of adulthood: I spotted it, wanted it, negotiated for it, waiting more than a year to get the price I had sworn not to pay more than. Driving it home from the dealership, my smile was as wide as the road itself. Yet giving it away was easy, knowing it would bring your sister’s orbit closer to us, closer to you.

As much as I loved the car, I never once felt a pang or a worry giving it up, until this summer, when the receipt of your learner’s permit coincided with a cousin’s wedding in Big Sur.

We’re going to drive down together! you announce to us, and I’m, at first, only glad: driving Highway One is a trip tailor-made for a convertible – I should know, I’ve made the same trip myself a few times. The beauty is astonishing, and I am happy you will see it together. But as the two of you drive off with abundant hair flying like flags in the slipstream, my heart catches in my throat a little. I glance over at your dad and see he’s having the same thought.

Precious cargo, I manage to say, and he puts an arm around me, and I wipe my eyes and no more is said, not even when the text messages come pouring in from your sister, who is teaching you to drive a stick shift on what is possibly the world’s most winding road – a road that is also bordered by a cliff for much of the way, a road that has had huge sections swept away in sudden mudslides, a road full of speeding long haul trucks with wheels taller than bright yellow bit of nothing carrying the two of you.

Reading the elated texts, the car suddenly seems as fragile as the skin, as breakable as the bones that cradle the beating heart within you, and I have a moment of we-must-have-been-crazy-to-permit-this panic, which I am mostly successful at pushing down and ignoring. For the rest of that long weekend I do not worry, exactly- how can I, when my life has quite literally paved the way for this very moment? –   but I do not quite breathe as easily as usual until the car is back in the driveway with its yellow smirk and with the two of you completely unharmed and looking quite pleased with yourselves.

But from now on, separate cars, I whisper to your dad, and we both laugh of course, but also mean it.

Cars mean different things to different people in different places. Growing up in the Midwest, a car meant freedom. Freedom from what, you ask me, and we both laugh when I tell you, parents, of course. Parents like me. On Friday nights, the streets of my small town were mostly populated by teenagers driving around looking at other teenagers driving around, stopping to congregate in the parking lots of the fast food restaurants that lined Main Street. If there were too many of us, the restaurant manager or a laconic officer in a patrol car would scatter us, mindful of the families that somehow found teenagers in large numbers to be threatening. So into our cars we’d pile to drive around the cornfield-lined roads that connected our town to the next, and the next, circling back again and again. It was a journey with no destination; it was a journey that was only and ever about the brief freedom from adult eyes, the only place that independence can be proven to the budding young self.

This is not the sort of scenario that teenagers in San Francisco enact; in a city that numbers among its public transportation options busses, trains, trams, trolleys and street cars, having a car is actually optional, but still represents, if not independence, then an unmistakable signal of maturation, and one that you are eager to avail yourself of.  Driving to your mom’s to pick up some books, I am your passenger for an eight block trip we’d normally walk, but tonight you want the practice driving your dad’s four wheel drive (besides, books are heavy), so I obligingly buckle in next to you.

We’re so high up, you exclaim, and I laugh because it’s the same thing I thought too when I started driving the 4Runner; driving a sleek little road-hugging convertible is a distinctly different experience than driving a musclebound SUV. It’s a short trip but long enough to establish that you are an attentive driver without being anxious or nervous, and you execute a three point turn with halting but reasonable finesse. You note the differences in the way a bigger car handles from your mom’s sedan and your sister’s convertible, and I manage to restrain myself from transforming an innocuous little driving lesson into a warning lecture for your own good on speeding, black ice, rain-slick roads.

Some horrors, I know – we sisters know – can be prevented by telling our stories, but driving is learned by experience. So I say only, Well done, and you smile at the praise. It is not a smile as wide as the road itself, but the freedom of the road is in it, and I feel the familiar tug, a harbinger of the day you leave us in your rearview mirror to drive whatever roads it is your destiny to travel.

About SFine

Mix Edgar Allen Poe and Stephen King with liberal portions of Issac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, John Irving, and Shirley Jackson; gently fold in Louisa May Alcott, the Bronte sisters, Edith Wharton, and Laura Ingalls Wilder. Stir gently. Finish with a sprinkling of William Peter Blatty, Harper Lee, Joyce Carol Oates and Harlan Ellison. Add zest of Truman Capote-scented Josephine Hart. Scrape sides down and mix in Change Rae Lee and Amy Tan. Serve with a reminder of Ursula le Guin. The result is the Reliably Uncomfortable writings of Sandra Stephens in all of her incarnations: woman, writer, wife, runner, lucky stepmom, canulier, democracy warrior and lover of Jake the Dog.

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