Poems & Essays

17 Dec

White Knuckles

General/Column No Response

The voice from my phone instructs me to turn right. Atticus, hooked up to headphones, misses the first hill.  Whoever described the mid-West as flat has never driven from Cleveland to Millersburg, Ohio. Implacable, the tiny woman inside the GPS directs me to drive ten miles. Ten miles of hills on a snowy Saturday afternoon. Up, up, up. Then, at the crest, hoping, hoping no other vehicle would appear, we begin to descend. Slllooooowwwly. Brakes pumping. Steer into a skid? Steer out of a skid? My brain goes numb.

“Oh, my sainted aunt!”

“What, Mom? What did you just say?” My son tugs an earphone from his left ear.

“I said, ‘Oh, my sainted aunt’ because this hill is so steep. I do not like steep hills and I, especially, do not like steep hills covered in snow and ice.”

“You’re doing great, Mom. You’ve got this,” Atticus, thirteen, encourages. “Only 8.6 miles before we turn.”

8.6 miles? Not possible. I consider my options. There is no place to pull over. If there is a driving equivalent of trudging, we are doing it now. My pace is glacial to complement the weather. I am not a brave driver in the best of times, and these are definitely not those.

The accident on I-91 in 1983 when I lost control of my car as it slid on black ice is always with me.  My little hatchback had been crunched by not one but two eighteen-wheelers. I’d had students in the car with me on my way back to New York City to the boarding school in Massachusetts where I taught. I remembered screaming—out loud or to myself?—‘God, you cannot do this again to my mother and father.’ My brother had been killed in a car accident when I was fourteen. From the wintry wreck on the highway, the ambulance took us all to the ER—me and Isabel and Melissa.  I demanded a plastic surgeon to stitch the cut on Isabel’s forehead, my voice shrill with shock. Isabel was a model; her face needed to remain lovely. My mother had taught me long ago, “When it’s the face, Ann, always a plastic surgeon.” My own parents arrived, hurtling to Connecticut from Philadephia. I was twenty-two, inexperienced with insurance and having cars towed and figuring out how to get us all back to school, but, trembling, we made it back, picked up our lives.

The policeman first on the scene had shaken his head, muttering, “There’s no way you all should have walked away from this accident.” His words echo thirty-five years later, throbbing in my memory as I grip the steering wheel, trying not to let my son know my fear.

“Feel the fear and do it anyway,” is a mantra I often tell my own children and the girls in the school I lead. I often repeat these words to myself on highways when I am trying to pass an eighteen-wheeler and remember my accident. I had not expected to need them today.

A blizzard had dumped about a foot of snow on Cleveland the day before, but we woke to a chilly sun. The Varsity basketball team had been invited to the Classic in the Country, a big deal girls’ basketball invitational in our region. My son, their would-be manager, was desolate not to be with the team.  I decided we’d make an afternoon of it and go.  If my husband were home, a little snow and ice would be no deterrent. Michigan born, he is an intrepid winter driver, scoffing at inclement weather.  I am much more timid, worried not only about other drivers, but also about my own aptitude. He was out of town, but, for once, I refused to be ruled by fear.

We packed water bottles and Terra Chips and set off. The first hour was easy on the highway. I had to use my wipers a fair amount, but we listened to game shows on NPR, and I tried to avoid thinking about the snippet of a weather forecast of snow in Akron that I heard, but ignored.  Maybe we weren’t headed towards Akron.  All was fine until the turn.

The nice lady of the GPS instructed me to exit the highway and turn onto a narrow state route that climbed hills of alarming heights. At the crest of that first hill, I gasped. The descent was terrifying. Atticus took on the role of cheerleader for his nervous mother-driver, coaching me to go slowly. I thought about Eagles Mere in the winter and the toboggan slide that runs from the top of the hill down across the lake, people screaming as they whoosh past the windows of our house. I felt like screaming. We crawled down, sliding, grateful there were no other vehicles in sight.

But a few minutes later there was another hill. The childhood game I used to play on a spread palm, “Johnny, Johnny, Johnny, Johnny, whoops, Johnny” floated inanely through my head. I tried to breathe, tried to fight the fear, my comforting self-talk drowned out by the tension in my neck and shoulders. Then: worse and worse.  Amish buggies shared the road with us. I am entranced by all things Amish in good weather, but today, under lowering gray clouds, I imagined crashing my car, my son, myself into Amish buggies, horses’ legs flying out from under them, splaying on the ice, tiny bonneted Amish girls flying through the air and landing, limp. I tried to chase the image away, asked Atticus to distract me from myself. He prattled—the Cavs, stuff at school, his excitement about seeing our girls play. I managed my panic, moved into more of a Zen state, imagined the drive was like being in a long, long MRI machine. Someday it would end. We would arrive.

“How much longer on this road, Atticus?” I bleated.

“Only three more miles, Mom. You’re doing great. You’ve got this.”

We passed hay tipis, tidy farmhouses, their square-ness startling in the bleak landscape. The occasional car coming in the opposite direction reminded me of roller coaster cars swooping in opposite directions. I hate roller coasters. I noted all the shades of white:  white snow–new and old–bleached sky, blanched fields, alabaster salt on white roads, whiter with ice. I noted, too, the absence of snowplows, the torrent of flakes loosed from the sky, falling like goose feathers, like salt, like ivory flakes.  White, gray, black. The landscape seemed a 19thcentury etching, a black and white photograph, frozen. Lifeless—except for those buggies, most sensible Amish people huddled inside cozy homes, rich in hues that I could not see.

Finally, another turn onto another tiny road.

More reassurance from my son. “You can do it, Mom. Only another half mile.”

I was beyond reason, but my son’s words soothed me, kept me, somehow, moving us—and the car—forward, despite my fear.  I hate when grown ups ask children to care take them, yet I was so grateful for my son’s caretaking, for his certain calm that all would be well. I, his mom, no longer an angelic vision of his toddler imagination, but a mortal, flawed and human. Still I was his mother; therefore, he trusted I would prevail. Finally, we crested another hill and saw the community recreation center beyond an incongruous traffic light, its yellow barrel waving in the windy afternoon, lights glowing red, yellow, green. Comforted, I resumed breathing. My legs trembled as I got out of the car. I allowed my shoulders to drop away from my ears. Atticus, unscathed, was thrilled to arrive in time to watch most of our team’s game. We feasted on chicken and noodles–a dish rarely offered at high school concessions stands–and washed it down with treacly homemade blackberry pie. When the game ended, Atticus asked, “Do we have to go now?”

“No way,” I retorted. I was in no shape to get back into the car, to face those roads.

“Hey, Ann,” Sharon, our Transportation Director at school, approached me on the bleachers. “It was worth it to stay on the highway, wasn’t it?”

“You stayed on the highway, Sharon?”  I asked, incredulous.

“Yeah, the GPS suggested all these narrow roads, but I knew that was a no starter with the bus and with the weather, so I stayed on the highway. It was a little longer, but it felt much safer.”

Disbelief made me mute.

“Ann, you okay?” she asked kindly.

“I will be,” I stammered. “Is it easy to find the highway from here?”

“Oh, sure. Go out the driveway, turn right and it’s a little way down on the left.  Easy as pie. You can follow me if you want.”

I laughed, a slightly insane laugh. All along, there had been another path. I would not have had to worry about the occupants of Amish buggies had I known.

We watched the next game and the next, lounging in the stands with our girls, critiquing the other teams, one of which we would confront later in the season. Atticus and the girls talked strategy, noted various players’ strengths and vulnerabilities. Marveling at my son’s knowledge, I half listened, floating above myself, allowing my terror to dissipate. I was grateful to imagine the drive home on a less dramatic route.

“Are we ever leaving, Mom?” Atticus asked, tentatively. “I didn’t think you liked driving in the dark.  I mean—I’m really happy to stay, but you…” His voice trailed off.  You are usually a wimp? You hate driving?  I appreciated his decision not to finish.

“We’re going, buddy. Just a few more minutes.  Sharon told me a better way to get home.”

By the time we left, darkness had fallen, but the highways were plowed. My son listened to his music with his headphones. I listened to the radio.  I followed the signs easily, relaxed behind the wheel.  The drive home was deliciously dull.



Ann Klotz is the mother of three children–two out in the world and one son in eighth grade. Her house overflows with books and rescue dogs and cats and one long-lived carnival goldfish. She is the Head of Laurel School, where she follows the lives and learning of 620 girls and very small boys. Her work has appeared in Mothers Always Write, the Brevity Blog, Literary Mama, Mamalode, the Manifest Station and in other journals. See more of Ann’s writing at www.AnnVKlotz.com

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