By Lisa Goodman-Helfand
When I want to feel better about my parenting blunders, I need only to reflect on my own mother’s flawed judgment when raising me. By today’s standards, my mom would be accused of child endangerment. I’m not referring to the typical parenting practices all moms in the 70s and 80s considered “safe.” Like many Gen-Exers, I walked to school alone at age 5, rarely wore a seatbelt, and was cared for by questionable babysitters. No, I’m talking potentially fatal errors in parenting. There’s an endless supply of examples, but I’ll stick with an automotive theme to illustrate my point.
I have fond memories of my grandfather hoisting my sister and me on top of his station wagon, and then getting in the driver’s seat shouting, “Hang on tight to the rails!” He drove us around the neighborhood like a pair of mattresses fastened atop the car, only we weren’t strapped to anything. We proudly waved at pedestrians, bikers, and other drivers (so much for holding on tight). Can you imagine doing something like that today? The authorities would be notified faster than my sister and I could have splattered onto concrete.
We also took turns sitting on my grandpa’s lap and steering while he worked the pedals. My mom would stand at the curb smiling and waving as we drove loops around the block. One could argue that plenty of 4-year-olds in the 70s took driving lessons and were considered more dispensable than a mattress, but I’m just getting warmed up.
When I was 6, our old Pontiac had a hole in the floor. And it wasn’t a tiny hole either. It was a gaping tear that fully revealed the road beneath me in the driver’s side backseat. Nothing stood between my dangling feet and the open road. I could have easily pulled a Fred Flinstone and been flattened by our hunk-of-junk. Luckily, my mom warned me to, “Sit safely on your knees with your legs under your butt!”
We finally got a “new-old” car when I was 8. This time it was a red Chevy that was safe enough to chauffeur the Pope in, at least compared to our previous clunker. That is until my mom accidentally hit a brick pillar and the back passenger side door caved in. From that point forward we could not enter or exit from that side of the car. Later on, that same car’s seat fabric got torn, leaving a large portion of the wire piping exposed. Why on earth my mom never duct-taped that sucker down remains a mystery to this day. Every time someone sat in that spot of the back seat, the wire would snag their pants, or worse, their nude nylons, and often resulted in blood shed. My sister has a scar on her thigh to remind her of those delightful joy rides. It’s a good thing the wire protruded on the side of the car where the door had been smashed, so we rarely sat there.
When I was in high school, we got another “old-new” car. It was a poop brown Oldsmobile that drove okay for a while until the fabric on the roof of the interior began to sag. Soon, the drooping material became a hazardous obstruction. Since safety first was our family motto, my mom cut the whole interior part of the roof off with a scissors. It was smooth sailing until the heat broke. Chicago winters and no heat is a bad mix, yet we went an entire frigid season without getting it fixed.
By my senior year in college, I used money I had been squirreling away for years and purchased my very own “new-old” car. I needed a safe, reliable car to get me back and forth from my student-teaching assignment. What could be safer than a used, rusty, powder blue Chevy station wagon? The car drove like a dream except for when it died at every red light. Approaching intersections would induce a panic attack, so I stuck to highways as often as possible.
I spent my formative years being mortified by our junkyard cars. I must have been an unusually dense child, because I never realized my mom couldn’t afford anything better. I didn’t know it then, but for several years after my parents divorced, we lived below the poverty line. My mom worked her butt off to fulfill our basic needs. We showed our appreciation by continuously whining and complaining about our embarrassing cars and lack of other material possessions. The truth is, my mom was doing the best she could under very difficult circumstances. Isn’t that the definition of a great parent? If it isn’t, I think it should be.
Only as an adult and a mother myself can I understand the sacrifices my mom made. In the end, my sister became a doctor and I became a teacher, all thanks to my mother’s dedication to getting us the best possible education. After a year of teaching, I traded in my old Chevy station wagon for a spanking new red 1997 Ford Escort with cloth interior, manual windows and door locks, and… wait for it… AM and FM radio (I know, I know, it was a major splurge). To me, it felt like I was driving around in a Maserati.
Lisa Goodman-Helfand is a freelance writer and professional speaker living near Chicago. Her memoir, Does This Hospital Gown Come With Sequins? and blog, Comfortable in My Thick Skin, explore parenting, body image, and overcoming obstacles with humor. Connect with Lisa on her blog or on Facebook.