Driving lessons

“Check your mirrors.”

A few days ago, my son turned seventeen. Tomorrow, he takes his road test. And then he will take the car keys and drive away from me. Today, we’re practicing driving home from school. He’s behind the wheel, and I’m riding shotgun beside him.

“This is where it’s tricky,” I say. “You have to merge here. There’s always heavy traffic at this spot, I don’t know why. In another couple hundred feet, you have to merge again. Be ready.”

“I know, Mom.”

I’m sure he’s going too fast, but when I glance at the speedometer, he’s within the speed limit. I cling for dear life to the armrest, tell him to slow down on icy roads. Before he turns right on red, I remind him once again to come to a full stop.

“I know, Mom.”

The boy beside me is nearly a man, thin and muscular, with a long, lean face. In my heart, this boy remains a toddler, with a round, sturdy body, soft, chubby cheeks, a blissful grin, and bouncy black curls that I can’t bear to cut. This is the boy who loved dinosaurs, the boy who loved Teletubbies and Pokémon, the boy who loved puzzle books and Play-doh, the boy who lived on his little red fire engine ride-on for a year, navigating it expertly through the rooms of our Park Slope apartment.

I did what mommies do. Read him stories. Kissed the boo boos. Interviewed babysitters. Signed him up for school. Registered him for soccer and ice skating and basketball and baseball, for day camps and sports camps and sleepaway camps. Rooted for his teams. Took him to dentists and doctors and emergency rooms. Attended curriculum nights and parent-teacher conferences. Helped with homework until the math outstripped my abilities. Agonized over art projects and book report projects and science fair projects. Made many lunches. Washed many metric tons of laundry. Made sure there was cereal on the shelf, milk in the fridge, dinner on the table, snacks for his friends. Laughed a lot. Cried a lot. Fretted beyond measure.

Cursed my inadequacies.

Prayed I wasn’t doing him any harm.

Wondered if I was doing anything right at all.

He was born into a world where America was ascendant. Bill Clinton was president, the economy was booming. We weren’t at war, anywhere. Paris had a thriving Jewish community. Starbucks happened. The Internet happened. Laptops happened. We began carrying phones around in our bags. Martha Stewart told us what we wanted our homes to look like and what we wanted to cook. The New York Times didn’t make you angry, it made you think. Kosher meat was affordable. College was affordable. If you worked hard, you could probably even get into Columbia.

And of course, there was no such thing as anti-Semitism.

Anti-Semitism was something you learned about in school, a ghost from the dim and distant past, finally put to rest after the atrocities of World War 2. In 1998, people were too educated, too connected, too open-minded, to fall for those dumb old lies.

But the world has changed since 1998, warping in ways I could never have imagined. In the most shocking change, the oldest hatred came roaring back. Well-meaning, misinformed, and clueless liberals obsess on boycotting and divesting from Israel. In England, an MP feels comfortable declaring an “Israel-Free Zone.” The New York Times, CNN, AP, the BBC, and other mainstream news agencies support the Palestinian narrative and portray Israel as the villain, whether their information is right or wrong. After numerous deadly attacks, Paris’s Jews are leaving for America and Israel. The UCLA student council votes to reject a qualified Jewish candidate, because she’s, you know, Jewish. Pro-Palestinian protesters storm a New York City Council meeting about a Holocaust commemoration day. Facebook, YouTube and Twitter spread hate, lies, grisly photos and propaganda. The American President openly dislikes the Prime Minister of Israel. Fundamentalist Islamic extremists are reshaping the Middle East. Pockets of the civilized world openly question Israel’s right to exist.

Since 1998, my faith that we are creating a better world for our children has been shaken.

But today, my son confidently navigates Route 4. He tells me he’s planning to drive for Tomchei Shabbat tomorrow evening, delivering food boxes to the Jewish needy. There’s a throb in my heart. “So nice that you volunteered to do that,” I manage to say, but inside my head, I’m shouting, “No! You can drive when you’re thirty.”

When we reach home, he executes a deft K-turn and pulls up in front of the house. Tomorrow, he will drive away from me. I will remind him to check his mirrors. He drives into a polarized and perilous world.

About the Author
Helen Maryles Shankman is an artist and author. Her book, "They Were Like Family to Me," originally published as "In the Land of Armadillos," was a finalist for The Story Prize in 2016 and won an Honorable Mention for the 2017 ALA Sophie Brody Medal for Achievement in Jewish Literature. Her stories have been published in many fine literary journals, including The Kenyon Review, Jewishfiction.net, Gargoyle, and Cream City Review. She is a columnist at The New Jersey Jewish Standard.
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