Monthly Archives: June 2016

My Dad, The Designated Driver

2016_06_Family Picture Scans 3-28

Bill Cohen, my father, in his best Errol Flynn imitation!

A Father’s Day memory: It is 1956. My father is sitting behind the steering wheel of an idling sedan in the driveway of our house in Keeseville. Laura, Jay, and I are squirming in the back seat. Dad is smoking a Kent and listening to a baseball game on the radio. He gives the horn an impatient tap to hurry along my mother, who is inside the house diapering Bobbie and pulling together last minute items for our car trip. He honks again, more loudly. “Where is that woman?” he asks. “We’re going to be late.”

For over sixty-five years, my father was our family’s self-appointed Designated Driver. Born and raised in Queens, my father learned how to drive when he was fifteen years old at his grandfather’s farm in Burlington, Vermont. In 1940, my mother took her place in the passenger seat. By 1955, four children were filling up the remaining space.

Out of financial necessity, our family usually owned “gently used” cars. No matter how pristine they were when purchased, each vehicle soon lost the ‘new-car’ feel once our huge family—with an occasional dog along for the ride—took ownership.

These were the days before cars had safety features. No one wore seat belts; babies sat on mothers’ laps; Dad’s extended right arm held us back when we were forced to a sudden stop.

As the family grew, sedans gave way to station wagons. One or two of us children happily climbed into the back, where we bounced our way to a school function or the beach or a relative’s house or even to visits to our grandparents in New York City, oblivious to any danger. Fortunately, Dad was an excellent driver. He was never involved in an accident. And his only speeding ticket was when—as he never let me forget—he was rushing home from a trip to Plattsburgh after I was car sick.

Not that he wasn’t guilty of “pedal to the metal.” In the 1960s, my father was elected coroner of Essex County, New York, a position he held for over twenty years. When he got the call from the state police that he was needed to investigate an unattended or suspicious death, Dad would rush out to his car, put the Essex County Coroner sign in his window, slap on his “Kojak” flasher on top of the roof, and drive to the scene like a bat out of hell. If the call came in the middle of the night, one of us would often ride with Dad to keep him company. I remember sitting in the passenger seat while Dad careened through the back roads of Reber or Willsboro or Port Kent, praying one of the other three coroners in the county wouldn’t have to investigate our untimely demise.

Soon after they retired in 1981, Dad and Mom began spending half the year in Florida. Each year in mid-October, they drove the 1500 miles to their condo in Lauderdale Lakes. The week before Memorial Day, they took the same route back. Although they eventually took the auto train to reduce driving time, Dad continued his reign as exclusive—and excellent—driver.

As he got into his eighties, however, his driving skills declined. His hearing was poor, his reaction times were slow, and he relied too often on cruise control so he wouldn’t have to regulate the gas pedal. Concrete car stop bumpers in parking lots saved many an eating place from becoming an impromptu drive-in restaurant. Still, Dad insisted on taking the wheel, promising to limit his trips to nearby restaurants and stores.

In 2005, while visiting Mom and Dad in Florida, Jay and his wife Leslie made plans for the four of them to go out to dinner. The usual fight ensued. “I’ll drive!” Jay offered. “Absolutely not,” Dad countered “You’re my guest. I’ll drive.”

The route to the restaurant included a section on a multi-lane expressway. Dad was in the far left lane when he suddenly crossed four lanes to get to the exit ramp. “We watched in horror from the back seat,” Jay said. “Fifteen years later, I can still remember how Leslie’s nails felt as she dug them into my arm until I bled.”

After that incident, we children insisted Dad give up the car. We arranged for Mom and Dad to move into Coburg Village, an independent living facility near Larry and me that offered, among other amenities transportation to stores and doctors’ offices. They flew up to their new home, and Laura and Jay drove Dad’s car to our house. Dad’s Toyota would stay safely in our driveway until Julie picked it up and drove it back to Colorado that summer.

For the next few months, Dad complained incessantly about how we had taken away his independence. The day Julie came home to claim the Toyota, however, Dad pulled out of his wallet the registration AND an extra car key.

“You could have walked down the driveway and driven that car anytime you wanted to!” I said.

“I know,” he said with a wink.

After that, Dad grudgingly accepted his place in the front passenger seat when either Larry or I drove. Six months before he passed away, Dad got a brand new shiny red mobility scooter. When I came over to have dinner that night in the Coburg dining room, Dad was already sitting on his new toy with a huge smile on his face. Mom and I followed him as he navigated his way down the long hallway to the open elevator door. Entering a little too fast, he gently hit the back wall. “I’m fine!” Dad said with a wink. “I got this!”

Of course he was fine! My father was finally in the driver’s seat again.

From Diaries to Blog Posts

When I was fifteen years old, a friend and I attended a writer’s institute at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Plattsburg. That week was to change my life. It only took me fifty years to see it through to fruition.

Chris was my closest friend. She was a year behind me in school, but we were soulmates. Chris was brilliant, insightful, and understood me. We spent innumerable hours listening to Simon and Garfunkel, taking walks near our homes in Keeseville, and talking about life and our future.

In the spring of 1966, we found out that SUNY Plattsburg was holding a one-week writer’s workshop on its campus. The college was offering scholarships to local high school students. We both applied and both were accepted.

Our parents took turns driving the fifteen miles each day up to the campus. We took classes in fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. Chris gravitated towards poetry. I was more interested in personal essays and fiction, similar to what I had written for many years.

Since I could remember, I had kept a diary or journal. My first was a little blue book with a lock and key where I kept my innermost thoughts. I am sure my family, especially my brother, read it while I wasn’t around. Our cat thought it was a great chew toy, as the ends were shredded with teeth marks. I doubt if I had many profound insights as a pre-teen. It must have been important to me, however, as I kept it tucked away in my night stand for decades. It finally got tossed when my husband Larry and I did “The Big Dump” in our 2015 move to Florida.

After the first diary was filled, I replaced it with a marbled composition book. Although my actual life in our small town was fairly tame, my narratives were filled will angst and passion. Directly across from my “No Trespassing!” warning on the inside cover, I wrote my first entry dated November 15, 1965. “Life can be cruel at times. It can be bitter, unhappy, and unstable. What you once enjoyed becomes boring; what you thought becomes childish and immature.” Many of the entries dealt with my poor body image. “I weigh 127. I have to weigh 115! Breakfast: 1 egg, 1 toast 1/2 orange.” (“Oh Marilyn,” my adult self says. “Why were you so hard on yourself?”)

A few pages later, the journal recorded one of my first crushes: “I met Jim on the white hills of Paleface Mountain when he was in my ski class.” His face, which I thought would “always burn brightly in my memory,” is a complete blur.

Along with the self-condemnations and the crushes were also attempts at short stories. Most of them revolved around adolescent self-discovery. A teen and her family deal with a sick grandparent. A young man finds the shadow of a mustache. A sensitive soul experiences hurt when a three-sided friendship becomes two-sided, and she becomes the outsider.

One of the longer works was a story about a girl who spends so much time on hair, make-up, and clothing for a dance she forgets the important things—like how to talk to a boy. “Maybe if I had worn the blue dress,” says the first-person narrator as she gets ready for bed after she comes home, “someone would have asked me to dance.”

This was the story I worked on during our week at the workshop. The day before it ended, I shared it with my instructor and the class. After I finished reading it aloud, there was silence follow by loud applause “Please meet our future writer,” said my instructor. “She has a great deal of talent for a fifteen-year-old.”

On the last day of the conference, all the attendees met on a beautiful green lawn on the campus. Awards were given to the adult attendees for best fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. I was given an award for best young writer.

Chris was thrilled for me, and she encouraged me to continue writing. That fall, I entered my junior year reassessing my future career goals. I had always wanted to be teacher, but this experience made me rethink that path and consider getting a degree in creative writing or journalism. My parents, however, strongly encouraged me to major in education. “Become an English teacher,” my mother told me. “You can still be involved with writing, but you will have your summers off. And when you have children, you will be off when they are on vacation.”

Feeling the pressure, I took the safer route and enrolled in the English education program at University at Albany. Chris was disappointed that I didn’t pursue creative writing. Her graduation gift to me was a large blank journal with a black cover. “For your writing,” she penned into the inside cover.

During my four years in college, I wrote innumerable essays for my coursework. For whatever reason, I never took one creative writing class the entire time. After I graduated, I taught high school for a short time. After I finished my masters in reading, I taught adult education classes, preparing people to take the exam for their GED or to have the reading, writing, and study skills needed for college. My favorite part was teaching how to write essays.

In the 1990s, I wrote a few articles for Schenectady, New York’s The Daily Gazette. It wasn’t until I retired that I started writing again. A chance meeting with the editor of the Jewish World led to the opportunity to spread my wings and write personal essays.

To my delight, Chris and I recently reconnected. We shared memories of the summer workshop, which for her provided a “long burning ember from the spark of the experience.” She journals, composes haiku, and develops resources for social workers. Meanwhile, she is thrilled that I am finally following the path we started together fifty years ago this summer.

Barbara Kingsolver, award-winning novelist, poet, and essayist, stated, “There’s no perfect time to write. There’s only now.” And now is perfect for me.