The excitement I felt looking at her was disproportionate to the true nature of what she was. When I looked, I saw freedom, escape, and adventure. When anyone else looked, they saw a less than fortunate beige Ford Tempo. I called her Betsy because Mom always called her car Betsy. I did not realize until later that people should not really pick names for cars. If you listened closely enough, a car told you its own name. She was probably actually a Dorothy, suffering in silence at the way I constantly called her Betsy.
Betsy came into my life shortly after I turned 16. Mom and Larry were both working second shift jobs. Every day after school, my brothers and sister and I stayed at Mema’s house until Mom got off work at 11p.m. She would pick up tired, sleepy kids and drive us home to Larry’s house out on the lake. It was a hassle. Sleepy kids, late night baths, and school papers added up to a lot to do at that hour. Mom finally realized that if I had a license, I could do it at a much earlier hour.
One Saturday, Mom looked at me and said, “I’m taking you to take your driver’s test next week. You should study the book.” When she said “the book” she meant the driver’s manual. So, I scrambled to read it and learn as much as I could. It was a lot of information to assimilate in a short amount of time. The following week mom drove me to the DMV.
The first time I took the written test, I was full of anxiety. There was a group of about 15 people who were all waiting to take the written test. We were all spaced out far enough where we could not see each other’s paper to cheat. The proctor gave us the paper test and pencils. After finishing, they graded the tests immediately. I failed it by 2 questions. Disappointment reigned. I went back not long after and took it again. Thankfully, the second time I passed.
When we rolled back in, in mom’s car for the driving portion of the test, I was nervous. Mema took me driving one time in her car in the Methodist Church parking lot a couple blocks from her house. Mema drove a standard. Mom’s car, that I would be driving for the exam was an automatic. Aside from that, I had no practical experience driving. Mom gave me a quick pep talk in the car, of which I remembered nothing.
The police officer got in beside me. I looked at her and wondered if she would have looked that relaxed had she known how little time I spent behind the wheel. She must have had nerves of steel as she smiled at me and buckled her seatbelt. Off we went. I panicked inside when she directed me to get on the interstate. “Speed up on this ramp” she told me. I did as she directed. I matched my tempo to the cars around me and stayed in the right lane. “Get off at the next exit” she said. I got off at the next exit.
Following her directions, she took me down several backstreets to wind up back where we began. She got out of the car and came around to my window. She began to ask me a series of questions about the car. Did I know how to turn on the wipers? The headlights? Thankfully, I had seen those items in use before. “What about the brights?” she asked. I looked around quickly, hoping something would jump out at me. I had no idea how to turn on the brights. She smiled and reached in, pushing the turn signal stick forward that turned them on. “Oh” I said, feeling stupid for not knowing that. She made a note on her paper.
“You can get out now. You did just fine!” she assured me. We walked back into the building together. Mom was waiting for me. “Did you pass?” she asked me. “Yes, I did” I answered. “You did a good job with that one!” the officer told my mom. She smiled and said, “Congratulations!” We walked across the room to get in line with the other people waiting to do their DMV business.
When it was my turn, the woman behind the counter asked me to stand near the height marker. I walked over to the red and white stripes on the wall. I turned to look at her. Tilting her head to the side a little she winked at me and said, “It’s just barely over 5’0”, but we’ll just go ahead and put 5’1” anyway.” It was a little white lie that would stay on my driver’s license for the rest of my life. I never did make it up to that 5’1”.
On Saturday, I walked into the living room to find Larry standing there with a huge grin on his face. “In exchange for your help to your mom and me in bringing your brothers and sister home from your Mema’s house during the week, we got you something” He said. I had no idea what to expect as I followed him out the front door onto the wide deck. Sitting in the driveway was a small, beige car. It was a Ford Tempo. I had not known anything about this development. He told me details about procuring the car but everything he said to me was drowned out by my mind racing a million miles. “Well,” he said to me, “take her for a spin!” Reaching out his arm, he handed me the keys to freedom.
I started towards the car, keys in my hand, and stopped and turned around. I ran back to Larry, arms wide, my face grinning huge. “Thank you!” I said, hugging him tightly. The grin on his face was a mile wide as he said, “You’re welcome. But you’re earning this with all the transporting you’re doing for us. So, thank you!” He had a way of presenting things that was unlike anyone else I had ever known. For a moment, I was living in a sitcom.
I drove around the neighborhood three times before carefully pulling back in the driveway. Larry waited for me on the deck, still grinning. He opened the gate and came down the steps to the car. “Let’s go over a few things now that you’ve had a chance to drive around. The first and most important thing to remember is this: When it comes to gas in the tank, pretend the half tank mark is Empty. If you do this, you will never run out of gas. You will not be spending any more money at the end of the day and you are just saving yourself and everyone else the hassle that can follow. Are you following me?” he asked. “Yes” I said, “Half a tank is empty.”
He walked around to the back of the car and I followed him. He opened the trunk and pointed inside saying, Always keep a blanket in your trunk, as well as a flashlight. You never know when you’ll need one and you don’t want to be stuck on the side of the road without it.” I peered in the trunk, and sure enough, he had put an old blanket and a flashlight in there already. There were also two containers of fluid and a box. “Those are things you probably don’t have to worry about right now, but I want you to leave them in the trunk, okay?” He said. I nodded at him and said “Okay.”
I began to drive Betsy to and from school and to take everyone home from Mema’s in the evening. Sometimes we did not head home until it was dark, especially when I had a shift at B&K on the weeknight. The store did not close until 8 p.m. I would drive the short distance to Mema’s house from the store and get the kids. Mema had the task of feeding them dinner. I carried Dustin to the car and buckled him in the car seat. Danny and Amy climbed in, Amy in the back seat and Danny in the front seat with all their things and we would take off.
In all his early teenager angst, Danny always had a lot to say about my driving. “You’re going too fast” he said to me. “I’m going the speed limit” I replied. “No, you’re not!” he said. Exasperated, I said, “Would you just shut up until we get home? You’re distracting me!” His face got red, “I’m telling mom you told me to shut up!” he said angrily. “I don’t really care who you tell, I’d just like to be able to concentrate long enough to get us there!” I replied angrily. The arguments sometimes lasted the whole way home.
On one particularly frustrating drive home I used a wide variety of bad words in my telling him to can it until we got home. When I pulled into the driveway, he had busted free of the car running up ahead and into the house before me. By the time I got inside, he had the phone in his hand and Larry on the other end of it. I listened as I carried Dustin inside.
I only heard half the conversation, but I could tell it wasn’t going well for Danny. I could have told him it would not have served his purpose to call Larry at work to tell on me for using bad words. Danny handed me the phone at the end of the conversation and stormed off to his room. “Hello” I said, not sure what was about to happen. “Are you okay?” Larry asked me. “Yeah, he just argues the whole way home and I argued back” I told him. “Don’t worry about it. Do you need me to do anything?” he asked. “No, we’re good” I told him. We hung up.
I gave Dustin a bath and got him ready for bed. On nights I didn’t have to work at B&K we got home earlier, and I’d make sure they had done any homework they had, and I signed their school papers. A couple years before in the rush to get out the door when Amy needed a signature on a paper, Mom had told me, “You can just sign their school papers for me, you know what my signature looks like.” I had been signing the school papers as my mother for years.
At the end of all of that, I worked on my own homework. There was a paper to write and almost always there was math homework to complete. I sat with my papers and books all spread out at the dining room table. For an hour I worked on schoolwork, completing assignments, and stuffing them back into my notebooks and into my backpack. Then it was my turn to shower before I dragged myself to bed.
The next morning, I woke up Danny and Amy up to take them into town on my way to school and we started the whole thing all over again. Betsy took us back and forth like clockwork every day. She did have some issues from time to time with her transmission. More than once she died while I was sitting at a stop sign and I would have to hurry up and restart her and go before other cars started honking at me.
Unfortunately, my run with Betsy came to a screeching halt in the parking lot outside the band room at school. A senior who was driving a large Oldsmobile backed right into me. The impact was not huge, but it warped her frame, totaling her out. It was a sudden and sad ending to our time together. I’ll never forget Betsy, though. She was a good old gal.