Suzanne Tobias

June 25, 2014

Suzanne Tobias: 30 years and one driving lesson later, Bill Cosby’s wisdom revealed

Bill Cosby called it The Curse.

Bill Cosby called it The Curse.

“My mother put a curse on me a long time ago,” the comedian said in “Bill Cosby: Himself,” the timeless stand-up comedy film from 1983.

“I remember when I was a child what she said. And I later found out that mothers – all mothers – put a curse on their children,” Cosby said. “They say, ‘I hope when you get married, you have some children who act exactly the same way that you act.’ And this curse works.”

I was about 16 when I watched that movie for the first time with my parents. We plopped the videotape into our living room VCR and laughed hysterically at Cosby’s descriptions of natural childbirth, dirty diapers, misbehaving toddlers and older kids who answer every question with, “I dunno.”

It became a family favorite. Over the years, we must have watched that stand-up routine at least two dozen times. We memorized most of the lines – “Dad is great! Gives us chocolate cake!” – and would recite them at opportune times throughout my childhood.

Now my daughter is 16. My son is 13. And only now, three decades later, is the irony beginning to hit me.

A couple months ago in the parking lot of a local mall, I parked my car, tossed my daughter the keys for the first time, walked around to the passenger’s seat and buckled up. Hannah was finally taking driver’s ed, and I wanted her to feel comfortable at the wheel before launching full-speed onto the road with her official instructor.

We reviewed how to adjust the seat and mirrors, how to start the engine and how to shift from park to drive.

“All right,” I said. “Now slowly take your foot off the brake and press on the gas. Nice and easy.”

Hannah bent down like she was trying to retrieve a dropped coin from the floorboard. Her hands still clutching the steering wheel, she shifted and squirmed to get a clear view of her feet and, I assumed, the gas pedal.

“I can’t … see it,” she sighed.

OK, I thought. Back in park. Let’s try this again.

To my daughter’s credit, she got the feel of driving fairly quickly – in spite of, not because of, my manic instructions – and eventually she was making wide turns and figure-8s through the deserted parking lot. I congratulated her and we drove home in silence, my nerves likely more frayed than hers.

The next day I called my mother and related the story.

“Wait, wait,” my mom said, chuckling. “Let me get your father on the extension. … Armando? Pick up the phone! Suzanne is teaching Hannah to drive!”

I continued but had to stop several times because of the laughter – theirs, not mine.

“Ha-ha!” my dad exclaimed at one point. “Remember the ride home from your driver’s test?”

Of course I remembered, but he told the story again anyway: how I barely slowed down to make a 90-degree turn into our neighborhood, how his eyes grew wide as he clutched the dashboard, how he slammed against the passenger door like a kid on a Scrambler ride, how I shrugged it off afterward, saying, “I don’t understand why you’re mad. I was only going the speed limit!”

The curse, I thought. It works.

Babies cry; toddlers throw food; children sneak cookies, hit siblings, forget their homework. And teenagers drive – badly at first, better eventually.

Back on the phone my mom recalled how, before my first solo drive to my high school, I had to ask directions from our house to the school, a route we had taken every day for nearly two years. As a passenger, I hadn’t paid attention.

“Does Hannah know how to get to school?” my dad said, laughing again. “Make sure she knows how to get to school!…”

Yes, yes, I said, shaking my head. I think she knows the route.

“Ha-ha-ha! Good luck!” my mother said.

“Yeah, good luck,” said my dad.

I hung up the phone to the sound of their laughter, ringing clear and true across the distance.

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