What Do You Mean I Can’t Drive Your Car …

Mini Driver No More - Elizabeth Harper

I’m grounded.

After 35 years of getting into a car, fastening the seatbelt, and turning the key in the ignition, I no longer can do that … at least not in this country, for now.

Moving to the UK has its challenges and some are easier to understand than others. I can understand why I should have to take a written test to prove I know the rules of the road here, but having had a valid driver’s license for 35 years in the US, I would think I might be able to skip the driving part of the exam.

I know you’re probably thinking, ” Oh good grief Elizabeth, just take the test and stop moaning about it! ” I might think the same without knowing the rest of the story.

While I was stuck in Atlanta this summer John opened the annual bill from his auto insurance company to find that it had jumped from a reasonable 180 BPS (about $295 US) to over 700 BPS which is about $1150 dollars.

Calling to discuss the huge increase, he discovered that my provisional license which is like a learner’s permit in the US had caused the rate increase. It seems after 35 years of driving I now have more in common with a teenage boy than the other 50 year-old female drivers out there.

Being a sensible man when it comes to money, John did what I would have done and took me off the policy grounding me until I can pass the test and be eligible for a more reasonable rate of insurance. I have to wonder if my 35 years of driving will be acknowledged by the insurance company when I do pass or will that part of my life be as non-existent as my credit rating.

That’s right, I have no credit rating anymore either. I still have one in the US just not over here, but that’s another post that perhaps I can combine with a one titled, ” What do you mean I’m not qualified? ” or maybe one I’ll call ” What about my university degree and years of professional work experience, doesn’t that count? ”

Sorry, I think I slipped over into the beginnings of a rant for a second. I’m back now.

Getting behind the wheel with no car insurance means hiring a driving instructor. Yes, I did say a driving instructor. Never mind that I’ve driven from Scotland to London three times in a rental car and loads of places between Cornwall and London, I can only drive on my American license for a year before being required to get a UK one and that year is long gone.

So I’m grounded for now until I hire an instructor and pay more money (my learner’s permit or provisional license) cost about $82 dollars. The test fees will be another 93 BPS or about $150 US and don’t even ask what an instructor will cost. Just know that it’s enough to go away somewhere nice for the weekend or a week depending on how many days you can squeak by with before being tested. I haven’t called yet so I don’t know if there’s a required minimum.

When you have an instructor you drive their car for the driving portion of the test and I assume that may drive the cost up a bit. I’m so unenthused about the process and the cost factor that my Highway Code Handbook is still largely unread. I move it from one place to another around the house ignoring it as I can’t help feeling a bit offended by my loss of mobility and parts of my previous identity.

It’s like being 16 again only this time I’m a high-risk teenage boy.

Today’s challenge is to read and study the book and maybe call the instructor to see when I can get back on the road again. Ugh!

All Shook Up – August 16, 1977

I was sixteen on the date above and the story below tells you what happened to me on that day.

At Fifteen

At fifteen, she sits in the dark making a chair out of the hood of someone’s car. Old and white, it belongs to a boy whose parents wanted a newer model. At least, that’s what she thinks now. At fifteen, she doesn’t drive yet and while cars mean freedom, she’s in no hurry to take the wheel.

It’s as if she knows that when she’s sixteen, she’ll crash her first car driving too fast in the rain. When the police question her, she’ll say she was only going forty because that was speed limit going into the curve. She’ll shrug when he points first to the place where she left the road and then to a group of trees in the distance.

“Those trees are two-thirds the length of a football field from where you first lost control” he’ll say, and then he’ll wait as if he thinks she has a different story for him. “Maybe, I hit the gas pedal instead of the brake…” She’ll offer this up as a potential explanation and hold firm to this possibility.

Her dad and stepmom will both come to the crash site, and after hugs all around, she’ll go home to an ice pack and a place on the couch for ease of observation. She’ll know she was lucky that day.

No seatbelt, airborne in a steel tank of a 69 Ford, she’ll remember the uncontrolled lift off of her body as it slammed forward hitting the glass while struggling to find an opening in the tiny space between the windshield and the broad dash of the old car. She’ll never forget the windshield holding firm as her body left its place behind the wheel or the feel of the impact with the trees that ended the free flight of her first vehicle.

She’ll hear on the news later that day that the King is dead. She’ll think about the crying mass of people at Graceland and wonder about why he died and she didn’t.

But for now she’s only fifteen, sitting on the hood of that old car, caught unaware by an impromptu portrait artist with a Polaroid camera. If she knew, she would be smiling. She’d look directly at the camera and paste on a happy face.

Hiding her questions, her doubt, and her childhood sorrows behind a smiling mask of good teeth and the unlined face of fifteen year old, she’d light up on cue when prompted.

She’ll remember a lot about fifteen, but she won’t remember this night or this picture until it shows up 33 years later in something that will be called an email from a boy who took her on a road trip of hope, at fifteen.

Many thanks to JL for saving an old memory and passing it on.

* This is a repost from October 19, 2008 but seemed timely given the anniversary the death of this man.


You Look Like Me

My sister Margaret was born within a few weeks of my second birthday. She came into the world at a difficult time in America. Born at the end of September only a few weeks before the Cuban Missile Crisis occurred in October of 1962, she was barely six weeks old when our family life blew apart in a way that could never be repaired. While the rest of the world was still catching its breath after the compromise between Kennedy and Khrushchev, our lives were spinning off in terrible directions that we would not be able to control.

A year ago today when I wrote the post Peanut Butter & Jelly for her, I offered a bit of insight into the challenges we faced as children. If you take a moment to read that post, found below the baby bracelet, the rest of this will make more sense.

Margaret was blond to my brunette with blue/grey/green eyes to my brown ones. Growing up no one ever questioned that I was our mother’s child having her hair and eye coloring in addition to a bit of her overall look. Margaret however, took after our father’s side of the family with her fair coloring and light eyes.

It must have been so obvious to our mother who still maintained throughout Margaret’s early years, ” I don’t know who you look like ”  saying it in a way intended to keep her at arms length even more than she did with her other behaviors. Never a warm or loving woman, it was one more way she found to inflict pain on someone she should have loved and protected.

I wish I could have stated what was so obvious back then, but we barely knew our father’s family and they were all but strangers to us when we finally had a opportunity to spend time with them in the summer of 1970. Children don’t always see things as clearly as adults and we certainly don’t always know the right thing to say.

As Margaret and I age, the physical differences are shrinking, I can’t look at my hands without seeing hers and although our mouths have a slightly different shape, the laugh lines around them look the same and we share a worry line right between our eyes that is always there when we’re trying to solve a problem. We both are short waisted although she has me on height and if you were to hear us laughing together you might have trouble telling us apart.

Margaret is and always has been, courageous and talented. She is a woman of many skills with an attitude that defies the possibility that what she wants is not within her reach. As someone who can design and build just about anything, if I were ever trapped on an island, she’d be someone I’d want there to help me sort things out. A tender message of love and affection has more value to her than any material possession and the welfare of her family is foremost in all of her decisions. We’ve struggled through some difficult times together and apart, but I hope she can hear me when I say, you are my family Margaret, and you look like me.

Happy Birthday Margaret


Kansas 1984


Alaska – December 2008


Peanut Butter And Jelly

September 28, 2008

We were warriors together from our earliest days, standing together in defense as children against things too terrible to speak of even to those closest to us.

Born two years after me, she is part of my earliest memories. She was my first audience, listening as I created elaborate eulogies for the roly-poly bugs we found belly up in the back yard when we were six and eight. Seated among the stuffed animals who made up the mourners at these morbid dramas, her face was the gauge by which I measured my ability to connect with the heart of my audience. It was through her that I first learned the power of my own words and awakened my love of storytelling. Shy and outgoing, blond and brunette, quiet and chatty, we have been opposites, but so alike in different ways.

For years we were always,“ Elizabeth and Margaret,” said in the same mouthful like peanut butter and jelly or cake and ice cream. Never just Elizabeth or Margaret, until one day, thinking only of my own salvation, I fled from the daily war-zone of our lives and I lost my sister. Her name was changed and she was taken away to a state where I couldn’t find her. Suddenly, I was no longer one of two, no more Elizabeth and Margaret, just Elizabeth with no peanut butter for my jelly. Not knowing where she was or more importantly how she was, was an open wound to my young heart.

At fifteen, I convinced an older boy with a car to drive me 636 miles round-trip back to the last house I’d lived in with her. I told my dad and step-mom a bodacious lie and jumped into the car that covered the distance like it had wings attached to the roof rack. She was already gone but I didn’t know it then. I was too afraid to venture down the rocky driveway to get close enough to look for her, but I stood at the end of the road wringing my hands and thinking of escape plans that had no place in a mind that should have been focused on teen worries.

I wondered for years if I would recognize her if she passed me on the street and I felt her missing presence during all the times you’d like to share with a sister. Our father suffered terribly in his quiet way and sometimes in an unguarded moment our normally stoic dad would drop his calm demeanor and his sadness would leak out through his eyes.

At 23, after a tip from a young cousin, I made a few phone calls to a college in the middle of nowhere and told a couple of lies so big even I wouldn’t have believed them to an unsuspecting soul in the registrars office. It worked somehow and she confirmed my sister was enrolled that semester before giving me her home phone number. I was scared as I called the number and I held my breath waiting as I said, “Margaret…this is Elizabeth, don’t hang up.”

We saw each other for first time in ten years a few months later on my 24th birthday when I flew in to surprise her. She said later that she had a feeling she was going to see me that day. Sister connections and DNA …she knew I was coming. I wish I made it back to her sooner. I wish I could have gotten her to a safe place before she found it on her own. I wish I could have explained 34 years ago that I wasn’t trying to leave her, but trying desperately to save myself. There are a lot of things I’d change if I had the power, but there’s one thing she can count on now. I’m not going anywhere….anymore.

Today is a special day for me. It’s the 46th anniversary of the day my sister was born.

I’ve missed a lot of her birthdays in the past and it feels really good to be able to say that I hope today will be a happy day to the peanut butter to my jelly.

Happy Birthday Margaret.

Margaret Turns Six-1968