For most of my life, I rode in the passenger’s seat. This changed when my husband of 30 years died six years ago, leaving me a widow and single mother of a 13-year-old daughter. I had little choice but to move over into the driver’s seat.
Why, you might ask, had I not always been in the driver’s seat? After all, I had a successful career and was determined and focused.
It’s just that I was conditioned to be more of a passenger in life than a driver. My late husband, a handsome, confident man, an architect, liked to be in control, shall we say (and leave it at that). My father was beyond controlling; he did it his way, period. I was lulled into a kind of passivity; and besides, I got to take in the sights on our long drives and catch an occasional snooze while my husband drove. Over the years, I grew comfortable in the passenger seat.
As I drove from Boston to my home in Connecticut yesterday, having dropped my daughter off at Boston University for a summer work/study program, Geena Davis was on the Boston NPR affiliate, WGBH.
“Who?” my daughter would surely ask me. “Who is Geena Davis, and why do I need to know about her, mother?”
I will explain to my one and only child why Geena Davis is important to women of MY generation. She was Thelma in the emblematic 1991 film, Thelma and Louise, opposite Susan Sarandon as Louise. I bet every woman I know can describe the final scene at the Grand Canyon, where Thelma floors Louise’s powder blue 1966 Ford Thunderbird convertible and the film ends in a stunningly gorgeous freeze frame.
Geena Davis grew up near Boston and went to Boston University, and now, she has her own Institute on Gender in Media. Her mission is to increase the presence of strong female characters and reduce stereotyping in entertainment aimed at children. She was in Boston interviewing kids at schools, and she described how they felt women were beautiful princesses, while men were brave and strong.
When the interviewer, a woman, asked Geena Davis if Angelina Jolie’s career as a sex symbol was over as a result of her recent double mastectomy, there was dead silence. Was Geena rendered speechless by such an inane question? Was she thinking about Brad Pitt, the cowboy who stole their money in Thelma and Louise? I nearly drove off the Mass Pike. I was so angry. My response would have been, Angelina is more of a sex symbol, you fool! She has it all. She is more than a set of hooters, as certain unnamed men I have known like to call women’s breasts of the extra-large size. She is stronger than any man — Brad included. He’s lucky to have her. And I think he knows it.
I want my daughter to identify with strong women like Geena and Angelina. I lecture her all the time about how women can do anything men can do. In fact, more. Still, when faced with typical “Dad” tasks like driving my daughter to college and unloading all of her stuff, I come undone in the days leading up to The Day.
“How will I ever manage this trip to Boston?” I asked myself as the day approached. “What if I get lost? And how will the two of us manage to carry all those boxes up flights of stairs in old buildings with no elevators? Why isn’t Lili's dad here to help us? He'd know what to do.”
“Mother,” my daughter told me, “you will use your new GPS! I will show you how it works, okay?”
“I don’t know Boston,” I told her. “New York is my city. I love driving in New York. It’s safer than Connecticut, with all the huge SUVs.”
When we pulled up in front of her dorm just off Beacon Street on a hideously hot, stormy afternoon, I was elated. I loved the sight of kids everywhere, carting their stuff in those rolling carriers. They looked kind of grungy, in a 1970s way. My era. I felt at home.
“Here we are! We made it!” I told my daughter.
“Why are there so many people? Where are we supposed to park?” she asked, in a foul mood.
“This is not Ithaca College, my dear,” I responded. “You wanted a city university, and you got one!”
She spent just a year at the Park School of Communications at Ithaca College, getting mostly As. She loved her work as an integrated marketing communications major, but she hated the isolation of the college. Midway through freshman year, she told me she wanted to transfer to a college in Boston.
“So do it,” I said. “Life is short. And expensive. So don’t stay if you’re not happy.”
My older brother, a doctor, is a chip off the old block. As my father would have advised, were he still alive, my brother urged caution. “She should try it for another year,” he said. “She should hang in there, not be a quitter!”
That did it. I didn't need to ask for anyone's advice about raising my child. If there's one thing my daughter isn't, it's a quitter. Within months, she'd applied to four colleges in Boston and been accepted at all of them. She has learned from me that you've got to take immediate action if you want to change your life. You can't be a passenger, as I was for way too long. You've go to take the wheel!