We had a goal that day—a museum about the maritime history of New York, so we set out from New Jersey in a van to get there. I lived in Los Angeles and was visiting my family, and my brother was home from college, so an excursion into ‘the city’ was in order.
Once we crossed over the bridge, Dad said he wanted one of us kids to help him with the navigation. I figured he meant my sister, a high school student, brilliant with spatial things. Map reading and city street negotiation would be a breeze for her, and would get us to the destination in record time.
“Brenda,” switch places with your mother and navigate for me.”
My reaction was more than just, “Imagine my surprise,” given that I had ZERO spatial skills and couldn’t read maps. Surprise became shock, then morphed into terror. Here? New York City? With other lives depending on me? Dad, I love ya, but you must be kidding!
My actual response was, “Oh, I think you mean Tina,” because he sometimes said the wrong kid name (as every parent does from time to time). And the other three smiled and laughed, because Mom and Bobby and Tina had all had the same thought.
“No, you, Brenda. Help me get to the museum at the seaport. The map is in the glove compartment.” We were stopped at a red light so he had the opportunity to turn and give me a piercing stare. “Come on up.”
Every fiber of my being pitched in with its own “I don’t wanna!,” but it was clear that his mind was made up and arguing about it was useless.
So I went to my doom, expecting shame and humiliation and lots of tears.
He explained where we were and where the museum was, and asked me to find a route between them. Then he wanted me to announce to him where he should turn to follow my route.
I looked at the accordianed paper, filled with symbols and shapes on a grid that was beyond intimidating. I couldn’t think; I couldn’t breathe. I hadn’t told my family, but I’d suffered many panic attacks in Los Angeles, a 20-year-old girl from Kansas trying to find my way in the world (literally and figuratively), frustrated and alone and scared behind the wheel of my reliability-challenged two-toned Chevy Chevette with a luggage rack. I’d screamed until I’d lost my voice. I’d pulled over to vomit. I’d cried buckets and buckets, and getting lost was one of my greatest fears and most profound shames. It seemed to me that most others could read and follow maps with no problems; I wasn’t in that group. I knew I couldn’t do what he’d asked; it simply was beyond my capabilities.
I said, in the best voice I could muster, but still barely audible, “Are you really sure, Dad? I think Tina should…”
“No, you, Brenda. Figure it out. Try.”
So I began to try, tracing my finger from ‘Here’ to ‘There.’ I chose big roads, or what seemed so.
I developed a strategy of getting to the docks and traveling up the coast from there.
And, of course, there were missteps along the way.
I told Dad “Turn left here,” and he helpfully pointed out that he’d surely get a ticket if he did that, given that it was a one-way street moving to the right.
When we were approaching another intersection, he asked if he should turn, and I was feverishly trying to figure that out, bobbing my head from map to street sign to map, unsure. So I finally said, “No, no turn here. Just keep going straight.” Since we’d already passed through the intersection without turning, Dad agreed that going straight was the best idea.
Eventually, to my amazement, the sign for the museum was just ahead, with an enormous arrow directing visitors to the parking area.
I felt like an overcooked noodle, but I’d done it. We had arrived at the right place, intact and alive and on the same day.
Of course, Dad had an ulterior motive in choosing me as the navigator that day. He knew me, his firstborn, and knew I needed real-life practice in reading the map, negotiating challenges, and dealing with roadblocks.
We enjoyed our day, a glimpse into history, then headed back out to the vehicle, where Dad announced that he wanted me to drive home.
To New Jersey.