Pain in the neck: Reflections on my husband’s driving

Pain in the neck: Reflections on my husband’s driving

by Lisa Smith Molinari
The Meat and Potatoes of Life

“Gaeton, can I get you a cold soda?” my mother-in-law asked her husband, seated in the driver’s seat next to her. My in-laws were Gaetano and Alice, of Italian and Irish Catholic heritage, respectively. Both born and raised in northern New Jersey, they were real characters. From my vantage point in the backseat with my infant son, I observed their comical banter.

We were rolling down I-95 at a good clip, in the 1980s Lincoln Continental my father-in-law had recently inherited from his aunt, on our way to the beach.

Aunt Millie Medunio had been a feisty 4-foot-10 Italian widow who lived in a brick bungalow, with a one-car garage outfitted with a tennis ball hanging from the ceiling. After Aunt Millie’s daily routine — mass followed by lunch at Roy Rogers where she’d pilfer stacks of napkins and bundles of condiment packets — she’d pull her Lincoln into her tiny garage until the tennis ball touched the windshield, which left just enough room to close the garage door.

Millie’s late husband, Uncle Eddie, had set this up for her, “God bless him.”

Gaetano ignored his wife, so she asked, “How ‘bout some crackers?” She pulled a sleeve of crumbling Ritz from the enormous handbag at her feet, which also contained a two-liter bottle of ginger ale, plastic cups, and a few pieces of bruised fruit.

“Geez, Midge!” my father-in-law bellowed using her nickname, indicating that she’d better not bother him while he was negotiating traffic. He was a nervous driver, alternating between jabbing the brake and gunning the gas. In the vastness of the Lincoln, motions were magnified, and I was soon queasy.

Mercifully, my son was asleep, oblivious to his grandfather’s jerky driving. I, on the other hand, was burping up bile.

To make matters worse, my father-in-law searched AM radio stations for a traffic report. When he couldn’t figure out how to get sound through the front speakers, he turned the rear volume up full blast. I sat between those rear speakers, covering the baby’s ears and fighting my gag reflex. I was so relieved when we finally reached the beach, I couldn’t see the trip for what it really was — a warning sign for my life to come.

I ignored another red flag during the years we were stationed in the English countryside, when my husband, Francis, drove our growing family around on the winding roads and roundabouts. Mysteriously, I’d developed neck pains and nausea. I blamed my second pregnancy, even though my symptoms generally appeared when Francis was driving.

Years later, while stationed in Germany with our three kids, I ignored yet another warning sign. Within days of PCSing, our middle child threw up during a sightseeing drive. Over the course of the next three years of touring Europe in our minivan, our family became so accustomed to the kids vomiting during car trips, the minivan was supplied with “barf bags,” “up-chuck buckets” and wet wipes for that inevitable purpose.

By the time we left Europe, our children had vomited in over a dozen foreign countries, and I began wonder, “Does Francis drive like his father?”

I noticed his repeating pattern: Francis guns the gas until the vehicle he is driving is a few car lengths away from a stop sign or obstacle. Then, BAM! He hits the brake with a quick punch. The sudden deceleration pins the passenger’s torso against the seatbelt, while catapulting her head forward, snapping it like a whip. Rather than easing his foot off the brake, Francis jerks his foot upward, causing an equally violent reaction when the passenger’s torso is thrown backward against the seat and her head ricochets against the headrest. On any given road trip, Francis’ passenger may be thrown forward and backward multiple times, causing her stomach to twist and her neck bones to heave like an old-fashioned squeeze accordion.

Our three adult children no longer mince words. “Geez, Dad! What’s up with the gas-brake driving!” I only wish I’d seen the warning signs earlier in our marriage. It may not have changed Francis’ driving, but at least I would’ve known to always bring along ginger ale and crackers.
Read more at the website and in Lisa’s book, “The Meat and Potatoes of Life: My True Lit Com.” Email:

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