As far as I know, all her life my mother has made only right hand turns. It is something of a family joke,
how she will drive blocks, even miles out of her way to avoid turning left across traffic. Having grown up
in a one stoplight town in western Nebraska, she deemed left turns across three lanes of racing Tucson
traffic unnecessarily dangerous. Although almost always the speediest route to her destination, she knew
that left turns were difficult and risky, requiring complex judgments and timing. As a teenager and
immortal driver in training this made me nuts. More than the wasted time I think I was embarrassed
about the lack of courage this habit implied. Once free of her watchful eye, I determinedly turned left,
sometimes even when I didn’t need to.
Some twenty-five years later, this habit of hers came rushing back to me one morning after dropping my
sons off at school. My blinker was flashing, and I was waiting my turn to go left, downtown to
work. Ahead I could see SUVs and minivans come to coasting stops and make easy right hand turns –
back toward our tree-lined suburb. Those drivers (almost exclusively moms of course) were dressed in
tennis outfits and workout clothes, with toddlers and dogs in tow. Turning left, toward downtown, were
men in suits driving sleek sedans and the occasional mom in a minivan, like me.
For a long time after noticing this, my only thoughts were vague feelings of superiority. To the left lay
downtown Cincinnati, the airport and the world: intellectual challenges, adult interaction and of course
monetary reward. To the right, was the leisurely, and to me brainless, world of the housewife. I turned
left and I was fine with that. Unlike my mother, I had always been someone who turned left. In an
indirect way she had taught me to turn left, via years of advice that girls could do anything boys could
do, that I should never, ever put myself in the position of needing a man to survive. Through years of
diapers and day care, regardless of the stress and guilt accompanying a full time job with frequent travel,
I never wanted to turn right. I was going places, and the way to get somewhere, and get there fast, was
to turn left.
And then I turned 40, halfway through my life expectancy and halfway through my children’s time at
home. Something happened to me. Gradually, I began to look more closely at the moms who turned
right, wondering, even obsessing about them. Day after day I watched them and wondered about their
lives. Where did they go? What did they do? What must it be like to get up in the morning and not think,
“If I can just make it through this week, next week will be better.”? In an irony apparent only to me, the
easily made, quick right turns were reserved for the people who, in my mind at least, had nothing but
time on their hands, whose only meeting was with the spinning instructor or the tennis partner or the
dog groomer. Those of us in a hurry to make a plane or an important client meeting were forced to wait
for traffic both ways to clear, toes tapping, minds racing, knuckles gripping the wheel.
Over time, as I obsessed about these women and their lives contempt began to turn to envy, and I
began to think more about my own life. Where exactly was I racing to? Why was I always in such a
hurry? What was I missing along the way? And what was that recurring pain in my shoulder all
about? One day, completely on a whim, instead of turning left to take the fastest way to work, I turned
right, and drove through the park. The speed limit was only 15, so I had time to notice my
surroundings. It was springtime and the trees were covered in white and pink puffballs and the tulips
and iris were in full glory. I felt my hair blow in the wind from the open windows, and actually heard a
bird sing. When I arrived at work about three minutes later than usual that day I was a changed
person. Perhaps I had had a midlife crisis, right there in the car pool line. Whatever it was, I liked it.
After that day I almost always went through the park. Those three extra minutes every morning gave
me time to focus on my journey rather than my destination. I resolved to notice things, to slow down, to
let a car go in front of me in traffic every day and to consciously live in the moment. When I heard
myself saying to my five and eight year old for the tenth time each morning "C'mon, hurry up, let's go", I
stopped and took a deep breath. When I picked my kids up from school, instead of letting my mind race
ahead to preparing dinner or getting homework done, I actually listened to their responses to my
customary barrage of after-school questions. Once in a while we even stopped for ice-cream. I began to
develop a Zen-like calm, and discovered I liked turning right.
Eventually, my focus on the journey forced me to examine my life choices and to decide on a different
path, one that would allow me to experience my life instead of merely survive it. And now, ten years
later, I can say with certainty that right turns saved my life and allowed me to create for my two boys the
memory of a childhood in which I am present, and happy.
I understand my teenaged self, in a big hurry to get somewhere, get on with life. And yes, left turns are
a faster and more direct route. But my wise middle-aged self is sure now that the destination means
nothing if you can’t remember the journey. Or if your car runs off the road into a ditch when you are
Now the only question is how do I tell my mom she was right?