It is impossible to separate the memories from her early life, and in our family, from the car. More specifically, it is impossible to separate the childhood of our family’s “baby” from the minivan in which so much of it took place.
She had arrived into our family long after the other three, long after the tiny sedan (Just Married!) and even the station wagon (two carseats!) had come and gone. She was born into a busy family of school aged siblings, complete with minivan. Her arrival might have meant starting over with a new baby, except that starting over was impossible; she would have to join the regularly scheduled program, already in progress.
Unfortunately for all of us, she was a colicky baby, something which we had not planned for. In the afternoons after school, I’d wait in the minivan, parked in its usual pickup spot in front of the church, for the big kids to come out. From a distance, it looked tranquil enough. At least until one of the kids would begin to slide open the door, the first, tiny crack releasing, like eager butterflies from a cage, the loud, angry screams of a fussy baby. I hope I always greeted them warmly, and asked, however briefly, about their days. What I know I said was this: “Hurry up and get in. We gotta get the baby home.”
When she was two, and at a nursery school that provided Mother’s Day Out, the teacher, making conversation in Circle Time with a roomful of toddlers, asked whether their mommies went to work or stayed at home during the day. Dutifully, the children answered – goes to work, stays at home – until it was my daughter’s turn. She cocked her head, her earnest, chubby face perplexed, as if neither answer was correct. Finally, she spoke. “My mommy,” she offered, “stays in the car.”
And it was true. The older kids had soccer and music, school plays and horse shows. We were always on the run, and she was, quite literally, along for the ride. For years, when we would visit the McDonalds drive-through, she would ask if we could please eat inside this time? No, not this time, Sweetie. We have to go.
One hot spring afternoon, we sat in the car outside a place called the Toon Shop, a music store and school as old-fashioned as the name suggests, while her siblings took piano lessons. There was an equally old-fashioned drug store next store which had an ice cream freezer, and I bought her a Drumstick ice cream cone to keep her occupied. She ate it happily in her carseat, smiling broadly, her hands and face covered in sticky chocolate, the little nuts stuck in her curly hair. When the big kids returned, my oldest son, a first child who had been – and I am telling you this only because I have sworn to tell the truth – allowed only laundry-friendly “white” ice cream until he was four, looked from her to me, back and forth, incredulous. “She’s washable,” I shrugged. I think he thought I’d had a stroke. What neither of us fully understood until that day was that this was not the mother he knew, but a different one altogether, a youngest-child mom. One who had to both construct and survive a childhood in a car.
With the big kids all gone from the house, we didn’t really need a minivan anymore, so it’s been just the “baby” and me in my post-minivan, grown up car, traveling around town together. I have to be honest: I’ve complained about the driving. It’s been, in so many ways, a long road.
So there was much rejoicing when this week, the no-longer-a-baby got her driver’s license. She is again in the car, but for the first time in her youngest-child life, she is finally in the driver’s seat. At long last, the route and the schedule and the destination and the radio station are of her choosing. She does not need me to be on board when she is ready to go, and already, she is off: to work, to dinner with her friends, to practices and meetings for the things that are most important to her.
As I think back on it now, on all of the driving, all the mothering that occurred in the car, the rides I remember best are the difficult ones. The morning drop-offs rich in feigned Mom-confidence and cheery wishes for a good day belying silent, worried prayers. The afternoon pick-ups after a day that had not gone well, a fact immediately clear to the pulling-up mom just from the way the boy held his shoulders as he waited at the curb, from the faraway expression in the girl’s moist eyes. The surprising number of rides – was it just because we were in the car so much? – in which terrible news was delivered, reported, or mourned, one or another child of mine heartbroken in the bucket seat. What could a mother do then? but keep driving, one hand resting on the kid in question and the other on the steering wheel, both eyes on the road. Often afterwards, home in the driveway or garage, we would stay in the car, and finally talk a little, the car a kind of sanctuary for us both.
For all those years, I drove them, to school, and practice, and sleepovers, to be with family, to vacations, and – not as often as I now wish – to shows and field trips and museums. It is clear to me now how completely I got to choose the direction they would go, driven by my own ideas of what was best, my youth, hangups, and inexperience riding shotgun. How different it was for the first kid, whose activities and interest and cleanliness were almost always a priority, and the fourth, whose almost never were. And how it all evened out, in some hodgepodge fashion along the way, somewhere between ridiculous first-time mom decisions like only white ice cream and fun fourth-child ones involving Drumsticks in carseats.
You can learn an awful lot, just driving around. Take it from me: a mom who stays in the car.