It is impossible to separate the memories of her early life from the car. More specifically, it is impossible to separate anything of the childhood of our family’s “baby” from the minivan in which most of it took place.
She had arrived into our family long after the other three, long past the tiny sedan that had said “Just Married!” and the station wagon that had ferried one, and then two, carseats into the back. She was born into a busy family of school-aged siblings, complete with a minivan that already had stains on the upholstery and french fries fossilized in its crevices. Her arrival might have meant starting over with a new baby, except that starting over was impossible; the only remaining option was to join the regularly scheduled program, already in progress.
Unfortunately for all of us, she was a colicky baby, something I had not counted on. 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, we must have looked tranquil enough, but as soon as one of the kids would begin to slide open the door, the first, tiny crack would release, like eager butterflies from a cage, the loud, angry, afternoon screams of a fussy baby. I hope that even so, I greeted them warmly and asked, however briefly, about how their days had gone. All I remember saying for sure was: “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, proudly, the children provided answers: goes to work, stays at home. When it was my daughter’s turn, though, she cocked her head, her earnest, chubby face perplexed, as if neither answer was correct. Finally, she spoke. “My mommy,” she offered, more as a question than an answer, “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 just, 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, anticipating the long wait, 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, nuts suspended 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 back and forth from her to me, 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 had known, but a different one altogether, a youngest-child mom. One who had to both construct and survive a childhood spent in a car.
With the big kids all gone from the house, we didn’t really need a minivan anymore, so I got a grown up car, and lately it’s been just the “baby” and me, traveling around town together. I have to be honest: I’ve complained a lot 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 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 pick up a coffee for herself, to practices and meetings for things that are, to her, the most important.
As I think back now on all the driving, all the mothering that occurred in the car, the rides I remember best are the difficult ones. The morning drop-offs dripping in feigned Mom-confidence and cheery wishes for a good day which belied silent, worried prayers on the way to work or back home. 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, 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 passenger seat. What could a mother do? but keep driving, one hand resting on the kid in question and the other on the steering wheel, both misty eyes on the road. Often afterwards, home in the driveway or garage, we would stay in the car, one or both of us talking, and sometimes crying. It was on those days that the car was 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, blissfully unaware that my youth, hangups, and inexperience was 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. 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.
Originally published September 2, 2017