My 13-year-old is sitting in the driver’s seat in our gray minivan. We are en route to a new sushi restaurant. Max puts the right turn signal on and carefully shifts the wheel, his eyes glued to the road. Okay, actually, we’re parked in our driveway and we aren’t going anywhere. Pretend driving is one of his favorite activities.
Perhaps other parents would be bored out of their minds sitting in a car that’s not going anywhere, but it’s my idea of total relaxation.
Typically Max likes to “drive” around our neighborhood or go on some fantasy trip to, say, Hawaii. This is the first time he’s wanted to head to a restaurant, and it reminds me of the amazing developmental leaps and bounds he’s made.
Max has cerebral palsy and cognitive impairment; when he was a toddler, he’d literally run screeching out of restaurants due to sensory overload because new places scared him. These days, my foodie adventurer is game to try different eateries in real life, and even pretend to take me to them too.
Yet the main reason I adore these drives is that they’re one of the only times when I can truly kick back. Enclosed in the car, away from the world, I’m cut off from life’s worrisome realities—particularly, my concern about Max’s progression with speech and the fact that his left foot has been turning inward and making him stumble (cerebral palsy messes with your muscles). Riding to nowhere is my worry-free zone.
Besides, if I try to veg out at home on the living room couch or at the kitchen table, I will inevitably notice dust on the furniture, crumbs on the floor or a pile-up of papers and jump up to clean or de-clutter. Happily, I have no desire whatsoever to neaten up the car, although I sometimes marvel at the petrified chocolate ice cream that’s been stuck in a floor mat for years or the empty DVD cases scattered everywhere. (Where the DVDS are, who knows.)
With our car ensconced by the tall, leafy oaks that line our driveway, I sink into my little passenger-seat sanctuary. I slip off my shoes, prop my feet up on the dashboard and sip from a tumbler of iced tea I stash in the cup holder. Slowly but surely, the tension slips out of my body, usually ever-posed to tend to some task or emergency, typically from my 11-year-old. (“MOMMMMMY, I CAN’T FIND THE STAPLER!!!”)
“Beep! Beep! Beep!” Max says, pretending to honk the horn.
“Is there a truck in your way?” I guess.
“Yes!” Max says, and continues on his merry way.
Car “rides” usually last about a half hour. Between me and my husband, I’m often the one to volunteer because I am so grateful for the downtime. Sometimes Max and I chat. Or we’ll call my mom; Max recently informed her that we were driving to Disney World. Or I sit and read a book as we cruise in silence, another rarity in parenthood. Peace when we’re actually out driving is unusual because either the kids are squabbling or I’m freaking out about my husband’s driving (“You’re going too fast! You’re going too slow!”). Once, in fact, when I got into the car with Max he looked at me and said, “No yelling!”
“Are we almost there yet?” I ask as Max bounces up and down, as if he’s on a bumpy road.
“No!” he says.
That’s fine with me. For just a few more minutes, I can escape stress in this four-wheeled haven. There are few places I’d rather be than in our driveway.
Cars. They’re a microcosm of family life. A four-doored home on wheels. And, as this series of essays reveals, a little magical. Cars provide a window to the past and the future. They can shift gears to make you feel 20 years younger or add a touch of gray. They can wipe away emotional scars, bring us closer together or transport us somewhere else. We asked writers to take a look in their rearview mirror and recall a car ride that impacted the way they look at life, love and the pursuit of happiness.