Writer Lonnae O’Neal looks forward to bonding with her 17-year-old daughter while driving her to school—but the ride isn’t always a smooth one.

By Lonnae O'Neal

We had just pulled up to the light a few minutes from ballet when my daughter, Savannah, pointed to the car next to us, where an intense scene was playing out. The driver was looking at the teenage passenger, wagging her finger and shooting out words in rapid-fire staccato. The passenger sat rigid in her seat, arms folded, head down and lips pursed tight.

“Oh, her mom is rapping her up,” Savvy, 17, said as the light changed and the car pulled off. “Mommy, that’s what you do to me sometimes.” I didn’t know what my daughter meant, but it couldn’t be good.

Savvy explained that the “rapping” usually happened in the mornings, during our 15-minute drive to school. To my mind, that’s where our best conversations take place these days. And often our most intense—boys, school girl drama, life aspirations, grades.

I cherish those morning rides.

To let Savannah tell it, that’s where I’ve been rapping her up for years.

“It means when you’re giving me a lecture,” Savannah said, “or just talking to talk.” Oh, nice, I thought sullenly. Here come the bad mom stories.

Savvy, of course, had examples—I rap her up when she uses the wrong word in a sentence, I rap her up when she calls someone Chinese but she doesn’t know for sure what country in Asia the person is from. I especially rap her up when her shorts are too short, or her big hoop earrings are too big, or the neckline of her tee falls a little too low. Those talks get especially testy as she’s trying to assert her independence, and I’m trying to hold on to my vision for her life, or even just her day. As I was trying to offer my wisest counsel, she was apparently feeling trapped in some kind of mobile lecturing unit.

My daughter could easily take the school bus, but I chose to drive her. I split custody of her and her younger brother with my ex-husband, which means I only have her half the time. I want that time to count. I use those drives as intentional space; to get her off her cell phone long enough to talk about current events, her goals as a dancer, and to stress the importance of being kind, even to boys you don’t like.

And yes, absolutely, to rap her up if need be, because I have to squeeze 100% of my motherhood into only half the time.

No doubt I rap her up when she needs it. I take her to task when we’re running late because she’s been primping too long. Sometimes she’ll spend the drive trying to defend the hairstyle she got off YouTube, or explain how everyone talks in that class. Sometimes she’ll just sit next to me quiet or attitudinal and the air between us grows tense.

There are mornings when it may take the whole drive to reset enough for us to say “I love you” or “Have a good day.” And sometimes we don’t quite get there. But we try again the next time.

We made it to ballet fine, but for days I was still smarting about Savvy’s take on our drive time. One day I joked that Savvy would have to take the bus to school and she protested loudly. She talked about how the morning rides had become our little ritual. “I like riding with you, Mom,” she said. “Even when you lecture me.” That felt like she had given me a gift. It’s so hard letting my children go at the end of every week, but those morning car rides help make up for lost time.

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.

A Pulitzer Prize–nominated reporter, O’Neal is a senior writer for ESPN’s The Undefeated and author of I’m Every Woman: Remixed Stories of Marriage, Motherhood and Work.