Norbert Brown is slightly obsessed with how many of his favorite memories have taken place in cars.
Last week, my youngest son turned 18. So now, even though I don’t feel any different than I did a week ago, I can officially refer to myself as “a father of three grown children.”
And I couldn’t have done it without a car.
That’s probably not true – if I lived in the inner city or it was 1850, I would have found a way. But when I look back on all the times I spent with my children as they grew up, I am struck by how many of my favorite memories took place in the car.
I think about looking up at the rearview mirror and seeing my daughter leaned over in her carseat, fast asleep. I think about my older son, and the times we could only GET him to sleep by popping him in the seat and driving a few times around the block. And my youngest, trying with all his might not to close his eyes so that he could keep up with the banter between his big brother and sister.
I think of the long trips to see grandparents; the I Spy games and the deplorable mess that the floor of a minivan is after 13 hours of driving. Rides to school and rides with friends; the things you learn about your children when you take on that invisible role of chauffeur.
And then there was the time we flew out to Las Vegas and drove 2,000 miles through Nevada, California, Utah and Arizona. My boys were both out of diapers relatively recently then, and had a newcomer’s fascination with public facilities. I remember it as the Men’s Room Tour of the American West.
People used to talk a lot about spending “quality time” with their children, which I guess means spending time with them where they are your one and only focus. But some of the best time I’ve spent with my kids, some of the time that has been most formative and reinforcing to my relationships with them, is time I’ve spent with my eyes mostly focused on the road. It’s that in-between time, when everybody’s mind is on something else and so everybody’s guard is down. Something comes on the radio and it sparks a conversation that gives you a chance to tell your daughter about something that’s really important to you. A song comes on that you remember from when you were your son’s age, and you tell him about things you did with your friends back then. Or they tell you about something that happened in school – some casual conversation that somehow makes you proud of the person you’re raising.
But while there are memorable moments to be found driving your small and school-aged children around, the very best car time I’ve spent with my kids has been on the long rides back and forth from college. Parents and college-age children are in the middle of learning a whole new dynamic with each other: suddenly they’re not kids anymore, but they aren’t exactly adults either. They are fiercely independent, yet they rely on you for, well, almost everything. It can get uncomfortable, for both of you. Their personality is emerging in ways that surprise even them during the weeks and months you’re apart, but somehow when they step back into the house they turn into the kid they were before they left. Which means your best opportunity to get to know the new person they’re becoming happens in the car on the ride home.
It’s when my daughter shared the bands she’d discovered in her freshman year with me. Even though I turned my nose up at them at first, some of the songs she played me are now part of the permanent rotation on my iPod. My son and I got talking about books one day in the car, and discovered a shared love of Steinbeck that I’m not sure we’d have found during the brief intersections of our orbits while we lived in the same house.
But beyond music and books, I’ve had long and meaningful discussions with my grown kids in the car. There’s something about the way you’re sitting – next to each other, both facing forward, on equal and neutral ground – that seems to break down barriers. And, of course, there’s the fact that you’ve got nowhere to go. Sure – one of you can feign sleep, or you can shift your focus to a story on the radio. But even if you do, you have the shared experience of riding together, the simple human connection of spending that time between destinations in one another’s company.
And sometimes, it’s in that “time between” that we are most ourselves and that we connect most easily and fluidly with the ones we love. It’s when you recognize that life is not just about the birthday parties and the graduations, the proms, band concerts and weddings. It’s also about the weekday breakfasts and the Saturday yard work. It’s about the toddler’s bath time and the trip to the mall to pick out your teen’s first cell phone.
It’s about riding in cars with your kids.
photo: James Ellsworth / flickr