I might be going out on a limb here, but I’d say one thing we pandemic parents aren’t longing for this fall is a return to carpool, otherwise known as the frantic chauffeuring of offspring and friends from one activity to the next.
Don’t get me wrong. Our three kids would definitely benefit from getting back to more things they love, especially their sports. But I’m not missing the daily hand-wringing over what kind of dinner plan can feed five people going in five different directions, whether I brought enough snacks for everyone, whether we really have enough time to get from gymnastics to theater class at rush hour, whether I’m picking up an extra kid today or not, or whether bringing the dog along when it’s raining is going to be the thing that finally sends me over the edge.
That’s a good absence, the opposite of a missing piece. Yet one thing I realized only recently is that what’s also missing is a different version of myself and my three kids: our car selves.
Unlike our homebound selves, our car selves were up for any adventure, happy to take along whichever kid happened to be in the vicinity. My favorite memories involve beloved carpool buddies, some of whom have become part of the clan. Our respective families would take each other’s kids on outings to the mall, the local fair, the ice cream shop and more. It was a good feeling, knowing your child would always have a friend to keep boredom at bay and a way to learn more about the world from a trusted confidant. Now, friends rarely come over and spontaneous outings have become a relic of a former life.
For school events or sports practices, it was always fun to see who else might need a ride and have them pile into the car, because you never knew what interesting conversational tidbits you might catch. (A favorite involves the time my young son with Down syndrome, the only boy in our family, ended up sitting next to one of his sister’s theater castmates, an older boy. “Hey bro,” he greeted him excitedly, and talked his ear off the entire car ride.)
Our car selves knew where the action was — in the outside world. We witnessed ferocious downpours up way too close, got stuck with a smoking car in the middle of a busy road, saved stranded turtles, scoured the neighborhood for lost dogs, and ate gas station candy bars while blasting Lizzo on the radio as we marveled at orange-purple sunsets. Since we are staying close to home due to the coronavirus, our daily adventures consist mostly of laughing at our dog and the canine friends he encounters on walks.
Our quarantine selves are laid back, slowed down by consuming too many carbs. But our car selves were sharp and meticulous, our morning routines forming a banal but rhythmic poetry:
Our car selves argued over which music to play on the way to school, but at least that gave us a chance to learn more about one another.
I’ll always associate Khalid’s sultry “Talk” with our oldest daughter’s journey further into the murky waters of teenagehood, a place where she would pick a station on Pandora and then retreat silently into becoming something separate from us. It tickled me to see that our younger children still worshipped their older sister, following her lead in everything, including repeated requests to play the soundtrack for Alexander Hamilton. And though our son requested songs from Disney musicals more than anything else, much to our chagrin, he also recognized music I liked. “Mommy,” he would say if I was lucky enough to find a Tears for Fears song on the radio, “this is from the ’80s!”
It’s not often these days that all of us are in the car together, so these parts of ourselves are hibernating for now. It’s probably a good thing, as that car could use a good cleaning.
For me personally, the car is still a refuge, and I imagine it is for many of you, too. What better way to stay six feet apart then to be surrounded by a speeding hunk of metal with a Bluetooth connection and a cup holder for your daily poison? No wonder used cars are a hot item lately.
Still, I’m not driving as often, and that might be making my car’s fan club a little sad. What was that, you say? Your car’s fan club? Yes — you see, my car seems to have embedded itself in the minds of some friends and neighbors. It has a rooftop carrier that makes it stand out, and it’s red, so I guess that makes it more conspicuous. People used to tell me repeatedly “We see you everywhere!” or “I passed you twice on 51 today.” or “I know I saw you at the grocery store parking lot this afternoon.” My kids’ teachers even had a contest to see who could spot my car around town the most. (Rose, who ended up winning? You, Darcy or Steph?)
It wasn’t just that I used to drive three kids to school, extracurriculars and appointments; I also kept my dad busy taking him to weekly social activities and doctor visits, plus I juggled various part-time jobs that required driving. Most weeks I put 100 miles a day on my car.
I’m not eager to return to all of that, but I do hope we get to see the fun parts of our car selves again. In the meantime, I imagine that if my car had a brain, it might sing us a little Hamiton-inspired tribute to hasten our return:
“You’ll be back, soon you’ll see
You’ll remember you belong to me
You’ll be back, time will tell
You’ll remember that I served you well.”
Vicki Vila is a freelance editor and writer in Charlotte, N.C.
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