Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Driving Lessons

We live along the rural buffer on back roads between Chapel Hill and Durham. After three years of enduring the San Francisco Bay Area’s bumper-to-bumper traffic through the urban sprawl that joined multiple towns, I immediately fell in love with my short, daily commute through sparsely driven, evergreen-lined roads. With a CD in the player I could unwind from my morning activities or day’s work and converse with the kids without feeling like the distraction posed a threat.

Several years ago, at the suggestion of my little brother, I headed to Barnes and Noble to purchase a Joni Mitchell CD. I clicked through the plastic cases trying unsuccessfully to recall the name of specific CD he had mentioned. Finally I remembered a colleague telling me after I had my first-born that Mitchell had recorded a song called “Amelia.” I eventually settled on the “Dreamland” CD, a compilation of Mitchell’s tunes that includes “Amelia.”

Later that evening, I piled the kids into the car and we drove off to dinner. Already winter, night was well underway, leaving us without our usually scenery. I forwarded the Mitchell CD to Track 14 and told the kids to listen closely. During the orchestral opening bars, the children were surprisingly patient and quiet. At the end of the first verse, Mitchell sings, “Amelia, it was just a false alarm.” “She said ‘Amelia!’” my daughter with the same name exclaimed gleefully. The song continued and the children contentedly fixated on the lyrics.

“She was swallowed by the sea …” Mitchell recalls Amelia Earhart’s ill-fated final flight. “What does that mean ‘She was swallowed by the sea’?” asks Aidan. The children’s first introduction to imagery leads to a long discussion of Amelia Earhart’s significance and her untimely end. I explain how the singer is describing how she died when her plane fell out of the sky, crashing presumably into the sea.

“So this is how I hide the hurt …” “Does that mean she puts a Band-Aid on her boo-boo?” Aidan asks innocently. “No, No, she doesn’t have a boo-boo; she’s heart-broken. She means that she doesn’t want anyone to know how sad she is, “ I explain. The concept of hiding one’s feelings must seem bizarre to a preschooler accustomed to sharing his feelings unabashedly several times a day.

“Why?” he asks.

“Sometimes people just don’t want anyone to know how they feel.”

“How can she hide the hurt if she’s dead?” asked a confused Amelia

“It’s not Amelia Earhart who’s sad honey, it’s the singer. The song is really about the women who is singing it.”

One the way home from the restaurant the children request a reprise of “Amelia.” When we arrive home, the song has not yet finished. “Can we take a walk in the car until the song is over?” Amelia pleads. As we drive around the neighborhood they listen, entranced.

Days later we are listening to Track 14 again, “What’s a false alarm?” asks Aidan, exaggerating the r as usual. We have only recently entered the world of idiomatic speech and it is a challenging to explain these phrases to children who are so intensely literal. “It’s when you expect something to happen, but it doesn’t,” I explain. “But it wasn’t a false alarm,” notes my perpetually logically daughter, “Something was wrong with the plane. She really did die. It doesn’t make any sense.” I have to admit that I do not understand the meaning either. A few days later, I pull the liner notes out of the case and learn that Mitchell wrote “Amelia” during a solo cross-country drive. I read the lyrics in hopes of understanding the nature of the “false alarm” and it becomes clear that the false alarm was a lost relationship mistaken for true love. When Amelia awakens from her nap, I excitedly share my revelation and realize that, without her gentle prod, I would have settled for a limited appreciation of the song and its universal theme of the pain and disappointment of unrequited love.

On yet another journey, Ms. Mitchell provides our entertainment once again. “Help me I think I’m falling in love again …” The opening lines to Mitchell’s biggest hit strike Aidan as odd. “Mommy!” he says in his usual emphatic manner, “Why does she want someone to help her ‘cause she’s falling in love?” We are on our way to join a friend for lunch and his question is so sweetly naïve. I answer, shocked as how easily the response comes to me, “Because falling in love is scary.”


“Because the other person might not love you back.”

What is so obvious to me at 35 would have made my 20s so much easier to endure. I should tell him then why I married his dad: with his dad I was never scared because I knew how much I was loved.

At lunch Aidan informs my friend Jeanette, “Falling in love is dangerous because the other person might not love you back.” Apparently scary and dangerous are synonymous to Aidan, explaining his daredevil behavior. His antics do not scare him; therefore, they must not be dangerous.

It seems that we always have our deepest discussions in the car. On our way home from preschool one day Amelia, then five, asked, “Mom, how do you make a baby?” I vividly remember sitting at a seemingly never-ending red light and mulling over the question. I didn’t want to lie but I was also wary of giving too much information. “A man and a woman make a baby,” I replied. “But how?” she pushed. “Well, they have a special way of cuddling, honey.” “What’s the special way?” she persisted. Seated in back of me, it was impossible to see the look on her face, but I could hear her kicking her feet in annoyance. Assuming that her persistence was a signal to tell her the truth, I proceeded with a rather clinical explanation of the details. Aidan, then 3, had been sitting quietly in the backseat throughout the conversation. After I described the “baby-making” process, he observed, “That’s yuck!” If only I could maintain that attitude for about 15 more years … Amelia, in contrast, remained dissatisfied, “But how does that make a baby?” She finally relented when I got to the sperm and the egg. Thank goodness, because I couldn’t remember exactly how things happened once the chromosomes got together.

Fast forward to the present ...

Having taught the children about sex at ages 5 and 3, I thought I was off the hook, but it turns out that they did not remember and have required several refresher courses. Driving home from Vacation Bible School one day this past June, Aidan asked me, “What does the ‘F word’ mean?” He seems obsessed with cuss words these days. “It’s a nasty way of saying what a man and women do to make a baby,” I answered not wishing to have the sex talk yet again. Amelia, ears perked up at the word “baby,” took her nose out of her book momentarily.

“What means making a baby?”

“The F word, honey.”

“You mean fuck?”

“Yes, honey, but it is not a nice word and you should not say it,” I admonished her hypocritically. At least they aren’t old enough yet to know how much I use that word and its derivatives. I am definitely not winning any Mother of the Year awards.

I know that many mothers bemoan being the designated household taxi driver. I certainly have had my moments when the kids were bickering so in the backseat that I resorted to blasting the radio to drown them out. But I have had to delegate the driving to others over the past month and I miss my driving time with them. At their current ages, some days it was the only uninterrupted time I had with them. In the car there were no toys, friends, or videos to distract the kids. There were no computers, no mail, or chores to pull me away from them. There was no need to nag as we had [finally] eaten, dressed, and managed to get out the door. When I pulled out of the driveway, I had myself, my kids, and the time it takes to get where we are going. We gathered together free of distractions, a captive audience for life’s lessons for driver and passengers alike.


Marie Coppola said...

I thoroughly enjoyed this! It made a great reward after a work session I was really slogging through! I can totally hear their voices as I read your quotes of them, too. love you!

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