Driving Miss Daisy

My husband has a habit of buying things on the fly. Not small items mind you, like sneakers or a toaster oven but big items like boats or cars. So, it really was no big surprise when last fall, after a little ride with him that our two youngest children burst through our kitchen door squealing with delight "Daddy bought a Jeep!"

Of course he did. Just like the boat he bought when I was 9 months pregnant with our first child and the Volvo he bought off eBay, sight unseen and the other boat he bought and that other boat he bought. A week later we drove a few towns over and my husband made the transaction that gave me enough respiratory distress to require an inhaler. Except I don’t have an inhaler so I just had to go sit in the car. My husband on the other hand was smiling so big and wide I was beginning to think he might be left with the corners of his mouth in a perpetual upswing, not unlike the Joker. When at long last every inch of the Jeep had been gone over, the man handed my husband the keys. He started it up and black smoke came billowing out the muffler. Did I mention it is a 30-year-old Jeep? I followed him the 30 miles home and had a headache by the time we reached our driveway.

He got out of the Jeep and said, “What do ya think?” That weird upswing of his mouth still present. I answered, somewhat tartly “Fix that thing or return it!” He looked crushed but when I explained that all it did was blow smoke and now my nostrils needed a deep cleansing enema and I needed to down a bottle of Motrin, he promised to call our mechanic. He murmured something mechanical, I suggested it might be the flux capacitor, and his smile faded.

Truth be told, under my tough exterior I was quite disappointed. He had a similar CJ when we first started dating. It was one of the qualities that put him in the “marriageable” category. We spent hours riding along the back roads of the Connecticut River Valley, wind whipping my long hair, his face in that perma-grin. He sold it when he decided to propose. So, the purchase of a similar car all felt so sweet until my eyes started to bleed from the exhaust.

A week later the mechanic had helped us out and although there was still some smoke it wasn’t nearly as bad and we hoped that our hybrid would help keep our carbon foot print down. When he brought it back from the mechanic he convinced me I needed to go for a ride. He knew that once I sat in that Jeep I would stop insisting it needed to go. He was right. I had forgotten how much fun driving can be. We piled our youngest in and they loved bouncing around the back seat, with just lap belts to protect them. Our oldest refused to go for a joy ride. I think his exact words were, “What kind of parents drive their kids around in a car with no air bags?” When I finally did get him in it, basically by driving it to school one afternoon to pick him up so he had no choice but to take the ride, he sat white knuckled and declared it a “death trap” and again bestowed the virtues of air bags and vowed to never ride in it again.

What my oldest son doesn’t realize is that driving wasn’t always about airbags and five-point harness car seats our children have to be buckled in until they graduate from high school. It wasn’t just about carpools and the drudgery of getting through miles of traffic to get to work. When my sister and I were young we were piled into our car with mom in the front seat for the “Mystery Ride” on Sunday afternoons. As my sister and I got older we would push and shove at each other, trying to gain more space to stretch out. My sister usually won that battle as she had gained the height gene. The “Mystery Ride” might have been more angst than mystery for my parents but that is what people used to do. Somewhere in all our technology and over-scheduling and car-pooling we have lost a wonderful American past time, the Sunday drive. I am not sure if my dad had a destination in mind or if he just picked a route and drove. It was great until I started to develop motion sickness, which I didn’t even know was a thing, and couldn’t read in the back seat and even being in the backseat seemed to upset my stomach. My preferred seat was up front but that was obviously coveted by my mom. Eventually the Sunday drive became a thing of the past as we got older and gas became more expensive.

When I turned 15 my father began teaching me to drive. We would go the high school parking lot in the little red Honda and I would bump and jar my way out of first gear. My father seemed to have a bottomless well of patience as I jerked his car forward. More patience than he had helping with math homework, thankfully. The day of my driving test, April 4,1986 to be exact, I had a very large man stuffed into our little red Honda. He got into the car and his knees knocked up against the dash and he fumbled about trying to move the seat further back. I began to sweat thinking he would take points off. He mumbled for me to start up the car and pull out of the parking lot. He jotted notes and he told me where to drive to. I couldn’t tell if he was pleased with my skills or irritated, his face never changed. When we pulled back into the parking lot he grumpily told me I had passed in a voice dripping with boredom and a mind counting the days until retirement. I, on the other hand, jumped out of the car and practically pranced my way back to my dad. I had my license. I had freedom. I could drive myself to school. I didn’t have to wait to be picked up by my sister or my dad. I could go where I wanted. The world was my oyster! Or at least the area in about a 30-mile radius.

Ever since that moment where I held my license, I have always looked at driving as an adventure. To relieve boredom, to stretch my borders. As teenagers we didn’t have the restrictions that are in place today. I find some of it tedious but then again me driving six fellow tennis teammates around after practice, stuffed into a hatchback, a few days after acquiring my new license, in retrospect doesn’t seem like the wisest decision. But that level of freedom was exhilarating. If we needed milk, which I could get at the bottom of our street at the 7-11, I would, instead drive into the center of town just to be able to drive longer. I would pop in a mixed tape and sing my heart out. My mind would wander and stories would develop. It is where most of what I write now begins.

Until my husband bought the Jeep I had lost that connection to driving. Driving had become monotonous. It was carpools and crowded highways filled with cranky people rushing to get somewhere. We have lost the joy in taking a journey. We have lost sight that it is more about the road we travel than the destination. All those years of mystery rides with my parents weren't about the destination, it was about time out of our house. Time for my mother to get a break from her own monotony. The Jeep gave me back the mystery ride. It takes away the hurry. It takes away being closed up in air conditioning and it takes away any use of a cell phone. It is like traveling back in time. To that time when people cruised in their cars and took delight in the world around them. My kids love being able to count stars as we drive or watch the road glide by us, the wind chapping their faces and blowing their hair every which way. They pay more attention to what is happening around them and they don't even mind when we have no destination planned. Although it would seem most of them ended at ice cream haunts.

A couple weeks back my husband suggested a ride, thinking our warm weather was nearing an end. Our eight year old asked if we were going in the Jeep and he said "Of course." She responded ,"Then I'm in!" As we pulled out of the driveway, my daughter sitting up front under the ruse that it was safer than the back seat, smiled back at me. My husband had that weird grin again and said to our daughter as he pointed his thumb back at me," Hey look, we're driving Miss Daisy." He can call my mystery ride whatever he wants, as long as the smile doesn't fade and the joy remains in the journey.

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