I sit in my daughter’s new Volkswagon Jetta and try to memorize her manicured, 16-year-old hands as they handle the black steering wheel. The car is Trim Level 2, even though it’s pre-owned. It has a leather wheel, chrome radio buttons (XM Radio is free for the first three months), and a shiny silver rim wrapped around the AC unit. As she adjusts the vents, I tear up. Yesterday, she was waving to neighbors at Famiglia's Pizza on 1st and 69th from the Baby Bjorn strapped to my chest and today, I'm sitting next to her as she heads east on the 101 freeway.
The car was not a birthday gift. It’s a third car for our family that she will drive solely…for the time being. With a younger brother and sister behind her, we made it clear it was a family car. She didn't care. My son showed me the video she posted on Instagram, or Snapchat, or whichever, the camera panning the charcoal gray exterior while she narrated excitedly.
I had a stone in my stomach. I was happy and sad and full at the same time—full of memories of her fat-fisted baby wave and my dad at a different dealership a million years ago tossing me keys to a different car which I caught with manicured fingers of a different color. Years later, after my parent's bankruptcy and many student loans, I struggled to buy myself a little red compact that was nowhere near as nice as my first car—or hers.
But that’s all water under the bridge now. I sat outside on a wooden bench and felt grateful to be able to afford a "third family car,” grateful that my daughter had a dad who spent weeks on Craig’s List and Edmunds.com, researching safety profiles and good deals and racing out to Valencia for test drives. We must’ve had eight guys from six different VW dealerships leaving messages on our home answering machine about cars that fit the bill.
I sat outside in the sun and shaded my forehead with my hand so I could watch the lines of my husband’s shoulders as he leaned over and showed our daughter how to turn the headlights on and off – they're not automatic. I remembered the lines of my father’s shoulders when he turned back to the sales counter to sign the paperwork for my car. I’d stood there, a teenager, keys in hand, and felt free. Now that the keys were in my daughter’s hand, I felt worried—and disoriented. It’s strange to experience the same event again but, this time, from the mom’s perspective.
Time ticks off our daughter’s junior and senior years—tick-tock tick-tock—until pop goes the weasel and our daughter goes to college. I try to focus on my writing career and keep it moving forward, keep me moving forward and not looking back too much. It's like the rearview mirror—you can glance backwards once in awhile but, as a rule, always keep your eyes on the road. Sorry for all the driving metaphors but that's where I'm at right now.
My husband drew up a two-page, single-spaced contract for our daughter that listed all the adult responsibilities she would be expected to maintain if she wanted to drive the car. She signed it and returned it to him. She's made it to her 7 AM zero period class on time every morning so far. When my husband complimented her new morning punctuality, she said, "Dad, it's in the contract.” He puffed up at the positive effect his contract had on her until she added, "Plus, this year, we're allowed off campus for lunch…unless we’re tardy. I don't want to eat at the lunch tables with the freshman."
My husband’s smile dimmed. But I was still proud. Whatever the reason, she's got her mornings more organized now. Car or not, that’s a good thing. I remember helping with homework, making lunches, walking her to class. I’ve only met her teachers once this year at Back-to-School night and, with an eleventh grader, I was lucky for the opportunity. I walked from room to room with my husband, following the schedule she’d texted us, and whizzing by the other bewildered parents trying to find the chemistry lab or the AP U.S. History class. The marching band played outside and I tried not to notice that the kids were really young men and women. I know that’s a good thing. They’re high school upperclassmen and new adventures are beckoning. But I walked slowly down the hallway, gazing out the window at the parking lot below.
It’s not just the car and the junior year and the college visits and the fact that she gets up and out before 7 am. It’s that some moments flash by while others come with a weird kind of pause, like graduations and weddings and other milestones. For those, it’s easy to prepare—waterproof mascara, tissues, a camera. But this one caught me off guard. When I saw my daughter behind the wheel, time stopped and, for a moment, I saw her growing older, growing up. I nodded my head and smiled but the stone was still in my stomach.