When I was five years old, my mom took a sharp right turn into our neighborhood, and I fell out of the car. Well-trained child that I was, I picked up my wailing, bloody self and raced to the curb, because I knew I wasn’t supposed to be in the street.
The question isn’t “How did this happen?” It’s more like “How didn’t this happen sooner?”
Back then, my mom drove an ancient Plymouth. It was basically rust on wheels. A small hole in the back floor gave passengers an up-close-and-personal view of the road whizzing by beneath the car. The back seat had been shedding stuffing in fur-like hunks when Mom acquired the car from her stepfather, and it didn’t take long before exposed coils made sitting impossible. Ever inventive, Mom removed the seat and replaced it with child-sized folding chairs. After all, she had little kids to ferry around, and those little kids had friends. (Yes, inexplicably enough, other moms allowed their children to ride in our car.) Riding in the back meant making sure the legs of the chairs didn’t somehow get stuck in the hole in the floor. It also required vigilance every time Mom took a turn, because the chairs had a tendency to slam into each other like dominoes and send everyone sprawling. It’s not surprising that when I fell out of the car, my chair fell out with me.
How could anyone ever convince themselves that putting this obvious safety hazard on the road was a good idea?
Mom had her reasons. A native of the Bronx who’d easily navigated NYC, she found herself living in the Maryland burbs, a place totally devoid of public transportation and walkable errands. No car meant she’d be stuck at home all day with three kids under the age of five in a house she had no desire to constantly clean or decorate. It meant waiting for my dad to come home from his office so that she could start a second shift of errands after dinner. In this era where most mothers were home but few had wheels, no car meant Mom was grounded, the comings and goings of her life dictated by other people’s schedules and needs. For her, the Plymouth wasn’t just a car: it was a link to sanity. With that in mind, the car had to become more unique than dangerous, and as long as Mom tried to avoid the highway, driving it had to be just fine.
I still remember the sensation of the car door yielding to my weight and the burn of the hot tar road as I scraped against it. But I also remember rides to the kindergarten class I loved and could never have attended without transportation. I remember visiting the library so often that the car probably could have rolled there on its own. Mom took us on adventures we never could have experienced without wheels.
I don’t remember if the Plymouth died a natural death or if it became so noticeably decrepit that taking it out on the road invited an instant citation. I only know that by the time the car reached the end of its life, Mom had made her case for mobility. This time she inherited Dad’s car, while he got a new one for his daily commute into Baltimore City. Maybe these wheels weren’t as interesting as the old ones had been, but they were a heck of a lot safer. They also let Mom go farther than before. She got a job. She went back to college.
Back then, we didn’t recognize that for our mother, it was never about wheels: it was about wings.