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Washington Voices

Front Porch: Riding in the car with boys

I could tell something was wrong the minute he got into the car. His face was flushed and his eyes bright with unshed tears.

As I slowly navigated the school parking lot, an avalanche of words tumbled out. “Alex went to California for Christmas break,” said Sam, 12. “And he’s not coming back!”

While I drove, Sam expressed his sadness at the sudden move of a boy who’d been his friend since preschool. “It was just supposed to be a visit,” he said. “But now they are staying in California, and I didn’t even get to say goodbye.”

By the time we reached home we’d decided he would write a letter to Alex to tell him how much he’d miss him. Sam said his teacher had his friend’s new address.

He climbed out of the car and ran inside to greet the cats. The ride home had given him time and space to sort out his feelings. It had also given him a captive audience with his mother.

I’ve been driving boys to school and back for 16 years. My carpool commutes began when my oldest son started kindergarten. On Ethan’s first day of school, his 3-year-old brother peppered him repeatedly with one question: “Are ya gonna miss me, Ethan? Huh? Are ya gonna miss me?” Baby Zachary sucked his thumb contentedly in his car seat, blissfully unaware that his oldest brother’s school schedule meant he’d be spending a lot more time in the car than he’d like.

The drives all blurred together and by the time Ethan was in fourth grade, Sam had arrived. Our morning school-run took on new misery, as for several months Sam was car seat-averse. He screamed from the time we buckled him in until we got home. Strangely, he didn’t seem to mind the afternoon pickup.

This made me glad. Not only did our ears get a rest, but the drive home provided a crucial window of time for me to reconnect with my older sons, and to find out about their days.

Eventually, I returned to work but I arranged my schedule so that almost always, I’d be the one to pick them up after school. My ears would often ache from the cacophony that filled the car. Frankly it sometimes was a struggle to disengage my brain from work and give the kids my full attention. Yet during that drive home, I got to hear about the trials and triumphs of their days while the information was still fresh.

And then the little boys turned into teenagers, and with the advent of middle school came school bus rides. Coincidentally, teenage boys don’t really want Mom to ask, “Did anything interesting or unusual happen today?”

So, I took to saving that question for dinner – the one time of day I could be sure they’d sit still long enough for conversation.

For the past few years it’s just been Sam and me in the car every morning and every afternoon. Occasionally, his dad or one of his brothers will pick him up, but usually it’s me. While our morning drives are mostly silent, by the time I pick him up at 3:15, he’s got a day’s worth of adventures to relate.

A couple of weeks ago he climbed into the car and asked, “Want to hear a great pickup line?”

“I guess,” I replied.

“How much does a polar bear weigh?”

I sighed. “I don’t know.”

Sam giggled. “Enough to break the ice for us, baby.”

It seems Sam is already gearing up for his transition to middle school next year.

I thought I’d be relieved to be released from the tyranny of 8:30 drop-offs and 3:15 pick-ups, but suddenly I’m sad.

A knock on the car window startled me. “Hey, Ma, you need help or something?” 17-year-old Zack inquired.

I’d been so lost in reverie; I hadn’t even gotten out of the car. “I’m fine. I’ll be right in,” I said.

I gathered my purse, briefcase and coffee cup, but I didn’t open the door. Instead, I sat for a few more minutes in the empty, silent car.

It’s a sound I’ll have to get used to.

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