Family Life From the Driver's Seat

At 16, getting your driver's license is a big deal! Full of confidence and excitement, my son got in the driver's seat, I sat in back and the road test lady settled into the passenger seat of my 82 Cavalier. She closed the door, he started the engine, but ooops...the door wouldn't close! She pulled hard a couple times, my teen got out, came around and gave it a slam. Wouldn't latch. Our anxiety rising, I kept saying "this never happened before!" and "he's been waiting weeks for this appointment!"

She said if we could get it fixed and come right back, she'd still take him. The mechanic at the nearby Shell station used a screw driver to quickly pop the latch out, but had no clue why it happened. ""Never seen this before" he muttered. Back we went and there she was...still inside the door and smiling as she saw us return. Relieved but still nervous, we took our assigned seats and off he drove! He passed the test and got his license; but oh, what a funny tale to tell; especially when his sister went for her test a few years later.  I had that car for 12 years and that latch never stuck before or after that moment...what are the chances!

In 50 years of driving, I've called eight cars my own. Eight cars where I watched life unfold from behind the steering wheel. I learned to drive in high school, but getting my license didn't mean I was actually a driver. My parents didn't think I was ready...just because I knocked the fence over backing down the driveway. No worries; the bus stop was nearby to get me to work, and soon I was off to college for four years where I mostly walked. Boys had cars and that's what mattered!

When my husband and I married, he had a 65 Malibu convertible to honeymoon in. We headed east to the Atlantic seaboard in breezy sunshine. Six months later in the middle of Michigan winter, I began my first teaching job and had to drive. At age 22, I relearned quickly how to navigate our burgundy "summer" car. It wasn't easy getting through unplowed back roads and having to back up and out of ditches that kept getting in my way. I got the hang of it eventually; always grateful for strangers who'd say leave it and drive me to school on those days when the tires and ditches didn't cooperate. There were no worries; it's what folks did in those days.

Three years later, pregnant with our firstborn, I got a blue 69 very own first car!
Winter driving was still a bitch, and still being back in those good ol' days...there were no child safety seats.
After maternity leave, I had a 3-month-old in a flimsy, plastic carrier on the front seat next to me each day. I can still see it...Spike, the town mechanic, magically appearing through several feet of snow as I sat stuck in a big drift. He grabbed my baby, helped me up into his tow truck and placed the carrier on my lap. Just way to call for help, no phone to let the principal know I was running late, but stress. It was the way of life. He drove me to the babysitter's house, then to school and my second grade classroom.

My husband bought a bright yellow 71 Gremlin...but we eventually switched cars and the Gremlin became mine....probably because I thought it boosted my cool factor! It was a zippy little car with bucket seats in front; lap belts but no kid car seats.
One day I was driving along I-94 with my mom, the two of us talking away; and this little toddler is poking his head between the seats, reaching up front, bouncing around on the back seat. But we knew what to do if I had to stop suddenly....throw your arm back and across the passenger! Remember that? I still do it today with my teen granddaughters in the car!

Our daughter's arrival meant needing more space, so we added two more rooms to our house and bought a larger car. Good thing it was a station wagon; this big, blue 77 Volare moved us to Kentucky in the winter of 78....right through the middle of a record-breaking blizzard. My husband started a new job, but instead of teaching, I volunteered in my kids' school and became a Cub Scout leader; filling my car with rowdy little boys to attend parades, firehouse tours and fall festivals. Within eleven months, another job opportunity arose and off we went again, moving to Massachusetts!
I transitioned easily into substituting and switched volunteering roles....becoming a Brownie leader this time. My trusty wagon went through snow like a charm, filled with hockey equipment one day, bunches of giggling, uniformed girls the next. Both my son and daughter started hockey at age five; I was used to wrestling on their gear, lacing skates and waiting by the gate to wipe noses. Station wagons knew hockey, just like today's SUV's!

Once a week after school, I'd open the back and eight, nine or ten little Brownies would jump in for our meeting at a local church. There were seat belts, but they wanted to sit circle style in the way back. Makes me shudder remembering this: slipping and sliding as I drove the snowy, woodsy road to the church....shouting for them to hang on....and they're laughing all the way! Good Lord! Well, yes, God did keep them safe. Those were the days, huh? I let them swing on clotheslines, have stick fights; let my own kids play two, three streets away for hours at a time. I was never worried or fearful; neighborhood moms watched over kids playing in their yard. I miss those relaxed and trusting times...miss the me from those days.

When my two started junior and high school, learning-to-drive-time was right around the corner. Going car shopping with teens weighing in can make or break the deal. Decision made, we blew kisses at the Volare and welcomed the adorable two-toned green Cavalier into our lives. Mom's new car was a hit! Always wanting friends along, we now made sure everyone buckled up. This limited them to one friend each or one kid and three friends. In the fall of 85, we made another big move; back home to Michigan! Our son had a learner's permit and was chomping at the bit to get his license as soon as he turned 16. (See opening paragraph!)

  By now I was driving on highways to my job and many times across the state to conferences and meetings; just me and my Cavalier. I lived in this car for over a decade; chalking up as many memories as miles. My Dad often worried about me traveling alone. When he learned I was heading to Georgia one summer to visit my sister, he made me a passenger....oh that I could find that old picture. He stuffed some old clothes with newspaper, a paper bag head with yarn hair and a baseball hat pulled low. Through the middle was a pole or stick I recall, and he'd attached a pipe or cigar. He had a name, but it escapes me now. We had to sit there while Daddy checked from all angles to make sure 'it' had a life-like profile. Honest to God....I drove down I-75 feeling silly but safe!

While I was there, life took another sharp turn, sprinkled in some good timing and opportunities and before long, I'd settled in the Atlanta area. Our son stayed behind to continue college, our daughter switched high schools, I began teaching again and my husband landed an editing job in Aruba!
I didn't mind sharing the Cavalier with my daughter; she made the basketball team and drove to practices and games. Some days she'd take me to school and have the car, other days I'd drop her off at her school. It was winter of 93 when we noticed it was not doing well. We nursed it along and whined about our cold feet....what was wrong with the heater? A boyfriend discovered the problem....a hole in the floorboard....a really big hole where you could watch the pavement fly by! My colleagues called it the Jesus in Jesus take the wheel! I 'fixed' it with a sheet of plywood and carpet samples. We were back in business for awhile, but more needed doing which meant more money needed spending.

Coached from afar by my husband and son, my daughter and I drove to a used car dealer feeling both sad and apprehensive. We were quietly remembering how much a part of our lives this little green car had been....and now we'd probably be telling it goodbye.
We were clueless at first, but with my penchant for asking soooo many questions and her gift of math and finance, we finally made a deal. Feeling brave and proud, I drove us home in a big white boat of a car, a 91 Lumina.  I'm sure we both had tears as we waved to our abandoned Cavalier.

The Lumina kept me warm and I felt confident on the road. With both my kids in Michigan colleges, I could drive back and forth to visit them feeling safe and secure. During a visit to my parents over Christmas break, I mentioned hearing rattling, ticking noises to my dad. Out the door he went, quickly followed by my husband and son; eager to get under the hood and figure it out. My mom said "they won't come in till they find we don't come back from shopping till we find something!" My Dad worked in the auto industry all his life. In Motor City where 'Buy American' reigned. My next car meant facing him with something else.

Time moves more quickly as we grow along; the kids grown, just the two of us again. My job required a daily 20-30 minute drive each way and I needed something more dependable. I wanted something sporty. Hello 99 Mitsubishi Montero Sport! Perfect for keeping me safe and silly. But I worried about my Dad...what would he think? Have I let him down: disrespected his passion and profession? My son assured me grandpa wouldn't mind, that he knew things were changing. He was right. Dad looked it over; inside and out and underneath, took pictures and drove it around the block. "It suits you,"  he said hugging me. Even at age 55, I welcomed his acceptance.

The back soon held a car seat for my baby granddaughter and a booster seat for her big sister.
Precious Cargo. Oh, the flashbacks to my years as a new mom....driving a baby and her big brother with no restraints, except my arm.
Grandmothering requires one to be mature, wise and responsible. I was ready, willing and able...or so I thought. Doing errands with the 18-month-old one day, I decided to get my car cleaned and drove into the car wash. No sooner had it started when baby girl started screaming and crying and reaching for me. I did the greatest Houdini act ever; jumping over the seats to grab her up and hold her tight till it was over. I wasn't limber, agile or athletic. There's not much room between the head rests and the roof...somehow I did it. That dark tunnel with long-armed, swishy monsters roaring and spitting at us had to be traumatizing. I told her mommy and daddy in tears, sure I'd never be trusted with my grandbabies again. We joke about it now,  but I still see her face whenever my car goes through the Ladies Day wash!

There was still another car waiting for me. It was another January when we browsed the local Honda lot, "just looking." I fell in love with a 2007 Honda Pilot and a few hours later we both waved goodbye to the Mitsubishi. I felt the power of the truck-like vehicle beneath me, the confidence of sitting as high as the sky and the enormous size as I saw the third row from my rear view mirror.
I loved being able to offer my teaching pals a ride; lots of room for everyone. But not for long; a year later the back seat held three car seats. Getting them anchored, then harnessing and buckling two babies facing backward with their big brother in between was practically a full day job! Safety has come a long way since my firstborn. With practice and better timing, Grandpa and I eventually managed to get them in and out gracefully in less than five minutes! Now they're all in booster seats and can buckle their own safety belts. My driving memories now include little voices behind me singing, reciting the alphabet, naming the constellations. Drive-thru windows and a handy basket of books or toys to quickly grab. Pulling over and getting out to retrieve a pacifier or sippy cup.

These cars...fifty years of life from the driver's seat and I've loved every one of them.

 Looking at old albums, recalling stories and my son and daughter sharing their memories makes me realize how perfect each car was for that period of our lives. Each car served a purpose and met our needs. About a month after I bought the Pilot; I answered the phone and heard our two year old grandson say, "mama has two babies in her belly!"  .

Widowed and relocated back to Michigan, there was comfort in driving this old pal. We'd  both had tune ups and were in great shape for our age and mileage! I drove it from Georgia...alone. But as a  commercial stated, my dad and my husband were with me. My kids too...tracking my phone to see my progress. I knew the way, but decided. to wander some blue highways and ride down memory lane a bit. "Mom, where are you?" came the calls.  Roles change as time flows.
The Pilot got new tires and I learned to drive in snow again. But by 2018 I was ready for more current safety features and one more new car…a leased Ford Edge! My dad was smiling from above that day; but oh how hard it was seeing the eleven year old Honda in my rear view mirror. Sixty years have grown me up and nine cars have given me confidence and skill; whether driving busy freeways or twisty backroads...just like life.

Happy Birthday in Heaven

Thinking of You in Heaven, Sweetheart.                                        
The kids and I are doing okay.

It was a really big deal that first year...I sold our house! I did it, honey...I got the money you'd always hoped for; and walked away with 18 years worth of memories in my heart as well! I couldn't stay there anymore without you, babe. The new family loved the deck and garden wall you built, and wanted the den shelves, your big desk and the outdoor furniture!

Guess what else? Treg and Cara left Ventura! Quit their jobs, put the girls and pets in the Volvo and road-tripped across the country seeing all kinds of amazing places. We're all back home in Michigan now...back where our story began. They found jobs they love; jobs with benefits, great pay...and yes...another company car! They had a darling house in Vicksburg and I found a cozy condo in Portage that's perfect for me. I subbed at the nearby school; you know I love being with kids and the challenge of new things.

The Littles are growing up, Grandpa. They’re thirteen and sixteen now...all doing really well in school.They are happy to have their other grandparents nearby to help out and to spoil them like you and I did for so many years! Drew is growing up...he'll be a high school junior this fall! His athletic ability just keeps maturing too. Lane is a hustler and anticipates every move on the baseball just like Drew. He’s quite good with music, just like we thought when he was a toddler...he plays the euphonium now in Middle School District band! You would love watching the boys together now...brothers teaching and leaning on each other. It's more Paige and the boys now, rather than Drew and the twins. Paige is still a sweetheart and quite capable of running the household! She’s on a travel softball team as well as the feeder team for high school. Takes after her Mama in so many ways!  The twins begin 8th grade soon...I’m learning to be teenage savvy once again. 
 Tracy and John gave me their blessing when I decided to make the move. They’ve taken weeks off to spend Thanksgivings and summers here with me so I could have the family all together.
Remember the summer of 2011 at the lake house...that grand strand of lawn and beach front where all five kids played chase on the grass and splashed all day in another Crooked Lake, improving their swimming, driving the boat, learning to fish! Thank you from the bottom of my heart for planning that vacation, sweetheart.The impact it had on our lives was tremendous.

McKenzie excelled in German all the way through high school and speaks it fluently, a nod to your ancestry, sweetheart. She switched from art to criminal justice at Valley and is quite talented with various styles of sketching, but focused on forensics and graphic design in law enforcement now. Even more impressive, honey...she inherited your writing gene and published two science fiction novels! It shows in her essays and research now. I’m blessed this delightful young woman wanted to live with me part of the time...remember how close we always were?  Kayleigh is a bright, beautiful college student with two years at Aquinas already! She’s a wise thinker, considering a gap year as she figures out her best path to follow right now. Best of all is her sweet, caring soul...she's Treg’s mini-me; half sensitive, half sass!

The kids are doing fine. Happy and healthy and making memories of their own. Tracy and John have taken their kids to Disneyworld twice now! And they finally got a dog...a little Boston Terrier named Hershey. Treg and Cara divorced but are still the best of friends. Makes you smile watching how much time they spent together working on the house and doing things with the girls!

2020 was a global pandemic honey...very tragic and scary times worldwide. I left Michigan, moved back to Georgia as the elderly were most vulnerable to this deadly respiratory virus. Found out how resilient I am...staying isolated, wearing a mask, watching distance for a year. Mckenzie moved back with Cara, then to her own apartment on Western’s campus..she’s a junior at our alma mater, sweetheart...excelling in criminal justice! 

I am doing okay now too. Still working on the eating/cooking thing. I eat healthy, farm to table mostly. I moved into a townhouse on Windermere...remember all the games we watched at Joint Venture?  I can almost walk! Love being near Tracy and kids, but Kazoo calls me everyday, the pull to be back in our hometown tugs so hard... I’m selling again and moving back.  
My beach bike was great for Portage  trails, but riding's not the same without you and your three-wheeler. I rode anyway because it felt good...the wind always connects me with your voice and smile, sweetheart. The bike sat lonely in my garage 
this past year because inclines and hills are no fun. 

One more thing about our beloved Kalamazoo, Jimbo. I  connected with the Gazette folks and love hearing the old stories; hearing how they miss you like I do. 
Hoping to get back to my happy spot in Michigan...near George and Amy's place. Such great friends that check on me regularly. KVCC's 50th Anniversary was a few years ago and Tom was in charge of pulling it all together as he does so well. I messed up by not keeping the bound Gazette sorry. You kept everything from way back to the way back....and I always wanted to get rid of things. Well, I did.  Even Tom said, "Jesus, Joan" if it makes you feel any better! The Herald celebrated their 100th Anniversary awhile back and I was interviewed as a former reporter. Marrying the editor turned it into a Valentine Day story! 

Our families welcomed me back too, first in Detroit with the Carswell/Bickley clan; then with all the Michigan Stommens at holiday gatherings. They’re all doing well, growing up, getting married, having kids. Can you believe my little brother and sister, 7 and 9 when we married, will soon be grandparents?! I’m growing along too, still learning to live on my own, still leaning on our oldest, dearest friends. 

Miss you so much, miss you at night. Miss having coffee with you when daylight comes. Miss you growing along with me, miss you loving me. Thank you for growing me up. I never acted like it, but it shows now I think. Thank you for equipping me to carry on; for building the foundation that made us us. And now, my darling...thank you for watching over us and keeping all the kids safe and healthy.

                                    Love you forever