Lorraine Sommerfeld joins the Globe Drive team today. Look for her column each week here on globedrive.com.
We think it's about the car. We fret over the purchase, we revere the engineering, we rage over the breakdowns, we admire it until the new car becomes the old car. Scour your old photo albums. Watch the cars go from black and white to colour along with their beaming owners, along with the kids who will remember a fundamental mainstay of most North American families: driving. It's the closest many of us will spend any length of time together, the video in your head recording, recording, recording to a soundtrack of family squabbles, bad radio, favourite music or intense silence. The cars come and go: it's always about the drive.
For as long as I can remember, my family all had their designated spots around the dinner table. I'm not sure how it evolved, but until everyone moved out, we all sat in our own places. If a guest sat down in my spot, my mother would shoot me the death ray mother look that meant "shut up."
The car, however, was a free-for-all. On long trips, my sisters and I would fight over window seats and complain if we had to sit on the hump. If the hump sitter asked you to put your window up, you'd crank it down farther. We'd love it when my youngest sister would head over the seat into the back of the station wagon to curl up and go to sleep amidst duffle bags and squeaking Styrofoam coolers. In a time before seatbelts, we could do whatever we wanted as long as my father could concentrate on the road.
The sure-fire way to get the best seat, of course, was to throw up. Up to the front you'd go, nestled on the bench seat between my parents, getting first crack at the Wrigley's Doublemint gum. As a kid, I'd seldom pay attention to my dad's driving, unless I heard my mother gasp, "Oh, Al," as she clasped her hand over her mouth. I was raised believing that people were not allowed to pass you. Ever. My father was a road warrior in a station wagon. My mother was his wide-eyed co-pilot and we were simply the brats flying around in the back.
My sons had no such freedom, of course. Lashed into car seats that were themselves bolted to the frame of the vehicle, it was years before I had to endure one yelling "shotgun" while the other pouted in the back. I often think minivans were created just so everyone could have a window. I also think the loss of the art of compromise has its downsides.
Now, of course, it's me who has to fight for placement. With three drivers and one car, I rarely get to drive it anymore. Ari, 17, has his G1 and rightly needs to be driving all he can.
"I need the practice," he grins at his brother.
"No kidding," says Christopher, 20. Christopher, of course, invented driving. He invented setting all the radio stations, he invented having half his wardrobe strewn in the back seat, he invented scamming all the loose change for coffee, and he invented making the floor a garbage dump. He invented everything except gassing it up.
Ari on the other hand, is still in the honeymoon phase of learning to drive. He signals even on our dead-end court, he treats stop signs with respect, he drives with both hands on the wheel and he never blocks an intersection on a yellow light.
My father never could drive with any of us as we were learning. The worst my mother would do would be to stomp on the imaginary brake pedal she had on the passenger side, and suck in her breath in a sharp little way. She was wise enough to realize we had to practise somehow; my father had no such compunction.
"Goddammit, you hit the curb!" he'd roar. We didn't drive with dad very often.
A funny thing happened on the way to adulthood. No longer was dad automatically behind the wheel, though he remained the head of the dinner table. As I began driving to university, and then extensively for my job, my mother began to hand me the keys. Content to be a passenger, she'd get in the back so dad could sit up front, an oxygen tank now tucked in with him. He'd still point out drivers doing stupid things, or drivers thinking about doing stupid things, but the edge was off his bark.
He's been gone for 15 years now. I do let people pass, I don't hit curbs, and I remind myself to let the boys become good drivers. My place at the table is still mine, but there will come a time to pass the keys.
I'm okay with that.