Backseat Drivers

Driving.  I know, I know, I’m obsessed with driving.

In my books, my characters are always driving somewhere.  I just can’t help it.  It’s what happens when you’re from Texas and you get your driver’s license at an insanely young age and you were practically born in a car.  Hell, the truth is, you were probably conceived in a car, too, just like Elaine Robinson in The Graduate.

Driving is freedom, exploration, power, identity.  That’s true till your kids hit a certain age and you become their chauffeur; after that, driving is sheer drudgery and carpools are hell on wheels.  But hey, at least you’re still the one driving, the one who’s ostensibly in control.

I remember the first time my husband and I were relegated to the backseat of the car, facing the backs of our kids’ heads as they drove us somewhere.  It happened ten or so years ago and it was terrifying.  It also changed everything — or maybe it just symbolized the way everything was changing with the four of us.  Anyway, nothing’s ever quite been the same since.

This year, the four of us spent the holidays in Northern California, driving a friend’s car.  Since our daughter lives there, she knows where she’s going and either drove herself or instructed the driver.  For the most part, my husband and I sat in the backseat, relieved not to have to drive ourselves.

Getting older often makes me think of developing a view from a higher point.  You simply see more.  Sometimes, from this vantage point, I even imagine I can see the curve of the earth.

But, more than anything, what I think I see is a cycle as enormous as any ferris wheel, creaking along slowly and inexorably.  We’re all born on that cycle, but we never realize it till we get older.  While young, we think our trajectory will only continue in a certain direction — upward, higher, better.  With age, we see something else — an easing into a decline, sure — but also the sense of ourselves as following where our parents, grandparents and more distant ancestors have gone before us.  We’re also making way for those behind us.

Maybe this is what I’m trying to say: We’re not as different or as separate as we think when we’re young.  We’re all part of an immense continuum.  Like many of the other bits and pieces of wisdom in my life, I figured this out in a car.  When you’re in the backseat, you have more time to think.

(Copyright 2010 by Ruth Pennebaker)

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7 comments… add one
  • So true.  Sitting in the detritus of after Christmas with our grown kids, I realized I felt like one of the characters in a Disney movie where teenagers and parents swap places and hilarity ensues.
    We weren’t SO hilarious as it turns out, but I was able to accept that my kids’ need for their own space that day didn’t have anything to do with me personally.  It simply takes a while before an adult child can drop the second part of that ID while their parents are in the room.

  • ruthpennebaker

    I’ve always found it funny that you think you’ve “made it” as a parent at certain points in your kids’ lives.  But it’s never static.  You have to adjust to their growing up — and to your own growing old.  Fascinating stuff, but not easy.

  • Ruth, I had very similar thoughts during my niece’s wedding today. The cycle of life, and gracefully moving to the side of the stage as the beautiful young people take the spotlight. I don’t feel displaced by this generation ready to take the wheel.  Somehow I feel grateful.

  • As a non-driver, I’ve always liked the view from the back seat–or the passenger seat, for that matter. I get to daydream and ponder the view while someone else deals with the peculiarities of other drivers and the mysteries of the route.

  • Cindy A

    How strange to view your blog this morning almost immediately after hearing a discussion of happiness on NPR. According to a Harvard researcher, we are happier as we get older unless we have health problems. In marriage, we are happiest at two points: the beginning and after our kids are raised (and we are being carted around in the back seat).

    http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=122207615

  • That is really interesting. At this stage in my life, I’m always driving or in the front passenger seat.

  • Because we live in an area with no public transport, we had to drive the kids everywhere, so the first gift each one received for their 16th birthdays was a provisional license and driving lessons. I actually feel safer with any one of them in the driving seat, than with my husband, although I’ve never told him that. Like most males, he believes himself to be a superb driver, although his daughter told me once that she hoped the deterioration of driving skills along with age is confined to the male members of his family. I’ve never told him that either!

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