by Christine Adams Beckett
My mother likes to tell a story about my father’s 1967 convertible Pontiac he drove prior to the birth of their fifth child. Necessitating more spaces for more buttocks, my parents purchased a 1972 Pontiac Grand Safari station wagon, the kind with faux wood panelling and a “way way” back seat that required its occupants to ride backwards, a nauseating experience for anyone with even a slight problem with motion sickness. It had room for a whopping nine passengers.
“You quite literally screwed yourself out of that convertible,” a close family friend would say, mocking my father’s new, enormous ride, chuckling to himself in his Virginian accent.
My memories of this giant car are mostly positive: our dog Spot jumping out of its back seat window, rolled down to allow fresh air in a non-air conditioned vehicle, in pursuit of a tantalizing grey squirrel. We sang songs in unison while on the long ride home from my grandmother’s house in New Milford, Connecticut. I would lean my forehead against the cold window at night, wondering if the moon was truly following our car in a protective, playful dance. My sister, Jackie and I would write on each other’s feet with a ball point pen to create toe puppets, wiggling the little digits that would pretend to sing their respective parts of a Captain and Tennille duet whilst barreling down the interstate . We played 20 questions, I Spy and, of course, our toes sang “Love Will Keep Us Together.”
However it wasn’t all bread and roses in the Pontiac. None of us wore seat belts and I have not one single memory of a car seat. One of the neighbor’s children threw up in the “way way” back seat after one rather gluttonous, treat-eating trip to Lake Compounce amusement park. My mother broke a thumb, slamming it in the giant back door trying to heave it shut whilst balancing a toddler on her hip. The cat had diarrhea in the seat on the road to the veterinarian’s office. It certainly wasn’t a rolling Utopia, by any stretch.
But we did converse. We shared ideas in the Pontiac terrestrial boat.
These days, our family transports have air conditioning, seat warmers and satellite radios. Many of them have DVD players with screens imbedded into the seats for optimal viewing, blue tooth phones and global positioning systems. The Pontiac’s 21st century answer to our Grand Safari is a Town and Country mini van, which even boasts a cocktail table around which bucket seats can swivel, offering an opportunity to play cards while traveling to Grandma’s. Children under a certain age are belted in protective car seats as if bracing themselves for a blast off to Mars.
Going over the river and through the woods sure isn’t what it was. There are all the aforementioned distractions keeping us from family interaction during trips, that at one time was an opportunity to reconnect and glean ideas from one another, to awaken a creative spirit that might be ignored when the responsibilities of the home distract us from our inner voices. The warmers in the seat practically lull us to sleep while our children sit anaesthetized by the tiny, glowing blue screens that conveniently fall from the roof of the vehicle. We parents certainly can appreciate the joy of a quiet backseat, but I find that the best secrets come out while driving in the dark with a middle schooler. If all the gadgets are off, the mouths open. All parties staring ahead at the road, the intimacy of eye contact absent, a comfort exists that makes discussing the most difficult topics more comfortable. And always, I learn something.