Returning from real-estate testing in Pierre, I sped east on Interstate 90 to Sioux Falls doing 130 miles per hour in my Subaru just because I could. It was in the heat of summer, I think 1976. If you knew South Dakota in the 1970s, not as much traffic as there is now. My excursion into limited infinity lasted 40 miles or so before I scaled back to 75 and hovered close to 80 for the rest of the trip. I felt that if I kept at that pace, I would be pushing my luck in the late afternoon; but once in a while after I crested a hill and saw no traffic in sight, I sometimes sped up again. Driving that fast felt exhilarating, freeing, as if there were no boundaries; and as a single parent with three children, I thought then I lived within prison walls.
I also loved the time right after my first divorce that I traveled to Kalispell, Montana, to see my sister, first on Interstate 94 then north through Missoula with no speed limit. And when I was in college, the 75 miles per hour speed limit in Iowa all on hard-surfaced roads. Besides, driving that fast on roads was the only way to cool off on a hot summer day–no air conditioning in the car then. Seat belts? Not on your life. But I never got a license until I had my first teaching job. I trusted that speed to boyfriends and male friends.
As a single parent in the late 70s and early 80s, jostling children in Sioux Falls from one event to another meant that right after school until late at night, I moved children like checkers between wrestling, gymnastics, karate, confirmation classes, baseball, basketball, part-time jobs, any which way they wanted to go in any car I had then: dropping one kid off somewhere, then heading somewhere else to pick up another, then back home for a third and maybe neighbor kids, until about 9 or so, 11 if one of them was working late, all were safely back at home. Well, that is until one or two of them sneaked out the window.
Recently my daughter told me that in the middle of the night she or her older brother would push the car out of garage and down the road. I still don’t want to know where they went.
Once when my mother and dad drove up from Iowa for a visit, my mom said to me as she rode with me after school from one place to another, these kids are in too many things. But then I didn’t know much else but being in a car. By that time, between showing real estate sometimes on weekends, helping my second husband run a tavern, and teaching in a town 30 miles away and going back there at night for rehearsal, I should have had enough of the interior space of cars.
One day this week around noon in Dickinson, North Dakota, my daughter happened to stop by on her way back to the office. I shut off the vacuum cleaner and poured myself another cup of coffee in order for us to exchange tidbits or two. In the midst of our exchange to catch one of us on her move to a new place and my packing to head back to Sioux Falls, a Subaru commercial interrupted us:
Now I know that my children spent a great deal of time in a car, both the front and backseats, but not as much as I did all told; but I didn’t think I raised them, as the commercial said I should have, in the back seat of my cars, and I argue that anyone who does so now should be taken out to the north 40, as my father would say, and be given a good talking to.
One really cannot have a decent conversation with a child in a car. One can yell at them, especially when they are younger, corner them to ask about something, all because you are the only means to get them where they want to go. They can’t escape. Sometimes they won’t answer and for the next mile or two, which will seem like a hundred, it’s the silent treatment with a child staring at the floor.
It took years for my daughter to travel with me for any trip longer than Wal-Mart because of her being in a confined space guarded and cornered by a parent. I felt that way with my first husband, and at times my second. They drove all the time anywhere we went; it was my job to keep the kids under control. One time on the Interstate 29 heading south, I had this unbearable urge to jump out of the car; my first husband was talking so much that everything in my body hurt. I wanted to be anywhere but there. My hand was on the lever, but there were children in back.
I suppose that day I was raising my children, not properly of course.
If anything, parents should know by now that children need to be nurtured and guided, not raised in the back seat of a car. They don’t need to eat fast food in the car. They need to learn the art of conversation over a dining table without being forced to respond. They need to look a parent or two in the eye. They need to know how to negotiate, how to reason without feeling trapped. They need a parent to discuss the latest political events, the meaning of existence, religion in one’s lives. They need to know that mistakes happen and that it’s ok to fail. They need resiliency, and to learn forgiveness and humility. They need to practice consistency and be persistent. A child cannot learn those lessons in a car, much less in the backseat where the mother or father views them in third person through the rear-view mirror while talking a little louder than normal to project their words over the noise of traffic and the radio to the backseat; at the same time keeping the remainder of both eyes on the road. They need to be hugged and cuddled, teased and to tease. They need exercise. Children should be allowed to cry alone if they want to but not in the back seat. The house needs to be filled with laughter, not just the interior of a car or truck for that matter.