Family car trips when I was growing up were very serious matters. Per our dad's orders, we would sit in silence until we reached our destination. My dad wouldn't play music lest he accidentally veer off a cliff while singing like Pavarotti. Talking was, also, off limits because, apparently, my dad's vision suffered when he heard us talk.
We all tried our best to respect my dad's desire not to kill us in an accident, but sometimes the need to exclaim "my butt itches" or "when will we be there" would be far too great for me when I was a preschooler. When such words escaped my mouth, I would see my dad's baby blues glare at me in the rearview mirror in a way that let me know I was in for it later. A few rounds of these death stares and I was a fully trained McKenna by the time I was five. I road in complete silence from there on out.
The only form of a communication that could take place was when my dad would ask my siblings and I to check to see if it was safe for him to merge. The burden that was placed on our shoulders was intense and we'd all panic as we shouted that it was ok to move to the next lane. Trusting someone as young as six, my dad would blindly merge without cross-check our work. His system, however misguided, was solid because we never got into an accident and he never had to look over his shoulder while driving.
Silence and relying on children to give driving advice were the only safety measures my dad took. Seat belts were unnecessary, although he did one time tie a rope around mine and my sister's waists because we were going to drive up a treacherous road to the top of a mountain. In hindsight, this might have made the car ride even more dangerous as the rope would surely be the thing that killed us in that scenario. He would, also, only purchase cars that didn't comfortably fit twelve kids and two parents. Instead, he would pile two layers of brothers and sisters in the back seat. We were forced to endure hours of sore knees, numb limbs, and a mild claustrophobic panic, but at least our yellow Cadillac or white Oldsmobile looked amazing on the road. We were doing our part to remove suburban blight from San Diego's landscape.
Both the worst and best part of being a parent is understanding my own parents a bit better. If there's one thing I can completely empathize with my dad about it is that driving with kids who incessantly ask questions is incredibly dangerous.
I'm already a nervous driver. If I'm the parent who has to pick up take-out from a restaurant that doesn't have a humungous parking lot, I spend fifteen minutes agonizing over how I am going to manage it. When I reach the restaurant, I've already broken out into a sweat as I try to figure out how I will maneuver through the scenario. Asking me to both pay attention to the road and answer "mommy, how old are you" 50 times is absolutely impossible, then. Something about that process makes my heart start to pound and my head swim to the point that I fear I might forget how to drive at all. I'm worried I'll one day have to ask "is the brake on the right or the left?" If I ever do have to, I hope I'm not the only adult in the car because I'm not too sure Jude or Darla will give me the right answer. Unlike my dad, I don't take driving advice from people under ten years old.
I have tried to enforce the brilliant "no talking" rule of decades' past. This has proven to be completely ineffective. I try to bribe my kids, have them see my side of things, inform them that talking is dangerous, and threaten timeouts. None of this works.
"Please, please, please, be quiet," I beg. "I don't want to get in an accident."
"But mommy," Jude will yell. "I need to ask you!"
"It better not be you asking me how old I am," I say.
"It's not," Jude will respond.
"What is it?" I'll ask, knowing full well I won't like the question.
"Mommy, how old are you?" he'll ask.
I think the part that's missing for me in this scenario is that I don't cut an intimidating figure quite like my dad did. This makes me feel better about my inability to keep my kids quiet in the car. I don't scare my kids like my dad because I don't have a belt like my dad did, which is what made my siblings and I very well behaved kids. We always knew that the threat of punishment would be severe.
I have created a very different world for my kids. My kids are loud in the car because they know that the threat of even a timeout is most likely an empty one and I will forget it by the time we get to our destination. They are not afraid of me, which is an incredibly comforting feeling. I try to remember this whenever I hear "mommy, what's your name mommy" come from the backseat while I'm white-knuckling the steering wheel as I barely push 65 mph on the freeway.