I find joy in what most people must think is a mundane, ordinary, even frustrating routine—the 5.1-mile, traffic-infested daily drive from our home to my kids’ school.
Every morning my husband, Joe, or I drive our children, Lilly (8), and Sam (7), to school, which has no bus service. On a typical school day morning, the drive takes at least 30 minutes. If there is bad weather or construction or an accident, it can take forever. But this drive is not an inconvenience to me. Rather, quite the opposite.
Before our morning drive, however, every school day morning takes pulling, prodding, rewarding, penalizing, games, music, jumping up and down, meditating and acrobats to get the three of us in the car on time. Without fail, Lilly gets lost in her book forgetting to brush the tangles out of her hair and Sammy forgets at least one thing at home—his lunch on the counter, his cleats in the drawer, one shoe in the mudroom or his coat on the driveway.
I absolutely lose my patience. But when our seatbelts click and I see their relaxed faces in my rearview mirror, and we begin our monotonous stretch—our routine, our normal—my joy expels my frustration.
I find joy, calm and contemplation in this ordinary drive because as a child, the ordinary was stolen from me.
The scenery from the car window on our drive is the same every day. But I want this monotonous, traffic-infested, ordinary drive because now, as a mom observing my children’s daily ordinary life, I can’t suppress my memories of the little girl who never knew what that was. For 40 minutes, on this drive, I see, hear, feel everything around me and my children. I forget about my upcoming work travel or saving for college, or what the heck we are having for dinner. These thoughts, stresses, distractions evaporate because I am completely aware of my treacherous past but also of my extraordinary present.
I can’t acknowledge one without the other.
Today, Lilly, her eyes set on the Wild Pony library book in her hands, picks up Sam’s lunch box along with her backpack and ushers him into the car calmly before I can nag and nudge one more time that the clock is ticking away. With this almost invisible movement, I notice a change in her—it couldn’t have happened over night, yet I feel like it did. The growth of a school year. She has matured from the 2nd grader’s irrational crying about her ponytail to this 3rd grade girl—8 years old—aware of the clock, aware of the frustration percolating in her mom and aware of how her actions might simmer it down.
I am jolted by my daughter’s awareness. I stop and just see her. And then I remember how, at eight years old, I was completely aware of what my father was doing to me—to my body and my heart—and that my mother couldn’t stop him.
What Was Ordinary
When I was 8, my dad would wake me before sunrise on Sunday mornings to drive with him in our white station wagon to deliver newspapers. Still wanting to sleep but knowing this “special time” wasn’t a choice, I’d throw a sweater over my nightgown in the dark to not wake my brother.
The paper route covered the countryside and took an hour or so to complete. But we’d always start each drive at a local coffee shop where he’d buy me two fresh mini-donuts with the pennies and nickels he had saved all week, placed in his ashtray. I’d lick the sugar and cinnamon off my fingers, then roll the newspapers up, snap the rubber band and pile them on the car floor. At each mailbox, I’d lean out the window and push the paper in the mailbox. He’d rub my leg, like “good job! Isn’t this fun?!?” and drive to the next house.
Sometimes his hand would stop at my leg. Most of the time it didn’t. Those Sunday car rides weren’t unique. My dad sexually abused me when I was six until I was thirteen. On those Sunday car rides, or during the daddy-daughter camping trips, or at the horse stable, or simply in the morning before school or at night tucking me in. This was my normal.
When I was eight years old, my mom had a nervous breakdown. She lost her ability to cope with everyday life, a result of my dad beating her—a cruel combination of hands, words, and threats. In the 1980’s the medical answer to this nervous breakdown, or severe depression, was heavy medication that let her sleep life away — and not only hers, but mine, too. My mom’s breakdown left her incapable of providing me the ordinary acts of daily love that a child relies on. Those were left for my dad.
In other words, in her physical and mental absence, the callused hands that woke me on school day mornings creeping up my Cinderella nightgown, were the same hands that poured my Cheerios, brushed my hair, zipped up my coat and walked me to the bus.
My mom didn’t know he was sexually abusing me. Had she known, I like to think that the knowledge would have been the electric shock treatment to awaken from her catatonic-like state and rescue me. But she didn’t.
And there was no community to rescue me, either—no teacher, neighbor, or church member. In my dad’s successful attempt to conceal the abuse, he made our family flee, at least a dozen times from town to town, school to school, church to church. He made certain we never belonged to a community, moving us before I could love anybody enough to tell or anybody could love me enough to see.
What’s Now Ordinary
I don’t always get to drive my kids to school. Joe takes them when I’m traveling for work. When I can drive them, it’s my favorite part of the day. On these drives, the kids and I don’t talk much. We listen to music—the soundtrack to Moana, The Greatest Showman—or Audible stories. On this spring morning, we listen to Winnie the Pooh and they quietly read in the backseat. I peek at them from the rearview mirror and see Lilly deep into Pony Pals and Sam flipping through Dragon Master. Sometimes the kids talk to each other, conversations about the merits of an apple versus a mango or they squabble— “I get to read Amulet next!” “No, I get to read it next!”. This morning they are content in their silence.
On this morning, the drive to school isn’t different from other days. We wind through the narrow curves of our Canton, Massachusetts neighborhood, jam-packed with cars creeping to their destinations. York Street is the central vein connecting Stoughton and Canton with numerous side streets, ours included, leading to upper middle-class neighborhoods made of two-story homes, attached two and three car garages, landscaped lawns and patios.
If we leave our house at exactly 7:30 am, we can beat the dozen school buses leaving Blue Hills Regional school on Randolph Street. Two minutes later and we are stuck, backed up and delayed another 10 minutes. We don’t beat the buses today.
The other drivers inch their way onto Randolph Street from York, seemingly oblivious to the dozen buses that need to pull out of Blue Hills Regional Technical school. The drivers honk at each other but my annoyance passes with Sam’s voice: “Mom, can we play soccer here Saturday?” I think about the Saturday last spring that my son played soccer on the field here, with his grandpa, Joe’s dad. As Joe and I played a pick-up game of soccer with Sam and Lilly that day, I looked up to see their grandpa, 71 years old, on the field—a surprise visit—running to the goal to assist Sam to the win. This school is just a skip from Joe’s childhood home, where his parents still live.
“Mom? Can we? Or just ask grandpa to take me.”
As I wait for the buses to pull out, I’m not focused on the traffic. I think about Joe’s dad, mom and younger sister, that we moved from Chicago to Canton to be a mile near them, and how we don’t miss a chance to be together—on the soccer field, at the horse stable, school events, sporting events and impromptu backyard grill-outs. I think how, after decades of living in the wake of my dad’s abuse, I finally chose this life—in fact, I orchestrated it. I created the life I never had.
What Was Ordinary
It’s spring 1986, at daybreak, my dad herds us into the white station wagon to get to the State Park early to enjoy the rare Washington sun. Piling in the car, my sister, 12 years old, my brother, nine years old and me, seven years old, guess all the different animals we might see in the woods that day. My brother teases me and swears we will see a bear. My dad’s wink at me gives the joke away as he hums a country song and packs the rest of the supplies in the car.
Before leaving town, he stops at the 7-Eleven to get my mom a Pepsi Big Gulp for the ride. I know there is a chance we’ll get something too because my dad grabs his change from the ashtray, spending his last pennies on a treat for us. When he walks back to the car, I can tell by his smile and the small brown bag that he did.
The three of us, me in the middle, pass the small bag of M&Ms back and forth.
“Slug bug!”, my brother shouts for the second time.
“I spy with my little eye, something……blue.” I know my brother and sister won’t get this one because it’s the blue M&M that I just popped in my mouth. I feel clever. My dad sneaks a quick peek at me in his rearview mirror. His smile and glance tells me I’ve left a clue: a smear of blue on my hand.
My mom, in the front passenger seat, sings, “Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens. . . Snowflakes that stay on my nose and eyelashes. . .”
My brother crinkles the M&M bag and pours the last few in his hands.
“Hey! You had more than me. Give me those!” My bratty remark is covered by the last note of my mom’s song. My brother pinches me. I cry. Dad turns around and flicks my brother’s chin hard. That silences us for a few seconds but the bickering boils again for the last M&Ms and sets my dad’s rage in motion. His mood shift is sudden but also the undercurrent of our everyday. My mom, her tune mute now, doesn’t look back at us anymore. While the speedometer climbs to 70MPH, she leans her head out the passenger window, the wind in her face, her eyes closed. I wish she were still singing.
“You always get your way!” my brother declares.
“Oh, you had more than both of us,” my sister lashes back.
My dad slams the brakes, pulls over on the shoulder of the freeway, and, one by one, drags each of us out of the car by our clothes and hair. What he’s screaming at us doesn’t matter. We are scared his words might become his hands.
As we line up like soldiers with our backs against the car, my brother withholds his tears, knowing that my dad will “really give you something to cry about.” My sister clenches her teeth to stop herself from talking back to him, a guaranteed invitation for his hands. I look down and use my tear drop to wipe the blue smear off my fingers from the last M&M.
What’s Now Joyfully Ordinary
When we moved to Canton, Joe’s hometown, selecting which home to buy was easy. Our criteria was simple: no more than five miles from Joe’s family; walking distance to other families with young children; set on an acre for the kids to run, play and explore and for us to gather outside with family and friends on weekends; and open for renovation, because we will never move.
In our neighborhood, the houses aren’t on top of each other. They sit on one or two-acre lots, but close enough for the dozen neighborhood children to romp from one yard to the next.
Yards, with no fences, are connected to each other by the constant activity of parents and children.
Mrs. Morrisey teaching her daughter and Lilly to feed the chickens and check for eggs; Mr. Randall taking a break from his yard work to teach four neighborhood kids how to plant a strawberry bush.
Joe setting up our tent in the backyard for five kids to pretend camp or Joe playing umpire for the pick-up game of baseball; Mr. Morrisey shooting hoops with Sam again and again; the smell of smoked ribs coming from the Boyle’s yard for another neighborhood cookout.
Me helping the younger kids play fetch with Wes for treats or carrying piles of wood to our front yard for the fort they are building; Mrs. Boyle redirecting the four year old boys from riding the toy tractor into the garage door; kids playing in the tree house the dads built last summer, the walls decorated with kid-painted hand prints; and parents talking, laughing, swapping advice, scolding kids, affixing Band-Aids on elbows or sunscreen on wiggly faces.
These scenes can be observed at the Morrisey’s home or the Boyle’s or the Randall’s or up the hill at the Christian’s or the Mayer’s. These are our neighbors, our friends and our community.
Our children’s confident voices and carefree play tell me what they don’t ever think to say: “I am safe.”
As I drive our SUV through the next set of lights, I glance at Lilly and Sam in the rearview mirror and I don’t wish for anything but my life today.
As we stop and go and stop and go, I peek into the car next to us. My fellow commuter is not unlike most drivers I observe on this drive. Her shoulders are set in a tense shrug. Her hands grip the steering wheel at the 10 and 2 o’clock position. Her thumb taps, taps, taps on the wheel as the seconds tick away. Her eyebrows are furrowed. She glances down once, twice, three times onto her lap where no doubt an iPhone is resting. I can almost hear the “Ugh,” come from her throat when she misses the next green light.
If someone looked out their driver side window at me, on my morning drive, what would they see? They’d see my shoulders relaxed, my eyes peeking in the rearview mirror, my lips part slightly with a grateful sigh when Lilly and Sam carelessly laugh at Piglet’s oink from the Audible story. The driver next to me would see my thumbs on the wheel too, not tapping from frustration or willing the red light to change, but tapping to the beat of Pooh’s song as Sammy sings along, “Isn’t it funny how a bear loves honey…buzz buzz buzz I wonder why he does”.
Whether another driver sees me or not, it is Lilly that I see as I peek back in the rearview mirror. Her head tilts to the right like she’s trying to get a better view of me. Her hair is set back with a headband so I can see her brown eyes. She looks straight at me with an understated and effortless smile. I don’t know what she is thinking. Maybe she thinks I’m silly humming the Poo song. Maybe she’s wondering if I’ll pick her up after school or it will be her father. I don’t know. I just see my carefree, aware, little girl, looking at her mom on her way to school. It is simple and ordinary and love. That image stays with me all day.
As we reach my kids’ school and pull into the turn-about, we enter the last stage of our drive. Now behind a half dozen cars dropping their kids off, I have a chance to turn around and look directly at Lilly and Sam. I half expect to see in their eyes the same appreciation that I feel, but I don’t. This is just a typical drive to school for them that doesn’t mean more or less than what it is. It is their normal.
“Mom, please turn Winnie the Pooh off,” Lilly quickly says. She straddles the fence of little kid and big kid and even though she asked for Winnie the Pooh this morning, she doesn’t want her friends to know. I hit the power off.
“Sam, Daddy will pick you up for soccer practice. Lilly, grandma gets to take you to horse riding today.”
I pull to the front to let them out. Both kids unsnap their seatbelts, grab their backpacks and hop out of our car and race to their friends.
“I love you guys.”
They don’t look back at me, just yell their obligatory, “Bye mom!”
I pull out of the school and drive away. Ten minutes later, free from traffic as I drive home, the school calls me—Sammy forgot his lunch. I look in the back and sure enough, there’s his lunch box on the floor, right next to his cleats. It is an inconvenience to bring his lunch back, and a missed opportunity to teach him responsibility. But I want to do it, for him and me. I make a U-turn at the next light and head back to the school, crawling in the traffic again. I don’t sigh frustration or tap my hand on the wheel willing the next light to turn green. I think about my work week and am happy that tomorrow I get to drive this 5.1 mile, 40-minute ordinary stretch with Lilly and Sam to school again.
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