“As a general rule, you should keep your hands at 10 and 2,” I say. My son nods solemnly, adjusting his hands on the steering wheel, the vinyl gone shiny with use and age. “Make sure you can see out of the rearview and side mirrors. Always keep an eye on the temperature gauge – if it goes over halfway, pull over. If it goes into the red, you’ll be walking.” This is, I realize, the same advice I was given, years ago.
Our car is a little red island anchored on an empty sea of asphalt. To my left, my son patiently waits to navigate this new territory under a gray sky, the air heavy with the promise of rain, clouds hanging low like overripe fruit. Just as I did on thousands of occasions when he was small, I name the objects in our field of view, pointing to each one in turn: gas gauge, parking brake, floodlights.
How many hours have we spent in this car over the years, with me at the wheel and him riding shotgun? How often has he silently absorbed my absentminded habits, the product of years of driving – right hand on the radio dial, left foot on the seat? Now I’m the passenger, keys and control handed over.
It’s hard to reconcile this lanky kid in the driver’s seat, broad-shouldered and long-legged, with the sweet-smelling, fuzzy-headed baby who used to fit neatly into the crook of my arm, weighing no more than a sack of groceries, where he napped for hours on end, tiny toes curled under like a bird perching on an invisible branch. A recent photo snapped at the beach shows us standing side by side on a pier; caught mid-laugh, my head rests on his shoulder, and his arm draped casually across my back makes me look small. Like staring into a fun house mirror, the photo momentarily disorients me. I’m used to towering over him, not the other way around.
I always swore I wouldn’t be one of those overly sentimental mothers of older kids, those well-rested hordes who speak in clichés to bleary-eyed, sleep-deprived new moms. “Cherish these precious times – it just goes so fast!” Annoyingly enough, it turns out they’re not wrong.
The other day, I found myself battling an unexpected rush of sadness when I walked past a “Back to College” display at a big-box chain store. The countdown clock is engaged, each day spiraling out faster than the one before, and I’m not ready. Out here on the far side of active parenting, the milestones are thinner on the ground, each a bit more bittersweet than the last. The disaster reel that’s been looping in the background of my mind for a decade and a half now – crib death, curious fingers probing an electrical outlet, a tiny hand slipping my grasp in a crowd – has to be updated often or risk becoming obsolete. To this reel, I silently add the following: tires screeching on a damp road, flashing lights, a late-night knock on the door.
I study my son’s face as he shifts into drive. He steers us around the parking lot in slow, wide circles, cautious as an old man. At his age, I was in such a hurry – racking up speeding tickets, running into parked cars – impatiently careening toward adulthood. Where I was careless, he is precise and deliberate. Watching a grin spread over his face as nerves give way to excitement, I recall the thrill of maneuvering a two-ton hunk of shimmering steel for the first time, and I smile, too.
These days, I often find myself thinking of Janus, the two-faced Roman god of ancient mythology, ruler of both beginnings and endings. Like Janus, I peer into the future and the past at once. I am here, in this car, as my 16-year-old steers carefully around a curve, but also watching him push a toy truck at two and wobble on a training-wheeled bike at 5. I am seeing, too, how these driving lessons will soon be in the past, and how one day it will be experience and muscle memory that guide him into a parking space and not my words. I share with Janus the knowledge that endings and beginnings often spring forth from the same space.
As my son grows older, there will be less that I can teach him. My time slot will shift from prime-time to reruns; I’ll be a sideline spectator, not a coach. For the moment, though, I can still give him this: lazy circles in a parking lot on a gray afternoon; the thrill of pressing down on the accelerator, lurching forward incrementally, so slowly that he doesn’t realize he’s making progress until he nears the cement barriers at the parking lot’s edge. Rearview mirror, 10 and 2, steering into the curve. For now, this is enough.