Cars, Confessions, and a College Kid Who Lives at Home

My son bought a new car. Well, that’s almost true. My husband co-signed the documents with the understanding that my son would be responsible for gas, maintenance, insurance, and monthly payments. A new car is a nonevent in the tony hamlet we’ve called home for over 20 years, one of “America’s 300 Richest Towns” according to a 1996 article in Worth magazine. (Yup, I filed that keepsake issue.) Nearly every driveway in our diverse neighborhood displays three or more cars, mini-vans, or sports utility vehicles. Driveways designed for only two cars are overcrowded, the way my mother crammed six of us around a white Formica kitchen table meant for four.

I ponder this convention during my mid-morning walks as countless nine-to-fivers swoosh rhythmically along the nearby highway, adding a steady hum to an otherwise sleepy neighborhood. That’s when the braggadocio of bulging driveways smacks me in the face. Why do the requisite number of cars per household exceed the number of people living there? I lose myself in critical thinking. Perhaps a) families have more than three cars if they took one to work, b) families with three cars have guests who never leave, or c) families with three cars are work-at-homers, the autonomous shut-ins who have seeped into suburbia. The more I attempt to rationalize the three-or-more-cars phenomenon, the less satisfied I am with my results.

But back to my son and his new car.

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Its purchase was a significant achievement in our household. Our two older daughters didn’t have their own wheels while living under our roof. A third car wasn’t considered a necessity. Only two cars ever occupied our driveway (except for a brief period in the girls’ last year of high school when the snowbird grandparents loaned them a perfectly good four-door Toyota Camry and the girls returned it as a three-door).

My husband and I reached a milestone in the successful guidance, championing, and ultimately coaxing of our last cherub across that winding finish line known as the undergraduate degree. In English. With a concentration in Creative Writing. Yay, said practically no one outside the immediate family. After a self-imposed summer break, my dutiful son landed his first full-time job as an assistant project manager in the far reaches of Brooklyn, and after two months of hellish commuting – borrowing one of our cars or doing the public transit tango that involved a train, a subway and a bus – we all agreed the best and most economical solution was to get a third car.

Something happens to the mindset when your son becomes a college graduate. Did the third car carry deeper meaning? Was the car a symbol of machismo, the mid-life crisis my husband never experienced? It’s a Toyota Corolla SE, not a Porsche 911 Turbo S. That wasn’t it. Did I view the car as the ultimate paradox of safety, knowing that my son couldn’t easily afford car payments plus rent and therefore would live home indefinitely where I could protect him? I’m still on a payroll so my reverie of a contented retirement with my husband sits somewhere between hazy musings of “We should clean out the clutter some day” and “Let the next owners fix that.”

Unlike his sisters who barely lived at home post-college before the seductive city beckoned, my son saunters down a soul-searching path of songwriting, performing, and collaborating with other musicians at open mics and gigs. He thoughtfully contemplates the bigger picture, which includes travel and teaching English abroad. But city living isn’t in his scope right now. And neither is moving out while he lives rent-free.

Secretly, I love having him home. He’s cooperative, inventive, humorous, sagacious, and social. He set up my Twitter account and hooked us up for streaming with HDMI. He takes out the garbage, helps me rearrange furniture, reminds me to practice Yoga, removes his shoes at the front door, and brings us the world’s best zucchini pizza from Brooklyn.

His homecoming has also turned into a joyful opportunity to reconnect with his high school friends, who had never paused long enough for more than a “Hey” or a silly smile before they stumbled downstairs to the basement. Now we engage in longer conversations, sometimes over dinner, about everything from global economy to the crisis in South Sudan to Maria Popova’s latest tweets to old-fashioned gossip. When I come home from work, the avalanche of Converse, Nikes, and Kenneth Coles envelop the entranceway. Some nights I fall asleep long before he comes home, surrendering my vigil to a tired older body. I only awaken to the sound of the garage door or the activation of the alarm system.

Parents never do stop worrying about children and car safety. I’m sure the statistics are here but at what stage is the child most protected? Infant car seat? Toddler car seat? Booster seat? Seat belt? Teenaged driver? New driver? Experienced driver? Adult driver? Adult driver with his or her child in an infant car seat? I fall victim to the dramatic irony of trying to protect my son with this third car.

Two months into the new car status, it hits me: I have not driven in the new car or even sat in it. Nor have I asked my son to take me for a drive. What a difference 40 years makes, when this boomer’s first car meant, at the very least, a spray of good luck coins to the interior and a perfunctory spin around the block. But with opposite work schedules, weekly meetings, jam-packed weekends, and other family obligations, the true magnificence of this rite of passage passed with little fanfare. My husband and I did not do a victory dance or pat each other on the back for providing one more comfort for our offspring. Instead, the new car slipped quietly into our daily routine like a cog in a well-oiled machine.

Lately my son is ramping up talk about teaching English in Barcelona or Buenos Aires or Prague as TEFL applications inundate his inbox. Ten months home, he is awakening, evolving, and maturing right before my eyes. I feel fortunate to have had this special bonding time with him now because once my son leaves, well, Thomas Wolfe said it best. And when that day comes, my husband and I will be left with three cars in the driveway.

This article was previously published on medium.com