by Susan Kinsolving

Yesterday I drove down memory lane by reading my journal from years ago; I was a young mother with a big car. Here’s a glimpse from those days.

Getting children to preschool and kindergarten in a rural area usually requires long commutes. Our car pool began, as most do, when a few haggard parents realized that they could actually help one another.

The prospect alone seemed akin to a miracle. After all, we were useless to one another when it came to colic, chicken pox or college tuition. So it was a great communal comfort that we might oblige one another as part-time chauffeurs. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief. Then, we began to drive.

My first days with the five children, ages 3 to 6, were full of polite accommodating: safety belt checks, tissues for runny noses, small talk about their school day or the scenery. I learned to sort out sweaters, backpacks, hats and lunch boxes. I knew whose turn it was to sit in the Siberia Seat, the one beside me in the front, isolated from the big backseat action by a boring barrier of upholstery.

After a few days, our relationship grew deeper and more complex. Beyond being just the driver and "a mom" (usually pronounced as one word, like "anon"), I was cast into some other roles. While the odometer clocked the miles, I kept track of the parts I learned to play.

The first and most frequent one was Invisible Driver. This was when the tots acted as if I had vanished into thin air or thick exhaust. Being ignored, I settled into my driver’s seat, content to be an unacknowledged and presumably deaf audience. In my silence and servitude, I was privy to the most intimate, adamant and innocent conversations.

I never interrupted, even when misinformation was shared, like, "Cowboys had to kill the dinosaurs," and, "Only boys can pee outside." And this hygienic guidance: "You have to brush your teeth after every kiss." Often a 5-year-old authority would set the record straight for an ill-informed 4-year-old or a tentative 3.

My next role was much less relaxing and, I suppose, inevitable: Referee. On some days, everyone was cranky and tempers flared. Preschoolers have an instinct for mental and physical torment; alas, they’re only human. Before too many names were called, insults hurled or feelings hurt, I tried to intervene. 

Sometimes I solved the problem; sometimes I joked them out of it. Occasionally, I moralized or, worse, threatened. Once I had to pull off the road, turn off the ignition and confront the adversaries with two free hands. Thankfully, I did not need to use them.

On the bright side, even bad days held interest. I learned some stunning slurs that could get special attention in an adult context. "Diaper Dummy," "Cereal Head" and "Stink Brain" were among my favorites. I could imagine an I.R.S. audit ending with, "Look, Cereal Head, that’s a legitimate deduction." Or at a Senate debate: "Only a Stink Brain would vote for that bill." Fantasizing an appropriate occasion for "Diaper Dummy" is up to you, dear reader.

My favorite role was a sort of Small World Socrates. My preschoolers were sometimes pensive, making a collective delve into the meaning of life and its ethical issues. 

I’ve had to answer such questions as, "Why do they give you a stone sign when you die?" and "How come Santa Claus gave my cousin a dog and not me?" Another tough one was, "If I don’t like Jenny, but I’m supposed to be nice to her, then how do I get rid of her when she likes me for being so nice?" Then there was this paradox: "How come some parts are private if everybody has them?"

Once I diverted metaphysics to a sing-along: "My mother told my father to grow up, but he’s 46!"

When my daughters were old enough to take the school bus, I relished the extra time I had, but sometimes I missed my car full of kids. They had long journeys ahead, and I enjoyed sharing a few of their miles.

Susan Kinsolving is the author of three books of poems: "The White Eyelash," "Dailies & Rushes," which was a finalist for The National Book Critics Circle Award, and "Among Flowers." Her poem, "Under House Arrest," was featured at Women’s Voices for Change.

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