The Story of a Gently Used Car and its Captain

By Anna Mitchael

Last month I said goodbye to the car I’ve been driving since I moved out to the country. Even though she had enough miles to equal 60,000 trips from my front door to Montana, she still looked pretty good and was running even better. This month I turn 36, which is a far cry from old. But it is old enough that I would still be pleased if someone said the same for me.

I thought I knew every last thing about this car I loved, but there was one surprise at the very end. When I flipped opened the center console to clean it out, instead of finding kids’ toys or a box of crayons or an in-case-of-emergency container of applesauce, what I found was a space I had long considered extinct: Everything in that center console belonged to me.

I gave up on personal space after my first son was born. There was a diaper bag to hold the necessaries for child care, but its overflow was volcanic and unstoppable. The lip gloss and paperback novels I had carried since my first Cabbage Patch Kids purse were pushed out by wet wipes. And baggies of crackers. And fruit chews. The necessaries.

Soon after my purse came my car. My music was trumped by either soprano alphabet singalong recordings or lullaby renditions of adult music that made me feel like my whole life was unfolding on an elevator. One night Andrew and I stole away to Dallas for an adult dinner and after driving at speeds that can best be described as illegal yet necessary, I handed my keys to the restaurant’s valet at the exact moment Ricky, the stuffed singing raccoon in the back seat, began chirping “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.” I did not apologize. I didn’t even blush. Ricky was a master at keeping the kids entertained — the singing raccoon was necessary.

Now with the second child, small slivers of personal space I didn’t even realize I had have disappeared. There are bibs stuffed in the pockets of every pair of pants I wear and the other day when I reached into my makeup bag for mascara, I pulled out a miniature space shuttle.

Of course we did not bring people into the world just to put up boundaries under our own roof. I realize the merging of lives and objects comes with the territory of having young children. But to say I can accept giving up personal space is not to say I don’t find myself missing privacy now and again.

Mother or not, parent or not, the relentlessness of having the inner life constantly pushed to the outside and shared with many is now a universal feeling. One woman’s space shuttle is another’s Twitter feed.

And so there was immense relief on that afternoon I opened my center console, that small box at my side for years as I captained my family across the Texas countryside to towns we knew by heart and those we were discovering.

The take-out menus on top were from my favorite restaurants in a three-county radius, and their obviously used pages tell a story not of laziness but of perseverance. I am 100 percent committed to only cooking when I want to. Living in the middle of nowhere shall not change that.
Beneath the menus was the electronic reader I bought precisely because it only holds books. No games and no internet means no one else in the family is interested. Some of the best books I’ve read in the last year were finished while I idled in a parking space with air conditioning blowing in front and two sets of snores blowing behind.

Below that were maps — oh, so many maps. Houston, Dallas, Santa Fe, Denver. It used to be that buying a map was a necessary christening when we traveled to a new place, but now we usually speed into the city limits, praying we’ll find our hotel before Ricky runs out of juice.

Then there were the small things that had fallen to the depths. At least 50 pens (even though there is never one in the house when I need it). Enough Whataburger ketchup packets to equal the deaths of roughly 18 tomatoes. A bracelet I wore every day for a year, thought I lost, then silently blamed everyone around me for contributing to its disappearance.

And finally, the rattle that came off the first live rattlesnake I ran over and killed on the gravel road outside our house. Andrew got out of the car and sliced the snake with a knife so I could keep the rattle. He claimed it was good luck, and I claimed he was just trying to charm me.

I put everything I found into a bag, and then I sat in the front seat of the car with the bag in my lap and one hand on the steering wheel. We drove each of our babies home from the hospital in that car. But while the car was there for the twists and turns of becoming a mother, the heart of the story was there in that center console. It had all the pieces of the woman I have always been — the words, the desire for adventure, the good luck. Those pieces have not disappeared; there are details woven around them. In some lights the big picture looks unrecognizable, but then you tilt it the other way and you can see how it all comes together — you understand how the threads that came with being a mother are why some of the pieces took 36 years to make sense.

The woman I sold the car to has children who are older than mine. In fact hers are so old that she is on the verge of getting back some personal space. I wondered where my much-loved used car might take her and thought about leaving the maps in the console. But then I realized that would be unfair.

Now that space is hers and hers alone — she should be able to fill it with whatever it is that makes her feel most alive.

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