The long drive home

How a child’s mere presence can teach tolerance to his elders.

By: Karen Deaver
   Our friends couldn’t decide which was worse: the fact that we were driving to Florida for Christmas, extending a three-hour plane trip to a 20-hour rite of passage, or that we had no on-board DVD player AND refused to drug our three-year-old, Kolter, with Benadryl.
   Their compassion turned to pity when I explained that the long drive would give my husband, Steve, and me time to talk.
   Being parents themselves, they knew we wouldn’t be able to eke out a sentence, let alone a conversation, in between Kolter’s shrieks, performed with the enthusiasm of a circus trainer: "Look, look, LOOK, a bridge, airplane, cow, car, truck, truck, TRUCK!" That we’d be drowned out by Ringo Starr recounting useful and morally uplifting stories of the exploits of Thomas the Tank Engine, by other tapes of cheery children singing "The Wheels on the Bus," and by flying dinosaurs, snakes and monster trucks in a variety of psychedelic colors.
   When hours of landscape finally did cause Kolter to pass out (before he learned that it was way more fun to yell, "I have to go … NOW!" and watch us whip off the road, evacuate the car and remove him from his restraints), did Steve and I hash out our disagreements, co-author a book, or discuss the merits of pomegranate juice? Heck no. We took turns sleeping, too.
   I stunned one friend into silence when I told her that our destination was my parents’ home, situated in a flat and piney development without much to do aside from golf (which they don’t play), and that we’d be staying there for two weeks. I was afraid to tell her that my in-laws were joining us, from Minnesota.
   It’s not that our parents are unpleasant to be around. We love them, and we love them even more for Kolter. But we have some issues.
   First, we suffer from the adult-child syndrome — the one where no matter how old you are, how much therapy you’ve had, and how many miles separate you from your folks, after 48 hours on their turf you will find yourself acting the age you were when you first realized that they could be wrong. You’ve never forgiven them for that and — since you aren’t yet occupied with your own offspring blaming you for being human — you make sure they are duly punished.
   As if our neurosis weren’t enough to squelch holiday cheer, the fact that my parents are politically liberal atheists and Steve’s are conservative born-again charismatic Christians made us nervously question whether Kolter could bridge this gap. Could we?
   Steve and my parents had been together before this holiday season, of course. We had been pleasantly surprised at our wedding when his parents, deciding that the occasion warranted an exception to their abstinence, helped to finance the martini-enhanced rehearsal supper.
   We were further wowed by their reaction to our vows, read by a Unitarian minister, which made no reference to God. They graciously thanked us for a beautiful wedding, drank us under the table, and told me that their son had never been happier. They impressed upon us that their prayers had been answered, and no matter what we believed, we were on His side.
   What Steve and I regarded as our success at bringing opposites together seemed like a guarantee of future congeniality. When Kolter came along, we rejoiced. A grandchild would surely be additional insurance for a stress-free family good time, at least until puberty — a natural distraction from philosophical incompatibilities.
   So confident were we that our parents would stay on their best behavior for Kolter, we planned a cruise vacation together in honor of his first birthday. Then 9/11 happened. Our trip was scheduled for December, and as much as we could steer conversation away from religion, it would be more difficult now to do so with politics. Two adult friends of ours came along as a buffer, just in case.
   The cruise was uncannily cheerful and light, which we attributed wholly to Kolter — until it dawned on us that in addition to being good people who wish to model good manners, our parents were competing to outdo each other with kindness. There was no doubt after the first two dinners at the round table overlooking the ship’s stern that our normally opinionated and garrulous parents were attempting to prove that their respective ideologies engender the best behavior ever.
   Steve and I were relieved once again that we’d never have to negotiate a prickly battle of beliefs. But as we planned to reconvene at the end of last year in Florida, for Kolter’s third birthday, I was a little incredulous. For how long could grown people contain their convictions, remain careful to show only that which wouldn’t cause rifts, and withhold full expressions of self, even for the sake of a grandchild?
   I began to wonder if pretending to be neutral, to be less than ourselves, was the best example to set after all.
   It took only until Kolter was out of the house.
   When my mother-in-law quoted scripture and spoke about God, five years of stiff smiles, stifled opinions and ruffled feathers erupted in my parents’ kitchen. My parents expressed their annoyance at being quoted to from the Bible, at seeing religious books around the house, and with having to deal with dogma they find limiting. Steve’s mother described her personal relationship with the Lord and her discomfort at suppressing parts of herself which she feels are fundamental. Both sides pronounced their beliefs to be Truth, intractable and justified by life experience.
   When Kolter returned, his grandparents briefly regained their conciliatory selves, then waved him off. As he bobbed in and out of the room, flitting from one of them to the other with quirky toddler comments and commands for attention, they struggled to maintain their positions. But he was persistent, pulling at them to be in the present, with him.
   Finally, like planets realigning to a new center of gravity, they began to steer their conversation from a demand to be understood to a search to understand. Taking turns, they described what spirituality is to each of them. Their definitions sounded surprisingly similar: something greater than ourselves, a oneness with all living things and with the earth itself, a sense of wonder.
   On the long drive home (which we did straight through the night), while Kolter slept, I realized that keeping us on our best behavior is not the most valuable gift a child has to offer. That it isn’t realistic or healthy to avoid expressing the very ideas that give each of us hope. Kolter’s energetic spirit, so generous and fluid, proved a gift of revelation — an invitation for us to find a way to be ourselves, together.