It happened on the way to Water Country. My hands were clammy on the steering wheel. I could feel my heart thumping in my ears. A set of deep-breathing exercises did nothing to calm my anxiety as I signaled to change lanes and carefully made my way over to the shoulder of I-64.
A chorus of questions rang from the two full rows of seats behind me in the van. What’s wrong? Why are we stopping? Can you change this song? I turned off the radio. Sigh. The kid-packed van shook as tractor trailers rumbled by.
Do I even know where I put my…
“License and registration, please, Ma’am,” said the police officer. Now I was shaking. I will never, ever get used to the sound of a grown man calling me Ma’am.
This wasn’t my first time. I had been pulled over before, but never on the highway and never with a car full of kids, some of whom weren’t my own. My last ticket had been at least six years earlier on the way home from preschool. When I heard the familiar WheeeoooooWheeeooooo back then, I realized immediately that I had been speeding. Of course, moments before I was nabbed that day, a Mustang had raced past me going at least ten, maybe twenty miles an hour faster than I had been driving. While carefully explaining this to 4-year-old Lindsey, buckled up for safety in her car seat, I also pointed out the importance of following rules, the virtue of learning from mistakes, and the value of using cruise control whenever mommy had a decent stretch of pavement in front of her.
Now, I’m basically a confident person. I can do more than a few things fairly well. But I’ll be the first to tell you that driving is not one of them. I like to link this inadequacy (translation: I have someone to blame!) back to my early driver’s education with my dad. Learning to drive a compact car with a manual transmission, much of the instructional time was spent trying to master the mechanics of shifting into gear while not drifting down a steep incline into a watery grave also known as the Ohio River. Faced with that benchmark, I suppose I didn’t put much stock in mastering smooth turning, for example, or navigating a four-way stop sign.
In any case, because I am fully aware of my limitations behind the wheel, there has never been any question about multi-tasking while driving. I just can’t do it. And this isn’t only about texting and driving or the general chatting on the phone that is so prevalent these days. Have you seen the woman applying mascara while motoring down the road? Or the guy demolishing what appears to be a Big Mac while driving with his elbows? Over the years, maintaining the speed limit has been challenging enough for me. You won’t catch me shaping my eyebrows or doing a crossword puzzle.
Beside, as the family chauffeur, I’ve always tried to take full advantage of precious drive time with my kids. They are members of a captive audience after all, and quite literally, strapped into their seats. What more could you ask for? When mine were little, playing the finish-the-story game was very fulfilling. In second and third grade, practicing multiplication tables became part of the equation. And lately, some of my best parenting erudition – the stuff you like to pass along without having to make eye contact – has been imparted from the driver’s seat. Like the memorable how-can-cousin-Suzy-have-a-baby-if-she-isn’t-even-married discussion for one.
But back to that fateful encounter with the law on the way to Water Country. Unlike the preschool ticket, this time I hadn’t been pulled over for speeding. The officer told me he had been driving alongside the van for five minutes and I hadn’t even noticed him. “Ma’am,” he said, “were you talking on the phone – using a hands-free device?” Nope, I told him, I was talking to my kids. Using my mouth.
I received no citation that day; I wasn’t speeding. (Oh, I do love my cruise control!) However, my status as one of the few parents in Virginia who has received a verbal warning from a highway patrolman for talking to her kids has become legendary.
At least in the backseat.