In memories of childhood, we press our nose to the pane, looking in.
“The day I Left My Son In The Car” is a self-exploratory article that details Kim Brooks’s experience with the juvenile court system. Brooks, the author, explains how the decision to leave her 6-year-old child in the car for five minutes led her through two years of involvement in the court system after being accused of contributing to the delinquency of a minor (i.e., she left the kid in need of services). If this was a blog on parenting, there would be plenty to discuss from Brooks’s analysis. For example, the fact that her involvement with the legal system only worsened Brooks’s parenting anxieties, not to mention the idea of parenting as a “competitive sport”:
I never leave my kids in a car now when I run into a store, and so I know nothing bad will ever happen to them in a non-moving vehicle. I suppose every little peace of mind helps. Still, I worry. … I worry what the other parents will think if I hang back on the bench while my kids are playing at the park, reading a book instead of hovering over them… And so I accompany when I probably don’t need to. I supervise and hover and interfere. And at least half of the other parents are probably doing it for exactly the same reason. This is America and parenting is now a competitive sport, just like everything else.
But since my goal every Monday is not to talk about parenting, but about the ways in which people frame children and childhood, I will leave that to others. Instead, I would like to focus on a different part of Brooks’ writing. Namely, her reflexions about what cars (or non-moving vehicles) meant to her during childhood. Certainly, many kids who grew up in car-owning households would agree with her that, in some way, the car was an extension of the home:
My friends and I sometimes play this game, the did-our-parents-really-let-us-do-that game. We recall bike ramps, model rockets, videotaping ourselves setting toys on fire. Many remember taking off on bikes alone, playing in the woods for hours without adult supervision, crawling through storm drains to follow creek beds, latchkey afternoons, monkey bars installed over slabs of concrete. My husband recalls forts built in the trunk of the station wagon on long road trips. I remember standing up in the back of my father’s LeBaron convertible while he cruised around the neighborhood, or spending an hour lying low on the seat of our station wagon, feet against the window, daydreaming or reading in crowded parking lots while my mother got groceries or ran other boring errands. One friend tells me how, from 7-Elevens, to Kroger, to various banks, schools and offices, he was left alone in the front passenger seat of a convertible Mustang for a good portion of his childhood, primarily because he was shy and wanted to not have to meet new people. For people of our generation, living a suburban childhood, the car was central to our lives, not simply a mode of transportation but in many ways, an extension of our home.
Brooks’s memories made me think about my own childhood, and about the many days I spent in cars, hiding in the “secret bed” my dad made behind the passenger seat in the back of a pick-up truck, or riding beneath the rear window of a small Volkswagen. There certainly were some safety concerns, but doing these things allowed me to mark these spaces as my own. When my parents sold both vehicles, a part of home and a part of childhood went away with them. And, if anybody would have asked us back then, we would have argued that the car was, indeed, our home, a part of our family life. We would admire the world from within. Seeing the car as an extension of the home suggests a placement of the car within the realm of the private, free from public scrutiny. So what happens when this seemingly private space, the extension of home, becomes public?
In the months of fear and shame that followed my being charged with contributing to the delinquency of a minor, I continuously analyzed my own mind-set that day, trying to understand how I did something that both a bystander and a police officer considered criminally dangerous, and the best I could come up with was the theory that I’d been lulled by nostalgia into a false sense of security. So many of my childhood memories involved unsupervised time in cars in parking lots just like the one where I’d left my son. I wondered in the days after it happened if being back home, out of the city, had given me a sort of momentary amnesia. I’d forgotten that more than 25 years had passed since those unsupervised childhood hours. And a lot could change in 25 years, I thought.
Brooks’s experience remind us about the fine line between public and private. It wouldn’t surprise me if, looking back through the window pane, we discovered a part of home we had forgotten about.
—Alexia Raynal, Zeteo Managing Editor
To read more posts in the fields of children and childhood by Alexia Raynal, visit her ZiR page here.
Featured images by Tim Walker
Full phrase by Robert Brault: “In childhood, we press our nose to the pane, looking out. In memories of childhood, we press our nose to the pane, looking in.” (emphasis mine)