One of the most vivid, most abiding memories of my childhood is of my father and his (not ours) car. So much was centered around it. He loved and looked after it like his fourth (sometimes first) baby. We could not eat or litter it. When my brother expressed his desire to learn to drive it, my father marched him off to the mechanic’s garage in his summer vacations with one simple logic : if you can’t fix it, you can’t drive it. My brother protested, of course, but in vain. So, while his friends fled the inclement summer to the cool hills with their families, my brother spent a greased-out month in the heat of June lying prostrate under cars learning their inner workings. He hated it, but not more than his desire to drive the forbidden car.
Anyway, I got reminded of my father’s car the other day when I was going on a journey to the town where my parents live – it’s about a six hour drive. Some random thread of thought-process (thought about the rain, which reminded me of the smell of wet earth, which reminded me of my childhood house, which reminded me of my father’s obsession of cleaning the car after it’d poured, which reminded me of his love for his car..) led me to that little memory tucked away in some tiny crevice inside my head and I started thinking about how much had changed since we took car journeys with my parents as children.
I remember only too well how my father used to ready the car for the trip. There was such flurry of activity around it. The car had to go for servicing two days before the journey, everything had to be checked and re-checked, yet it still broke down on the highway. There was no air conditioning, of course, and somehow we didn’t seem to mind (unimaginable now – makes me somewhat embarrassed at how much we’ve changed and gotten used to the good things in life). My mother would cook and pack the food and feed it to us when we’d done some respectable distance (unlike my kids who pop into the car and want the goodies, not the home cooked ones at that). When the car broke down (the word fan-belt was introduced very early into my vocabulary - I can still hear the sound of it breaking – whirring uncontrollably at first and then settling into a slow flap as the car shuddered to a halt) we’d get out and run into the wilderness, as my father furiously tried to flag down other cars and trucks to get a lift to the next little cluster on the highway where he would be able to get a spare fan belt. I remember suggesting to my father once that just like we carried a spare tyre, perhaps we could carry an extra fan belt – he didn’t see the humor in it, and actually neither did I – I was serious. Not that he paid much attention to my innovative suggestions.
After we got tired of running around we’d sit in the shade of the biggest tree we could find and pretend that it was the Faraway Tree and that Moonface would burst out of the trunk and ask us for a toffee.
Compare those journeys to the ones I take today with my kids. The car never goes for a “check-up” before the trip – apart from the fuel and the air in the tyre. Gone is that whole opening the bonnet and twist-opening the cap to check the coolant or pulling out that long metal stick to check the oil level, or studying the battery and its contents. I don’t know how I remember all this, but I do. I can shut my eyes and picture my dad, young, handsome and energetic (not the frail old man of eighty that he is today who squints his eyes to force out memories of these journeys from his brain or who now has trouble remembering the name of my favorite fruit that he used to buy in buckets) bent over his beloved car, that always betrayed him but that he loved nevertheless, peering into its inners and fixing its workings. He always had the last laugh though, as he managed to get it going again, sometimes long after we’d slept under our imaginary faraway trees.
Today we get into our air-conditioned luxury car that cruises swiftly on the same highway (not the same road though, they’ve been rebuilt from the terrifying one-lane highway to a six-lane one) tearing through the sweltering heat without so much as a peep (touch-wood, touch-wood). My kids would not know what to do if it did ever break down – much as my older one loves the Faraway Tree, I don’t think she’d think much about wandering in the heat and waiting for Moonface to show up. And that’s a shame.
For my kids journeys are about comfort – both physical and psychological. They don’t know life any other way, and it’s not their fault I know.
Which brings me to this question: Have we changed or has the world around us ? I mean should I try and create a different environment for my kids, different from the one that we are fortunate enough to afford, or am I ruining my kids by providing them such level of comfort? (my parents clearly think the latter). Maybe the answer lies somewhere in between. After all we cannot now suddenly go back to the cars that my parents used to drive just to inject reality into the lives of our children. We can probably do that in other ways (like not handing them iPads to keep them mentally occupied in journeys)
With progression and affluence comes a loss of the little things in life, a loss that I lament on but somehow cannot seem to do much about. Then I remind myself that my kids are living their childhood and not re-living mine, so I must allow them to make their own memories, no matter how comfort-laden, and not try and thrust mine on them.
What I am mindful of, is to keep it somewhat real – to remind them from time to time that they may have all the comforts in the world right now, but if they have to keep it up, they have to work at it. I am not sure how much of that actually sinks in as they sit in the comfort of their cool rooms and most of the world around them slums it out.