TURTLES IN THE VAN
Twenty-seven years ago has never seemed so distant as it does now.
Until recently, it seemed to me the gap in time between then and now was filled with usual changes one would expect–changes in the costs of things, in hairstyles and in clothing trends. Changes in parenting styles, music, and of course in technology. Until a few months ago, I felt the world I live in now and the world I lived in then could still recognize each other. Kind of like meeting up with a childhood friend, who even with years and years of age on her face is still recognizable to me beneath the wrinkles. A continued familiarity exists when change is slow. I prefer life to change in this way–slowly, so I don’t lose my connection to what was.
I don’t always get my way, though. On occasion things change drastically between a single sunset and sunrise.
I’m remembering a road trip in 1992. We were heading home in a blue chevy minivan–my husband and I, our three kids, one sister and a couple of turtles we’d found along the way.
We were four hours from home when we stopped at a convenience store to gas up. There were two women with a small child who were looking for a ride after their car had broken down. They needed to get home for work the following day.
You wouldn’t happen to be heading to Austin, would you? they asked. We said we were heading that way, and we apologized as we told them our car was completely full. As we pulled onto the highway, our oldest son said, They could ride with us. We have extra room. And we did have extra room–one seat. If you could’ve seen the look on my boy’s face–the purest and innocent compassion for those strangers–perhaps you’d have done what we did.
If you don’t mind squeezing in, we told them as we slid the van door open.
So the two women buckled in the back seat where their daughter double-buckled in the lap of one of them. One of our sons joined them on the bench seat. Two of our kids buckled in the middle bench. My husband and his sister rode up front, and I sat in the little space on the floor near the sliding door holding the box of turtles.
We all became instantly friendly in our close quarters. We played car games and sang songs all the way home–just over two hundred miles.
I spy something red.
I’m going on a picnic and I’m taking an Apple. I’m going on a picnic and I’m taking an Apple and a Beet.
Punch-buggy yellow. Punch-buggy red.
John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt. His name is my name too.
Four hours later , we dropped off our friends-for-a-day at their home, which happened to be one neighborhood over from ours. We hugged, I remember. And though we never saw them again, everyone of my people remember that road trip home spent in the company of strangers and turtles.
In fact, we remembered it just two nights ago, as we sat on the porch with our son and his family–almost the full extent of our social circle during this COVID pandemic.
I’m incredibly sad, though, because for the first time I caught myself remembering the happy story through a filter of germs and masks and gloves and social distancing. I hate that I’m retrospectively aware of having been overpacked in a small space with strangers and no hand sanitizer. I hate that my brain recognizes this as odd behavior–as if the current situation has become the permanent standard. I hate that this might not just be a slight shift between then and now, but rather a complete break. I’m afraid I might soon look back on the ways of the world in 1992 and find them so strange–forgetting that they absolutely were not. I’m afraid we’ll forget how we used to do days– when up-close kindness to strangers required no hesitation at all or when hugs were a mere reflex or when I could pour you a cup of coffee and transfer the cup from my hand to yours without a single urge to wipe away any trace of a human touch.
All of it is because the sun set one day, and when it rose the next I almost didn’t know where I was. It was like the first seconds of wakefulness when I’m away from home in a strange bed–when I can’t remember exactly where I am. Every day it feels like this. But just because everyday feels like this does not mean it is this.
It’s said if we do something for thirty days straight it becomes a habit. If that’s true, most all of us are in the habit of staying to ourselves–after sixty days, give or take, of social distancing. And even though the world is easing back into something, I’m not entirely sure what it is. I feel myself ready to resume in many ways, and not ready to resume in others. When the green light comes, I wonder if I’ll be able to give it gas. I feel like some of my muscles have atrophied and I feel sometimes socially awkward now.
All this said, here’s what I intuitively know down in my gut.
We can’t remain here, like this. This is not us. This is not normal. We need each other, and social media is an unacceptable replacement for real, three-dimensional contact. Fear brought us here and it will hold us here if we let it. So we push through this learning curve with hope of our great return–when we’ll put one foot in front of the other, breathing in fresh air and each other until it once again becomes our habit because we were not created to live in a bubble. We absolutely were not. I am not afraid of you. Please don’t be afraid of me.
I’m praying when all of this is over, we’ll sift it out–kind of like panning for gold. We’ll keep the nuggets–all the valuable things gleaned from this experience–and we’ll let everything else wash away so we can get back to the business of being us. Which might mean we’ll put too many people in a car if it’s called for, leaving just enough room for a few turtles.