My twin boys have become intimate with vehicles of all kinds. They are just shy of two years old, yet their passion is as tenacious as the heartbeats that fuel their little bodies. I thought I could steer clear of the emotional pang of that particular word, intimacy, until it knocked on the door in the form of my sons’ first serious girlfriends, or some other consuming love that causes older boys to return home after hours in a vague, inebriated sweat. But no, the darlings have arrived in the undying form of four wheels and a chassis. The whole affair began one morning in the parking lot of a Costco, when my son, Luke, pointed to the s.u.v. beside us and declared in an arresting Boston accent, “Caaahhhh.” It was his first word.
When Luke uttered the word again with such conviction and exuberance, we knew what he wanted-resounding confirmation from his parents that yes, the colossal thing next to us was a car. Instead, we lost the chance to bestow praise because of a dizzying wave of parental angst. Soon Julian joined his brother in pointing and shouting “car,” for every vehicle, and it felt like a clash of values.
For one thing, my husband and I have always prided one another on our compact cars. If our jobs permitted us, we would have abandoned our cars completely for the more earth-friendly option of commuting by bicycle. Suddenly, through that mysterious process of physical sensation and developing brain, to his first articulation, Luke gave voice to the word car. Was it really true that all the impressions our son gathered from the time of infancy culminated in this word? If we lived in the woods or on a farm, we wondered, would our son’s first word have been tree? Cow maybe?
Perhaps our culture of commerce had already begun to affect our children’s sense of self in relation to the world. We agonized over the few times we turned the television on when the boys were present. During those times, one of the boys inevitably abandoned Green Eggs and Ham and froze in front of the screen as the electric glow of a sedan glided along a Pacific highway. The loving voice-over, always god-like, assured us, “Yes, this can be your life.”
My husband and I made a decision: we looked at the parking lot sprawl in our lives, and vowed to introduce the boys to the verdant landscapes of nature. At the beach on Cape Cod, we took off our shoes and led the boys through sand and tide pools. Instead of chasing the waves on that gleaming summer day, however, Julian insisted on traipsing back up the dunes, past the flowering beach plums, to stand on the pavement and observe the summer vacation traffic.
We tried visiting the local farm. Enthusiastically, we showed the boys how to pick berries from the bush and smiled when Luke filled his mouth with blueberries as if he was storing them for the long winter ahead. Suddenly, some mysterious radar engaged that part of his brain in tune with the mechanisms of things. Luke began pulling me vigorously by the hand, berry juice trickling down his mouth and neck, my freshly picked quart of blueberries spilling over. My son became a little blue pit bull, moaning and tugging until he reached the far corner of the orchard. His destination-an aging excavator, rusting beside a pit of rotting apples. Perhaps we should have considered that if we did live on a farm, our son’s first word may have intuitively been tractor.
We are aware of the fact that many boys and girls regard cars with awe. Friends tell of their children’s toy car and truck collections, overflowing from toy boxes to basements. We have seen toy store aisles dedicated entirely to the likes of Tonka and Matchbox-those corporate giants that make billions of dollars by melding plastic into trains, trucks, and cars, season after selling season. Now each morning at about seven a.m., we hear the joyous twin shouts of, “Buuuuuuus!” when a tired, municipal bus drives by. My husband and I love reading, art, and languages. The boys’ grandfather is a poet, for crying out loud, so we must ask, where did this passion for cars come from?
Studies conjecture that children’s attention to cars may be affiliated with early man’s use of tools; an interest in the way inanimate objects work together for a purpose. A colleague of mine added that it’s about making sense of the world. “They like to categorize things,” she said. “They’ll order their cars by color and model. Then just wait until they start up with dinosaurs.”
Whatever the meaning behind this love of cars, one thing I know is certain. In the boys’ faces, there is joy and sometimes, heartache. At the moment, they do not seem to be absorbed in disassembling their vehicles to uncover the parts at work, nor have they placed all their Matchbox cars in color-coordinated rows. Instead, the boys are wide-eyed at the call of police sirens or garbage trucks driving in reverse. They look longingly at the postal truck, then cry out when the mail carrier drives off into the sunset. Hours of contentment are found when playing with cars in their Fisher-Price garage as if the boys’ imagination assures a place of closeness with their beloved. Often, there is simply a wildly contagious joy of fans for their team of diggers, dump trucks, and motorcycles by day, and tenderness when choosing a toy car to cuddle in the crib by night.
When I finally stopped projecting my own interests on to the twins, some curious things happened. During a summer walk on the boulevard, I followed the boys and we discovered that it was “Motorcycle Night” along the Merrimack River. We saw the shiniest Harleys and the sleekest Japanese models you could ever imagine. One afternoon, we stopped to admire a majestic red fire engine in front of a fire station. When the firefighters came outside, they smiled at us and said, “We’ve been looking for you guys!,” then reached into the truck and bestowed us with three kid-sized fire hats.
And on the interstate highway, we caught the eye of a bandanna-clad trucker. Through the flash of headlights and side view mirrors, we could see that the Mack truck was proudly named, “Miss Nanci” in a display of purple script on the metal frame. When Julian and Luke reached up and cried out, “TRUUUUUCK,” the trucker reached up too, and as our vehicles drove at high-speed side-by-side, Miss Nanci returned the glory in the long, sustaining thrill of a steel horn.