By L&T Columnist Rachel Coleman
Somewhere on the freeway, we all got the giggles. All day, we had passed Starbucks coffee shops, which we planned to access later when we needed a shot of caffeine. Now, 12 hours into our day trip, we couldn’t see a single location.
My two nearly-adult children and I had just dropped off their younger sister at a two-week training camp, and now we were headed back to Liberal. Before we hit the highway, I wanted to treat them to a nice meal — but we couldn’t find a Starbucks, and we needed Starbucks because we needed free wifi, and we needed free wifi because my daughter’s finicky cell phone had run out of battery power after someone tried to used the live, satellite-image navigation feature, which we had needed because we made the wrong turn onto U.S. Hwy 235 instead 135, and everyone knew that was wrong only moments after we’d looped past the zoo exit. And we needed her to use the phone to help us find our way, because we were all fading a bit after our 5 a.m. departure, a wake-up time a good five hours earlier than some of us had practiced in several weeks. Did I mention we also needed caffeine?
“Look!” I said as we nudged into the right lane for one more turn-around. “There’s a horse trailer with four horses inside!”
It was my umpteenth “Look!” I’d employed it for the zoo, for various restaurants and attractions, even for a fleet of roadside construction equipment.
“What is going on?” asked my 16-year-old son. “You keep talking to us like we’re little kids. I don't get excited about backhoes and horses anymore. And why are you trying to turn right? You’re going in a big circle.”
“Actually,” I told him smugly, “we had that other little detour when we ended up in the twisty neighborhood and had to turn around, so we didn’t make a big circle. We made a giant Q!”
This was my college-sophomore daughter, the one whose phone needed juice and data.
But she’d been overcome with laughter.
“There,” my son managed to put in. “Over there! There’s the Starbucks.”
Safely parked in the lot, we unfolded ourselves from the car and shuffled inside. Years before, when my now-rusty station wagon seemed luxuriously spacious, AJ would have been locked in the back seat, waging a silent protest in favor of McDonald’s. Now, he had his eye on something with a multisyllabic name and a price tag far higher than the dollar menu.
By the time I brought the drinks to our tiny table, both kids had accessed the outlet and were clicking away on their devices. My job was to take notes in case the batteries gave out once more before we reached our final stop.
“Everything is all in one place, just west of here,” Ananda finally announced. “So we’ve been driving all over, when we could have just gone straight there.”
“That’s OK,” I said weakly. “I’m enjoying myself.”
And I was. In the midst of a too-scheduled summer, I had found an 18-hour oasis of uninterrupted time to savor with my three children.
As they move closer to adulthood, their trajectories diverge from one another's, from mine, from the family’s. All summer, we have juggled the logistical challenges of five wage-earning, driver’s license-holding people living in one house with two cars available to transport us to a boatload of appointments and work sessions. You might imagine that proper household organization could overcome the problems of who will tackle those dirty dishes, why the trash threatens to overflow, or when we will manage to dust the top of the piano. You would be wrong. I no longer reign supreme over people who struggle to tie their shoelaces properly.
Domestic control isn’t the only thing that has left the Coleman household. The summer activity list, once an annual exercise in wishes and sneak-attack education options posted on the refrigerator, has vanished. Nobody is signed up for summer reading at the library, though I have offered so many good-read recommendations that the children and their father have renamed me “The Book Bully.” My vegetable garden shrank in size once more, and occupies a “parents’ hobby” spot in the family structure. It’s not as pristine as I expected when I had three able weeding assistants; nobody’s pulling worms out of the soil or marveling about ladybugs at work.
The one undeniable factor that unites us all, including their father, is a desperate need for more sleep. That being impossible, there we were, feeling a tremendous solidarity in the quest for Starbucks and, a little later, a sit-down meal.
“What do you want?” asked my son. Satisfied that he had found the basketball shoes on his list, he had no reason to lobby for a certain restaurant choice. “You have both been so nice to me today and helped me get everything done that I needed. You should decide where to eat.”
His sister fell silent, astonished at this uncharacteristic offer.
What I wanted, I thought as I sipped my latte, was exactly what was happening: a pretext to create something we would all remember later on, when everyone had embarked on new adventures in far-flung places. I wanted to make a giant Q on the streets of Wichita. To solve problems, together, with my intelligent, funny, kind-hearted children. To eat a great meal, as we did later that evening, watch my son charm the waitress, and see my daughter unerringly pick the tastiest item on the menu because she’s good at figuring out what will be the best bet.
It’s not the same thing as running in the sprinkler with three pint-sized children screaming in delight, but it’s what I’ve got this summer. It’s still a lot of fun.