My car, and my son, are transformed

When I bought a little- used Honda Civic more than a year and a half ago, my son was still too young to drive. This hardly dampened his interest in helping me choose a replacement for the 1980 Datsun hatchback that had, I finally admitted, reached the end of its road. Tim had ridden in that car as a baby, but he'd been embarrassed by its heavily rusted body and hopelessly uncool rectangular shape since middle school. At 14, he wanted to make sure that our next vehicle would be one he could drive with pride.

Of course, he had to compromise his dreams of a Ferrari, Lamborghini, or Jaguar. But the affordable Honda was at least the right color: a brilliant, race-car red. Barely six years old, it still had zip (something the Datsun had lost in the mid-1990s) and its radio worked – for Tim, a major consideration.

He'd have loved to have slipped into the driver's seat the day I wrote the check, but he wouldn't be 15 and eligible for driving instruction for another eight months – an eternity from his perspective, a mere tick in time from mine.

When Tim did enter the driver's door last summer, permit in hand, he immediately began calling the Honda "my car." I corrected him once or twice, but he dismissed the fact that I'd written the check. Hadn't he been the one to wash, wax, and vacuum it all those months before he could even drive it? Wasn't I the one who had tracked in dirt from the barnyard, messed up the floor mats getting in and out, and let the dogs ride shotgun with big glass-smudging noses? I'd even managed to dent the back fender before I'd had it a month. In Tim's view, the car should belong to its more-devoted caretaker.

I never conceded his point, but I've appreciated my son's cleaning services. I figured it did no real harm to let him refer to the Honda as "his" car. I was for anything – even faulty logic – that got my laid-back teen on his hands and knees wielding a vacuum, for once at odds with entropy.

My defenses shot back up when he used his allowance to buy four dazzlingly brilliant snap-on hubcaps. He popped them on one day after buffing the car to a high, water-beading finish. He called me out to inspect, and stood by beaming. I gazed upon my transformed Honda, feeling as if some down-to-earth, unpretentious friend had shown up aglitter in sequins and pearls. "Wow," I breathed, truly the only thing I could think to say.

It's not so bad if Tim is driving. I sit in the passenger seat, secure in the notion that other drivers recognize the perfect normalcy of a teenager with spiffed-up wheels. But when I drive on my own, I avoid eye contact with fellow travelers. I imagine them glancing at the fancy hubs, then at my graying hair. Improbably, I find myself longing for a bumper sticker to clarify, "This is really my son's car."

But Tim has not yet won the battle of ownership. Even if he can afford them, I've emphatically nixed the idea of a wide-mouthed stainless-steel tailpipe, passenger-size back speakers, or a "NOS" injection system (is nitrous oxide even legal?). This is my sane little car. If, in a couple of years Tim still wants it, and can afford to buy me out, so be it. Until then, he'll have to limit his input to the lustrous waxed finish, meticulously brushed and vacuumed seats, smudge-free windows, polished dash – and the flashy hubs.

A few weeks ago, after I pulled into a gas station, two teenage boys sauntered over, eyes veiled by baseball-cap visors, hands thrust deep in their pickets. Eyeing the wheels, one said, "Hey, cool car."

I suddenly felt as proud as the 15-year- old who'd installed those spinning reflectors. Had he been there, Tim would have nodded curtly and grunted something like "Thanks, dude," establishing his ownership without an effusive display of pride (leave that to the hubcaps). I beamed at the pair, sorry Tim had missed the moment.

All too soon he'll be driving off on his own, and in his own car. If he does want to buy me out, I'll give him a good deal, and fall back on our old pickup, generally reserved for farm chores.

Eventually, I'll begin to look for another used vehicle for day-to-day driving. This time I'll get one so uncool, Tim won't even think to object if I drive in my barn boots, leave the floor mats bunched and cockeyed, and let the dogs ride shotgun, moist noses pressed to the window. And I suppose I'll have to start using the car wash.

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