Freedom's just another word for - a car

How quickly we get used to new freedoms. And how keenly we feel their loss! My son had had his driver's license barely a month when the winter's first freezing rain and snow descended on our Indiana town. Having been coached by an upstate-New York-bred pro, he knew all about how to handle a vehicle on slick surfaces. But before I let him out the door that morning we went through the mantra.

"I know, Mom!" My son was indignant at the exercise. "Drive slowly, no sudden lane switches. If I start to slide, I pump the brakes, slamming them only makes it worse." The next words I heard from him came hours later. School over, he'd driven home, parked in front of the house, and stalked inside. Somehow, I just knew.

"I've had a wreck."

He'd driven home and was upright - it couldn't have been that bad. And it wasn't. A classmate had lost control of his truck in the high school parking lot, and rear-ended a second truck, which slid into our Honda. Its back bumper had crumpled. Tim had avoided hitting the car in front of him ("I pumped my brakes," he wrote matter-of-factly on the insurance forms), limiting the damage to three vehicles.

Now my son's transport is in the body shop for three weeks. And the rental car bestowed upon us in the interim is off-limits to drivers under 21. I've given up trying to put this undeserved grounding into perspective for a 16-year-old newly used to driving on his own - wholly free of the pearls of wisdom from the passenger seat, which I'd occupied through his permit period. They were my pearls, which he'd appreciated to a point. But right after acing the road test, he'd taken me straight home, slipped in his favorite CD, and waved goodbye. His grin and the bass rap pulsing from the departing car signaled the end of an era.

The new arrangement had suited us all. Tim began to drive the Honda to school, to work, and to visit his girlfriend - and, consequently, to keep it in gas with funds from his own slim pocket. I fell back on the trusty old farm truck, and we all enjoyed our new freedoms - Tim most of all. I found myself missing the phone calls to be picked up from Kristin's, the heated negotiations attendant on driving privileges linked to my presence in the front seat. Tim had no such nostalgia.

When it became clear that the clock was turned back, at least temporarily, my son grasped desperately for an out. "Mom!" he pleaded. "Isn't there any rental company that will let me drive?" I checked around, but the invariable answer was a resounding "no," for reasons all too obviously linked to teenage-driver statistics. Tim was back in the passenger seat. It only halfway consoled him to see me slip my credit card into the gas pump.

My days, having blossomed with free time after Tim earned his license, became more intricately scheduled once again as I met his transport needs. We regressed to bickering over "frivolous" trips and who controlled the radio - an old bone of contention I'd already mentally buried. It took just one block of rap to remind me.

I call the body shop every few days to see if the new bumper has arrived. Tim and I have even visited the garage (he all but petted the vehicle in its quiet corner). And we wait, less - or more - patiently, for the restoration of our briefly enjoyed freedoms from one another.

Tonight, he's at Kristin's. I drove him there, and I'll pick him up before 10 p.m. It's not his idea of the perfect end to the evening; and I admit it would be nice to kick off my shoes and listen for my son's pulsing return. But I don't mind being on call again. No telling what he'll bring up as I drive us home - what I wouldn't have known about his day if it hadn't been for the snow, the fender bender, and the happy fact that it's my turn with the radio.

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