Sitting in a light blue Honda CRV as the fairly manageable, morning-rush-hour traffic sets in on the California 95 freeway, it takes approximately six hours and 12 minutes to drive from La Habra, California to Stanford University. Ask my parents; they just did it this past weekend.
At 8:43 p.m. on Feb. 14, I received a short, automated text message telling me that my flight back to Southern California, scheduled for the next morning at 6 a.m., had just been canceled. To say that I was livid would be a grotesque understatement. I had planned this specific trip for this specific weekend to see one of my childhood best friends perform in his first professional production and to support my high school’s winter musical. I even convinced a few of my other best friends from home to join me, no doubt with my irresistible charm and annoyingly unrelenting persistence. It was supposed to be a perfect post-Valentine’s Day weekend, surrounded by familiar friends and family, a welcome escape from the woes of being single on the most lovey-dovey, doo-woppy day of the year. Irritated and disappointed to the point of moping while out at dinner for a friend’s birthday, I texted my parents the bad news. Almost exactly 12 hours later, at 7:43 a.m., I receive another short text message, only this time it’s from my mother.
We are just leaving the house right now to pick you up”
Short, simple, the last text ending with no punctuation, as if to communicate that it wasn’t a question or a command — just a fact. My parents had just left our home in Southern California to drive six hours up north to pick me up, only to drive another six-plus hours back down south to get me to my best friend’s show on time. I could see the image perfectly in my head: my barely half-awake father backing out of our unusually skinny driveway, the car automatically connecting to his phone and Stevie Wonder’s jazzy, “Overjoyed” baritone dissipating quietly into the morning air. My mother types 450 Serra Mall, Stanford, CA, 94305 into the GPS, with her favorite striped wool blanket strewn across her shoulders (she gets cold far too easily). A picture of two people in the front seat, sacrificing what was supposed to be their one day of rest during the week to get their little girl home for the weekend.
I’ve always loved cars. When I was a stubborn baby who refused to be consoled in the middle of the night, my mother would strap me into a car seat while my father drove around our neighborhood. Block after block, street corner after street corner, my parents would dutifully drive for hours until I finally fell asleep to the peaceful rhythm of the turning of the tires. “Hey, I like to drive,” my father would say whenever I asked him about it, a shy smile creeping out from the corners of his mouth.
Over the past 19 years, some of the most meaningful and intimate moments I’ve ever shared with my parents have taken place in a car. Driving to lunch after Sunday Mass with Dad, pretending that neither of us had dozed off during sermon, even though a long-established, silent system of gently nudging each other awake has kept us accountable to each other, and to God, for years now. Mom pulling up to the parking lot curb after a particularly efficient boyfriend had decided to dump me only minutes before fifth-period AP Psychology. After signing me out for a “family emergency,” she listened attentively as I re-hashed the most painful eight minutes of my life, only moving once to turn off the car’s engine, keenly aware that we would be staying put for a while.
Countless rides to rehearsals, voice lessons, spelling bees, birthday parties, school dances and auditions, yet all of them have become special to me in their own seemingly mundane ways. Every automobile adventure to the grocery store held infinite potential for family secrets to be spilled, inside jokes to be shared and much-needed (but, at the time, extremely unwelcome) life advice to be given.
The six or so hours we spent driving along the coast of California on Feb. 15, 2019 proved no different. I leaned forward through the scratch of my seat belt as I spit out the smallest details of the past six weeks, ranging from how much I loved reading the short story “Cat Person” by Kristen Roupenian for my Creative Expression in Writing class, to how empowered I’ve felt lately to be part of an all-female company for the Asian-American Theatre Project (AATP) staged reading I’m in. My parents listened, my dad shifting his gaze to meet mine in the rear-view mirror, my mother shifting her entire upper body in the passenger seat so that she could fully turn around and look me in the eye as I spoke. We laughed and swapped stories about the “good ole days” when I still lived under their roof. It hit me in a wave of nostalgia and comfort how much I’ve missed them, being close to them, seeing the expressions on their faces as I talk to them about my life.
I can usually sleep like a baby in cars — it must be something in the way the polyester seats feel as they bump up and down over the gravel roads. But, for some reason, for those six or so hours, I found it difficult to fall asleep. I guess I just didn’t want to miss another minute with the two people in the front seats.
This Parent’s Weekend, as you show your loved ones the buildings where you have your chem lab or CS 106A section, make sure to give them a hug. A kiss on the cheek. Maybe even just a smile. They’re probably tired from the drive.
Contact Justine Sombilon at jsombilo ‘at’ stanford.edu.