A Writer Finds Unexpected Wisdom in the Backseat of Her Family Van
Right away I found a few dozen rogue French fries in a seat-belt well. I thought I'd done a decent job tidying up after my eldest child's snack times, but the fries just kept coming, like a magician's scarf. The van didn't mind my son's food messes, and neither did I. Born 17 years ago with brain damage and a misfiring pancreas, Noah took meals through a feeding tube his first ten years. Many said it would be that way for life. But all those trips to the feeding clinic had paid off with a kid who could lose French fries in a backseat. Hallelujah, and pass the salt packets.
Under the seats I found a sandy swimsuit, still wet from the beach, left to fester, balled atop Goodnight Moon. Most 17-year-olds don't adore that book. Mine does. This copy was number 20 or so; time to buy another.
Photo: Courtesy of Holly Peterson
I rediscovered a hoard of Devonian-era fossils—coral, cephalopods, brachiopods—that Noah had unearthed one happy day at a quarry back in Iowa. He'd sat in the dirt laughing as he dribbled gravel onto his head by the handful. I hadn't realized we'd been hauling these rocks around a few years and a dozen states later.
We'd moved to California to get therapy for Noah after our Iowa insurance company denied it. He'd needed help. He'd get upset for reasons nobody understood. He bit his arm, hit his head. In Iowa, I hawked wares at garage sales to raise money for the therapy that would calm and protect him. When my husband landed a job out West with better insurance, the choice to leave our lifelong home was easy, even if we knew it would be lonely. Noah would have what he needed. This comforted me as we made the trip cross-country, our van the one place that still felt like home.
Photo: Courtesy of Holly Peterson
Now I discovered a lost pair of glasses; a sheet of gleefully popped bubble wrap; torn book pages; one of the only remaining pieces of my wedding silverware, nestled in a yogurt cup. I glanced for the last time at the Bird of Wisdom, which is what my children call the hole in the van's ceiling. It was born when my younger son, 4 at the time, found a tiny rift in the upholstery, into which he stuffed his foam sword up to the hilt.
"What are you doing?!" I gasped.
"It's my scabbard, Mom, in case I need my sword in an instant," he said.
With time, the hole had sagged into the shape of a beak, which he named the Bird of Wisdom. The beak spoke to my kids. I'd hear them giggling, squawking in birdlike voices.
Somehow I didn't think the Bird of Wisdom would add trade-in value. And as I spent three weeks failing to surrender the van, our beloved Smell on Wheels, to the dealership, I realized that whatever we got for her would be too little. She belonged to us, and we to her. She'd kept us safe when safety was what we needed.
So we renamed her the Beach Van and added a new blue van to the fleet. The Beach Van waits for sunny days, a repository for adventures, the history of the Earth—in fossil form—and this family. Its million memories are present, alive, accessible via a glide of the sliding door.
In a few years, we'll have an emptyish nest for three: Noah, my husband, me. I don't know how to navigate this next stage. But I've got a mentor who's always ready with a useful lesson: With a sword in your scabbard, you're prepared for anything. Wisdom is found in surprising places, like bird beaks. Keep a copy of Goodnight Moon. Keep the faith. Keep moving.
Holly Peterson is currently writing a memoir. She lives in San Jose.