two little boys sit smiling in a small purple kiddie car
Nicki Gilbert's boys go for a joyride in their kiddie car.

It seems like only yesterday he was in a kiddie car

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

His short fingers rest on the steering wheel, and his chubby arms flex in delight as he turns it gently to the left. His eyes are clear and bright and he is smiling with relaxed expectation and confidence. Next to him, in the passenger seat, his baby brother clasps his own little hands together in what looks like a prayer. His brow is furrowed as he stares out the windshield. He is not quite as confident. Truth be told, he looks worried. I don’t think it has anything to do with the bright pink color of the car they’re sitting in.

I know how he feels.

I found the photo buried under a random pile of papers on my desk. It had been cut into a square, and between the not-sticky-anymore remnants of purple glue stick, I could barely make out the words “Printed by Ofoto 2005” stamped in digital letters on the back. Why it was there, loose and almost forgotten, and not in a box or drawer or glued to the paper I had obviously once stuck it on, was a mystery. But the timing of this discovery was serendipitous.

two little boys sit smiling in a small purple kiddie car
Nicki Gilbert’s boys go for a joyride in their kiddie car.

I remember that day, early summer 2005, at the zoo. No, I don’t remember that exact day … rather I remember those days during that summer when I had two boys, ages 1 and almost 4, and we would fill the hours between breakfast and nap-time with outings: to the Oakland Zoo and Little Farm in Tilden Park, Fairyland, swimming at Cull Canyon, chasing geese around Lake Merritt. The boys loved the monkeys and flamingos at the zoo, but even more than the animals they loved the train ride, the bumper cars, the brightly colored airplanes that flew round and round, up and down, in an exact circle controlled by someone else.

My oldest always made a beeline for those rides, jumping right into the driver’s seat and grabbing the wheel with purpose and both hands. He never wavered over which color car to choose, which plane might fly the highest, which horse on the carousel was the brightest. All he wanted was to go. Never afraid. Never unsure. With a steady smile, he helped his little brother settle in next to him, and made sure both their safety belts were fastened.

As soon as the ride was over, they both ran to me, wanting snacks and hugs and apple juice, needing a nap, a diaper change, guidance on what to do and where to go next.

The fingers on the steering wheel now are long and thin, the nails large and square. He bends his head to clear the door and the seat belt strains across his broad shoulders. I am the passenger now, and the smile he shoots me before hitting the ignition is as self-assured as ever. Like his brother in the photograph taken 12 years ago, I feel a little uneasy as he presses his foot onto the gas pedal and we move away from the curb.

I am nervous being a passenger with an inexperienced driver, and even more nervous that the driver is my child. I’m anxious that not only am I not able to control anything that may or may not happen in this situation, the one who is in charge is a teenager who has controlled little more than a toy robot in the backyard. Definitely never a machine as large and heavy as this, on a road with other large, heavy and often unpredictable machines.

His 10-and-2 grip is relaxed and confident as he guides the car smoothly onto the main road. We come to a gentle stop at the red light, and he clarifies that we are still going straight. I start to relax. He is never unsure. Never afraid.

Mostly I am nostalgic and a little sad that the chubby, blue-eyed boy in the bright pink car at the zoo now has a permit and is learning to drive a real car.

“Mom,” he calls out, as we both climb out 30 minutes later, home safe and sound. “Will you drive me to football practice later?” He looks tired and in need of a snack.

“Sure,” I smile.

Nicki Gilbert

Nicki Gilbert is a writer, Alcatraz swimmer and country music lover who lives in Piedmont with her husband, four kids and dachshund puppy. Her blog is RedBoots.me.