My mother, Nurse Vivian, didn’t get her driver’s license until the 1960s. And then she drove a secondhand red Chevrolet station wagon, the kind with fins. I tended to get carsick in the backseat, so to keep me busy, she paid me a penny for every car I saw with a Pennsylvania license plate, a nickel for Florida and a quarter for states west of the Mississippi. This is how I learned geography.
During our first years in San Francisco, Brian and I survived on mass transportation. We lived near the J train line, and because the J takes so long to get anywhere, I had lots of time to read Hemingway and Faulkner. But then we moved to the outer, outer, outer Excelsior, where the 43 stops only occasionally, and because of all the jobs, and the children, we became car people.
The Fisher-Paulsons play two car games. The first is Calling Cars. It started with Punch Buggies, but that got too rough, and it became this thing that when one of the boys sees a muscular car, he says, “I call that car.” At first, it was a competition to see who could call the faster, sleeker, bigger autos. I actually do try to focus on driving, so I didn’t compete — until one day, Zane whispered, “Daddy and I call that yellow Dodge!” followed a second later by Aidan shouting, “Daddy and I call that red Corvette!”
Papa almost never calls a car, but when he does, it’s a Lamborghini.
This is the story I share in therapy: One morning, after a breakfast fight wherein one of them threw a pancake into the dog’s bowl, when Brian and I had given up hope of either son ever treating his sibling like a brother, we got into the Kipcap, and as we drove across Geneva, Aidan took Zane’s hand and said, “Do you want to call that red Mustang with me?”
Now no one wins Call That Car. No one loses.
The second game starts with Mitzi. Mitzi’s real name is Maisy. She’s a rescue dog, mainly schnauzer, who lives up the block with two very kind Polish sisters whom my sons call Aunt JJ and Aunt Helene. Aunt JJ looks a lot like Mitzi Gaynor. They also have a rescue cat named Mopsy.
Aunt Helene taught me how to change a colostomy bag, and Aunt JJ brings me kapusta (sauerkraut and mushrooms) every Christmas. Neither of them has ever forgotten the boys’ birthdays or First Holy Communions.
Mitzi, the dog, that is, likes to sleep in their window.
Zane goes to Denman Middle School and Aidan still goes to St. John’s, and so the drive home in our little Prius is spent with the boys trying to convince me that I like hip-hop and me trying to convince them that they like NPR. But we always drive west on Baltimore Street, two blocks out of the way, and play Mitzi in the Window.
It’s very simple: Guess whether the hound will be in Aunt JJ’s window or not.
Aidan always guesses “in.” Zane always guesses “out.” Papa always says, “I’m waiting to be inspired.” And then, just before we turn the final corner, he says, “Out.”
Took me a while to realize that these guesses were statements of faith. Aidan says “in” because he believes that Mitzi, like God, like love, like his daddies, will always be in the window, waiting for him.
Zane will always say “out” because he believes that although Mitzi loves her home, she loves adventure more, and is always looking for one more car to chase, one more cat to conquer.
Papa says, “I’m waiting to be inspired” because he believes that dancing and parenting are leaps of faith and that out there in the universe, some force is waiting to inspire or breathe life into his spirit.
And me? I go back and forth: In or out? Out or in? And even though I cannot tell Mitzi from Maisy or Mopsy, I say “in” just to even out the vote. In that way, two of us always win, two of us lose, but all of us are together.
Might not get a quarter out of it, but that’s what truly matters.
This article was originally published in the San Francisco Chronicle under the title Family games where no one loses. It is re-published with permission.