When my sisters and I were kids, there was no more heated battle than who got to ride in the front seat on the way to school. Being the oldest, I felt this provided me an unspoken entitlement to the position. Nope. Our dad let left it to whoever called it first. To some extent this method lacked in fairness to the youngest siblings; they never had a chance, always too slow or forgetful to pose much of a threat to the all-out war raging between me and their older sister for front-seat supremacy.
To the victor went the spoils along with twenty minutes of having their ears flicked by the loser sitting right behind them. After getting my driver’s license, the front seat issue no longer applied, and I suppose it would’ve been a nice thing to implement my “oldest-up-front” policy, but it was too much fun watching the two older sisters duke it out. With my kids, it’s a different story.
As the saying goes, “rank has its privileges,” and being the oldest equates to rank in the sibling Army means front-seat privileges. (This also eliminates any needless bickering during the drive.) Of course, of my five kids, only my oldest son meets the requirements for legally riding in the front, but on short runs (less than a couple miles), I’ll let my oldest stepdaughter, Allie sit up with me even though she’s a few pounds short of the weight limit. At seven, Allie is almost as tall as ten-year old Noah, and I already cringe at the thought of how much attention she’s going to attract from slimy upperclassmen in high school. Still, the “who-rides-in-the-front” argument isn’t much of a problem since my boys live away from me, leaving Allie to win by default. Yet it’s a perk that meant more to her than I realized.
This summer on our family vacation to Pennsylvania, all five kids were together, and following my seating rule, I let Noah sit up with me on trips without my wife. No one made much of deal out of it, being content to carry on in the back of the minivan, behavior that remained unchanged on an excursion to the movies: Noah talked my leg off, the rest bounced off the windows. After the show, however, as the others filed out of the theatre, Allie lagged behind like she wanted to say something to me.
Her request caught me off guard. I wasn’t prepared for a situation where my affections for my children might be perceived as greater than for my stepchildren. Yes, I knew this was a common issue in blended families, but I didn’t expect it come up in something this small.
To replace Noah with Allie would’ve signaled that he had been replaced, an idea he’s already sensitive over. And to leave him up front could reinforce the concern on Allie’s face, that I didn’t love her as much when my boys were around. An obvious solution might have been to let neither up front, but to me it felt like I would’ve been skirting things, leaving the real questions unanswered for both children.
Getting down on a knee, I took Allie by the shoulders and reminded her of all those days where just the two of us got ice cream, or went to the comic book store or the toy store. “Those are our special times,” I said. “If the boys lived with us then we would still do that—just you and me.” I watched her eyes become less anxious. “The boys and I only get a couple of weeks a year to see each other. That’s a short time for me do special things with them, but just because it seems like I’m paying more attention to them doesn’t mean I don’t love you less when they are around, sweetie.”
She nodded her head. Then I gave her a big hug and told her we’d do all kinds of stuff when we got back where she could ride in the front seat by herself. My reassurance was sincere, but there was a sick pit that grew in my stomach as I herded my crew out to the van where they climbed into their normal spots and picked up right where they left off. Even Noah continued finished the sentenced he had abruptly cut off earlier as if he had disappeared and then reappeared a few hours later without realizing it. As he went on, I winked at Allie in the rearview mirror. She smiled back.
I wasn’t in the greatest of moods, not to mention being wore out from my recent bout of insomnia. I wasn’t keen on the idea, but gave into her big expectant eyes anyway.
“Can I sit up front too?”
“Sure. Fine. Whatever floats your boat, kid.”
During the whole ride, Allies yacked on and on, transitioning from subject to subject without the slightest hint of a period, and turning on the radio proved futile in slowing her down. For a run-of-the mill errand she acted as if it were the time of her life. Seeing her so excited reminded me of the moment on the theater steps.
“Yeah, I know,” she replied as if to say, what did you expect.
“I love you.”
“Yeah, I know. I love you too.” She wore a fat grin. “Can I get ice cream?”
“A Hannah Montana magazine?”
“No.” But once we were in store, I let her push the cart and pick out her favorite pizza for dinner.