Every month or so, my fiancée, Chantel, and I take the kids to the outskirts of Windsor to visit my parents. And each time I do, I know my dad will figure out a way to wash my car. He never really asks to do it. Instead, I’ll be out at the pool and maybe remember that I left my sunglasses in the centre console, then I’ll head out to the driveway and there he is, a successful sexagenarian lawyer, on his hands and knees pushing the vacuum cleaner around the back seat.
“What are you doing?” I’ll say, and he’ll mumble something about just tidying up.
My car can get pretty messy. Choose your post-apocalyptic trash-strewn urban tableau and, yup, that’s about the scene in my back seat. One time I let a spilled smoothie fester there until it was maybe 10 minutes from becoming sentient. Right now, there’s a banana-bran muffin on the passenger side that’s the approximate consistency of volcanic rock. I swivel my head from behind the wheel and it looks like somebody stuck an M-80 in a McDonald’s trash bin.
And why not? For the whole summer, I’ve transported a five-year-old and a seven-year-old to weekly soccer practices, birthday parties, off-road bike rides, cottage sleepovers, and one extended camping trip to Sandbanks Provincial Park, now called “Banks” Provincial Park because we brought all the sand back with us on the floor of the car.
I try to keep the car clean. I do. I make it a priority, even. Except it gets outranked by all my other priorities, like making sure my kids get fed, have clean clothes, and are relatively punctual for extracurricular activities.
And so my dad cleans my car for me. I’ve considered whether I should be insulted by this. Viewed one way, he’s emasculating me. My father washing my ride is a gesture that says, “Son, your messy car is letting down all us other guys, so I’m going to help you man up by cleaning it for you.” He may as well offer to retie my tie.
But he and I are dealing with two different modes of masculinity. When he was raising me, the state of a man’s car meant something. At least, it did in our family. My mom drove the era’s family transporter, which graduated from station wagon to minivan to SUV. And my dad got to drive the cars my folks used when they went out for dinners, those two-door coupes, the most memorable of which dates back to the ’80s—a midnight-black GTA Trans Am, a grumbling muscle car my siblings and I set foot in only rarely. And when we did, we behaved ourselves, because it was an occasion, because it meant we were spending time with our dad. We certainly didn’t smear a Tim Hortons cream-cheese bagel all over the back of the driver’s seat, as my daughter recently did in my car.
Instead of feeling embarrassed by its condition, though, I’ve decided to embrace the strange smells and the difficult-to-identify smears. In a perverse way, I’m proud of the furry substance growing in the crease by the armrest. Because all that grime reflects the extent to which I’m engaged in the kids’ upbringing. It shows that I’m participating in the new family reality—the one that sees guys handling the same childcare responsibilities that women do.
If that means my dad feels the need to clean out my car every time I arrive at his place for a visit, well, so be it. And as we leave my folks’ house, my kids, my fiancée, and I will enjoy our newly gleaming ride—for the two or three minutes it lasts.