As I was driving to pick up my son from preschool today, there was a car in front of me sporting this bumper sticker:
I hadn’t seen this clip art credo in a very long time and it instantly brought to mind a series of memories with my mom. When I was a sophomore in high school, my mom was cruising through one of her longest periods of health and sobriety. She had landed a great job as a library assistant in the Engineering library at Washington University and woke each day with energy and a confidence that I had not seen before. Toward the end of this year, she decided to get her own new car.
I was excited about this purchase because it meant that we were finally get rid of the “gray clunker,” a beat-up Pontiac with peeling paint that announced its arrival a mile before coming into view. I used to cringe when my mom would roll up in the clunker to pick me up from school or a social gathering, the “clank-a-clank-clank” cueing me to cower and prepare for a quick exit. I’d slip into the car and quickly mat down my straight fine hair as it was magnetically pulled to the gray felt ceiling fabric that draped down in an unsavory undulation.
My mom was so proud of her new car. She leased a black Geo Metro from Enterprise that my friends and I lovingly named “The Ghettonugget.” This was not a derogatory term, for the little black capsule car was in great condition. Our teenage propensity for silliness just reveled in the image of my quirky mom bouncing around town in the sleek little bauble car. My mom called it “the Bean,” a slightly more sophisticated epithet. After she got proper license plates for the car, she removed the plastic Enterprise advertisement plates and put them in a scrapbook. On the bottom of the plastic vinyl plates she used a black Sharpie to write, “My first car leased with my very own credit.”
Shortly after adopting her little black nugget car, my mom bought a fairly large Darwin fish bumper sticker which she centered beneath the sloping hatchback door. If I’m honest, I was amused at my mom’s desire to personalize and even politicize her new symbol of self-security. However there was a part of me that was frustrated by her forum for free expression. Now that I had my driver’s license, the Geo Metro had become my borrowed mode of transportation, a chariot of mobility that helped me navigate my social ladder. While I had never had any qualms about being raised by two hippy Atheists, I longed to fit in with the classic suburban Christian families that engendered by peer group. Most of my friends had “Young Life” decals stretched across their back windshields, advertising their allegiance to the hottest Jesus-centered in-crowd around. I drove around with a decal that at best denounced creationism and at worst mocked a sacred symbol of Christianity.
I don’t recall that the Darwin fish sticker came up in many of my social encounters. I think the self-consciouness mostly resided in my own head as I played tug-of-war with allegiance to my family’s values and a desire to weave myself into the unwrinkled fabric of suburbia. I think I probably headed off my own discomfort a few times by making comments like, “Oh, you know my silly mother.” or “You know my dad was a science major- he’s a big Evolution and Genetics guy.” I just wanted that sticker to make another statement than “She comes from a heathen family. They’re different and weird and dysfunctional.” I even parked that car in the church parking lot every Sunday evening when I attended Agape, the youth group that 5 of my best friends were deeply attached to. While I was an unlikely youth group candidate, I could not bear to be the only one of our crew missing out on sessions of flashlight tag, summer-camp style service trips, and opportunities to hold hands with your guy friends during the prayer circle. To be fair, I got a lot more out of my youth group experience than opportunities for fun and flirtation. It gave me an opportunity to explore my own spirituality and deepened friendships that I still cherish today, but that Darwin fish always stood guard as a threat to my quest for assimilation.
When I saw that Darwin decal today, it made me smile and feel thankful for my parents’ individuality and disregard for homogeny. Two of my parents’ classic lines were “Question everything, Erica.” along with the question they asked me almost every time I ventured out on my own, whether for an evening at the movies or for a semester at college: “Who is going to take care of you?” The correct answer to this parting question was always, “Me. I will take care of me.” It was their way of teaching me the importance of self-reliance and standing firm upon your own values. I would say that is worth the teenage angst of a Darwin fish sticker swimming in a sea of model Christian souls.