Oh, the things we’ll never know as parents!

My first true sense of freedom included a Coca Cola Slurpee in hand, windows down, blaring ’80s tunes. I cruised down I-80 like a boss with a glossy new driver’s license in hand. On that day, I launched into the world, I was captain of my own destiny. It all started out exactly as I imagined it would, so it made complete sense to pile a few friends in and head directly into the heart of New York City. The decisions of a 17-year-old Sandy are befuddling.

Did my parents know? No. Was I forthcoming with where I was going? Not exactly. There were no “Find my Child” apps back then. Compared to today, it was the wild west.

No road atlas, GPS or Siri to rely on; just a car full of teenagers exploring the world. As north Jersey girls, we had all been to Manhattan, but our parents drove and we had no concept of where things were. Therefore, we headed toward the Lincoln Tunnel where we were met with 40 minutes of obnoxious traffic. Our spirits were still high, so we blew off the inconvenience and laughed our way to the other side. Lo and behold, we stumbled upon Times Square and all of its glitz.

While my friends stared out the windows, pointed at and commented on everything, I tried to focus on driving—and the jaywalkers, blinking red and yellow lights, horns and whistles, aggressive taxi drivers, hurried business people, car window cleaners and all the chaos of NYC. I noticed my knuckles grip the wheel so tightly they began to stiffen. I wiped away the droplets on my temples.

“Turn left. Wait, that’s a one-way!”

“Watch that person there!”

“Turn right here. Quick, quick—ah, we missed it!”

“Can we stop for pizza?”

“Yeah, park over there. Wait, that’s not a spot.”

I weaved through the streets of Manhattan, never stopping until I couldn’t take it any longer. It was getting dark and I needed out of the cacophony of the city. I came upon a lane where there were no cars, blinking lights or people. It was called the FDR. The FDR (Franklin Delano Roosevelt Drive) gave me the “open road” I needed. Except now, I had no clue which way we were heading. I started seeing signs for Harlem. One thing I knew, Harlem is not filled with the fun-loving, basketball dribbling men who made you laugh with their globetrotting shenanigans. Quite the opposite. A car full of 17-year-old girls should not get lost in Harlem. It became obvious we were moving further away from New Jersey. I had to make a U-turn at the next exit—The Bronx, known for its lovely zoo and high crime rate.

The car quiets. We’re not in Kansas anymore. Doors lock, eyes stay forward. Stoplights increase my heart rate. Tears peak the corners of my eyes; I want my mommy. Everyone in the car is looking for a road out, a highway or bridge that will take us expressly home. Slurpees are finished and rolling about the floor of the car. Someone has to go to the bathroom…. 

Then we see it, like a lighthouse beacon on a tumultuous ocean: I-95, the good ol’ New Jersey Turnpike—our ticket home. If you were born in NJ, you know the Turnpike will get you to your exit. At the last red light before we enter the pike, we are approached by several homeless-looking people. They were probably just begging for money, but at the time, I was certain they were looking to rob or murder us. I slam on the gas, blow through the red light and find our safety on the glorious NJ Turnpike. The breath we were all holding finally released. We were home in time for my mother’s famous lasagna.

That’s the thing—my mother knew nothing. She just served us up a delicious birthday dinner with all my favorites while asking how my day went.

When my second teenager received his driver’s license, the only thing I heard was an exasperated, “Finally.” He passed his driver’s test back in December, but due to Covid’s wicked ways, he couldn’t actually physically get his license until the middle of January. His smile in the classic “Look who’s driving!” picture was so lackluster that I didn’t even want to share it. I didn’t see the thrill of freedom in his eyes as I experienced decades ago. Rather, he just hopped in his car, put some loud rap music on, nodded his head and drove off. Where was he going? Should I always know? Probably not.

I’m pretty sure my son’s first day with his license was not as eventful as mine. I made senseless decisions like the NYC adventure, and if my kids are anything like me, they are going to do stupid things too. As a parent, I am now relegated to the worry side of adventure. How well did I teach them right from wrong? How extreme will their idiotic decisions be?

Nothing prepared me for raising teenagers. There are all sorts of books and websites on raising babies and toddlers. All that goes out the window when you’re in the trenches. It gets messy. Who knows what battles are worth fighting? I’m just hoping we all make it through these years alive. Keeping on top of teens gets so tiring. Maybe it’s better not to know everything and keep an eye out for red flags? After all, I only shared my NYC shenanigans with my mom about 8 years ago. Her mouth dropped open as I laughed about the absolute absurdity of it all. A whisper of anger washed over her until I had her giggling with me. I pray that I Iearn of my kids’ mischief over a cup of tea as I rock my grandchildren to sleep one day.