75. Stoplight Fire Drill

75. Stoplight Fire Drill

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Family Matters


Stoplight Fire Drill

Right now, my daughter’s just rolling her eyes at everything I do; I’m just an embarrassment.

~Elizabeth Perkins

There is a point in a teenager’s life when parents become annoying and embarrassing by dancing at parties at home or just by being parents. When my mother got on the stoplight fire drill kick—jumping out of the car at stoplights, running around the car and jumping back inside—all I wanted to do was crawl under the seats. I was a dignified teenager and far too mature for silly games. Mom should have been more dignified and mature, but she wasn’t, and that little bit of fun came back to bite her in the backside.

The Saturday before Memorial Day in 1970 when I was fifteen, we piled into the car to drive up to Alger, Ohio to the cemetery where my Uncle Jack, who had served in the Navy, was buried. My younger siblings, Carol, Jimmy and Tracy, cousins, Lonnie, Dave and Earl, and I were spread over all three seats of the station wagon. I was in the back seat with my brother and youngest sister, Carol in the front with Mom and the cousins in the third seat facing traffic.

We stopped for the light at the corner of Sullivant and Burgess on our way out of town and Mom called, “Stoplight fire drill.” Everyone jumped out of the car, raced around and dove back in just when the light turned green, everyone except me. People in the cars around us laughed and pointed and I wanted to die, slumping lower and lower in the seat, a hand propped up in the window to hide my face.

“Mom, why can’t you be normal? Why can’t you act like other mothers?”

“You need to loosen up and have fun.” Mom kept driving and everyone teased me about being a drag.

“Yeah, it’s fun,” Jimmy said. “Everyone laughs and points. They like it.”

“They’re laughing at us. Probably think we’re insane.” He didn’t know any better. He was only ten.

Mom called two more fire drills at small towns we passed through, one when we stopped for gas and another at a stoplight across from the fire station. I stayed in the car until we stopped at a rest stop for my brother to go to the bathroom.

“Why didn’t you go before we left?”

“Didn’t have to,” he said.

When Jimmy returned, Mom yelled, “Fire drill. Three times around the car.”

Lonnie tried to coax me out. “I’m not getting out.”

“Oh, yes you are, miss. There’s no one here,” my mother said.

Another car pulled into the slot next to ours. “What about them?”

“We’ll never see them again.”

My cousins tugged and urged and finally dragged me out and hauled me around the car three times. I grabbed for the door every time I passed it, but Mom helped them pull me around. When the boys dove into the back, they let me go and I walked the rest of the way to the open door and got in. My face was red, not from exertion, but from shame.

The people in the car next to ours goggled open-mouthed as though watching the antics of lunatics. The woman rolled up her window and locked the door, probably afraid we’d try to drag her out of the car to join us. Mom took her time getting into the car and catching her breath. She started the car, backed out and cheerily waved, then drove off.

When we got to the cemetery, I helped unload the flowers. Every other year Mom’s parents came with us, but Grandma had to work and Grandpa seldom went anywhere without her. For the first time I could remember, we decorated the graves without them.

A few other people meandered along the rows of headstones in the old cemetery where Mom claimed the teenagers used to go parking. “It was fun,” she insisted. I shuddered. The idea of kissing a boy in a cemetery felt creepy.

“How about another fire drill?” My brother turned hopeful eyes on my mother.

“Not here. It’s disrespectful.”

So, I thought, there were limits.

A car drove past us and parked a few feet farther up the road. It looked familiar. “Mom, didn’t you say we’d never see those people again?” I pointed at the car and the man and woman walking toward us.

Mom shaded her eyes from the sun and watched them approach. “Oh, Lordy,” she said.

Not only did we see them again, but she knew them, had grown up and gone to school with them. It was Mom’s turn to be embarrassed. I smiled and leaned up against the car with my arms crossed.

Mom called me over and introduced me to her old neighbors. The other people didn’t mention our fire drill at the rest stop. Neither did Mom. She acted as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened. They reminisced about Uncle Jack and caught up on family gossip. They asked about my grandparents and Mom asked about their parents.

“Here they come now.” Their parents had been in the back seat of the car with two young children.

Mom’s cheeks flushed bright red. I did not doubt the story would get back to my grandparents and to everyone in town. Grandpa had been the mayor and the sheriff. Her cheeks might stay red for a while.

On the way home, there were no more fire drills, and there were no more ever again. Mom had finally outgrown them.

~J.M. Cornwell

More stories from our partners