23 September 2014
A few years back, my daughter, Devin, then age 8, stopped talking to me after school. “How was your day, honey?” I’d ask as she climbed into the backseat. “Good.” “What did you do?” “Nothing.” “Nothing?” “Nothing.” “But it was good?” “Yessssss, Mommy.”
The more I lobbed questions her way, the more she shut down, either staring out the window or answering with a grumpy “Mommy, stop.” As we drove home, the only sound was the turn signal’s occasional click-click, click-click, click-click.
Was it a stage? Had she outgrown talking?
I worried, of course. Had something happened at school? I talked to my mom friends and learned many of us were in the same — extremely quiet — boat. I stopped quizzing her and simply played chauffeur, saying little more than “Hi, honey,” and “Bye. Love you.” Days and weeks passed; I grew sad and frustrated. We spent so much time in the car; it was the ideal place to catch up. How could I fill, or fix, the silence?
The solution arrived unexpectedly, born out of all that silent staring out of the window…
We live in Southern California, a place rife with Volkswagen Beetles, or bugs, as many folks (including my family) call them. There’s the yellow bug that’s always parked at the supermarket, the pale blue convertible bug by the soccer field, and three bugs crowding a driveway near school. Add in the bugs zipping through traffic, and there’s a lot to spot.
That’s what inspired our version of Punch Buggy, with some hard-and-fast rules that Devin made up. Upon spotting a bug, you call out its color, then one of three words for what it’s doing: “go,” “slow,” or “stopped.” So “white bug stopped” means a parked white bug.
Then, other players (me) say it back: “White bug stopped.” This applies only if you can spot the bug. Miss it, and you’re forced to say a mere “bug.” I was often the loser.
But as my competitive streak kicked in, I got better. We vied to spot bugs hidden behind hedges or sandwiched between SUVs. We even compared notes. We agreed the lavender model with flower-shaped headlights was super-cute. Over time, what started as a silly game somehow got us talking about things besides bugs: homework, friends, life.
As time has passed, Devin, now 12, has replaced the game’s action words with a color code, making it a little trickier. Red, for example, now means “stopped.” “Black convertible bug red,” she says, seconds after she hops in the car at school pickup.
I scan the street for a few frantic seconds before giving up. “Bug.”
“Mommy, it was right there. Didn’t you see it?”
“Missed it. Shoot.”
“Across the street. Oh, and Mommy, you wouldn’t believe how much math work I have. Mrs. Ota says assessment tests are next week, so we’re doing everything today and tomorrow. It’s so much.” She barely takes a breath before launching in again. “Did I tell you Sara got a puppy?”
The happy chatter drowns out the click-click, click-click, click-click of the turn signal as we head home.