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“My cows,” announces my daughter.
From the passenger seat she is staring absently out the window at the lush farmland clipping by. Her bare leg is pulled up tight on the seat and her head rests on her knee.
If I let her she would dangle her feet out open the window and let them plow the warm summer air as I drive.
We shoot past a large gentle herd chewing grass, swatting flies, being cows. There are too many to count. So she claims them all as her own.
It has been a long time since she played games in the car to pass the time. When she was little she would compete with me to accumulate punch buggies as I drove her to distant soccer tournaments or lacrosse games. But now, this opening gambit feels more like a last chance effort to share something that we both understand is quickly rushing past us.
She drives herself now. My life as a parental chauffeur is at its end.
Still, here we are on a road trip with a six hour drive ahead of us. After an exhausting week of college visits, we are traveling northward home through the verdant Shenandoah Valley. The landscape is rolling and green and perfect. The quaint farmhouses and flowing stone fences in our line of sight are like miniature models waiting for a long and lazy HO train to thread by.
I don’t get to spend time alone with my daughter much anymore. As a smart and talented 17 year old she is naturally restless, and at her age I represent more of a social cage than a co-conspirator of independence. She would rather spend time with her friends than with me.
I get that. I am old, out of touch, and the one who says no. I wouldn’t want to be around me either.
But here, alone in the car for hours, we can let down our guard. I ask her questions and she answers honestly without suspicion of judgment. She asks me questions and I answer honestly because she really wants to know what I think.
We listen to music and talk about the future, the present, big things, small things. We talk about college.
She can’t possibly know how much I love and respect her. She wouldn’t believe me. Because as her dad, I lose credibility quickly. When she asks me what music I listened to when I was her age I feel compelled to embark on a tedious oral discography of classic rock.
By the time I have gotten to Free Bird she has gone to sleep. So I turn off the music and get lost in my thoughts to the droning thrum of tires beneath me.
For long stretches at a time a flickering silent movie of mile markers on the side of the road is the only sense of change I feel. But occasionally the road signs, like metal weeds, grow taller and more dense and invite me to arrive somewhere.
The next exit is One Bar Road, but I don’t slow down. Not even Verizon has been here.
“My cow!” I yell excitedly.
My daughter opens her eyes to look. Next to a rust colored barn rushing toward us stands one lonely cow. She throws her head back and laughs out loud at my pathetic attempt to play in her league.
Then, as we near an exit for Trinity Church Pike toward the town of Leesburg, a white cross atop a clapboard church with green shutters appears briefly through a glen to the right before being swallowed up by the dense trees as we pass.
“Marry my cows!” blurts my daughter.
According to the rules of the game she has doubled her stock by marrying them before the church she has just spotted.
At this point, the only way I can possibly beat her is to spy a cemetery where I have the right to kill all of her cows and start anew. It seems a little harsh, but surely I can locate a plot of lilting head stones behind a picket fence somewhere in this quaint rustic landscape.
We grow silent again, watching the peaceful beauty pass by. Soon she is resting with her head against the window again, eyes closed.
I see things a little more clearly when I drive. In a year from now I will be traveling the other way on a road like this to drop her off at college. She will say goodbye and it will be a very lonely ride back home.
I had better get used to it.
Ahead I see a small cemetery resting on a meadow next to a farmhouse.
But I don’t say anything.
It is time to let her cows go.
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