There’s this old Polaroid of my mom, my sister and me from 1981. Inside its square frame, I’m sitting on my Flash Gordon Big Wheel. The colors are muted, but my hair is a vibrant orange. I was four years old. My sister was two. My mom was the kind of young you don’t ever remember your mom being. Like a lot of kids born in the Star Wars era, my Big Wheel was my ticket to freedom, a plastic gem that gave me the means to forage through our suburban neighborhood on my own.
The sidewalk was my highway. My pedals knew one speed: fast. And one direction: forward.
Rolling low to the ground, I was a three-wheeled missile with streamers on my handle bars and plastic hand-break on my rear wheel if the ride got too scary. There are a lot things I miss from that old Polaroid when I look at it today. These days my hair is more grey than orange; a mix I like to call salt and tomato. My Big Wheel is a relic that exists only in pictures. But the thing I miss my most from that snapshot is my mom. She died a few years ago. Those of us who miss her still think she was young. I have a daughter now. She’s about the same age that I was in that Polaroid. Like me at that age, she likes to ride around our neighborhood. She’s not quite ready to venture off by herself, and enjoys it when her dad rides with her. I built my homemade Big Wheel out of spare parts so I could chase her while she’ll still let me. Someday she won’t want me to ride with her. Like me at that age, she’ll want to take off on her own, and I’ll understand. We can only hear about what it’s like to go around the block for so long. Eventually we have to conquer suburbia’s winding sidewalk on a solo mission. I get that. The other night I took my homemade Big Wheel out for a cruise. It was after dark. The street lights were on, which meant the kids in the neighborhood had been called home. The sidewalk was mine, and so I rode. Alone. I rode like the world was new. Like no one was watching. Low to the ground as if to stay below middle age’s radar, I hugged turns like a kid who’s never fallen and felt the sobering sting of asphalt. I cruised like a child who’s never crashed and doesn’t realize the road won’t always be so smooth and forgiving. I loved every second of it. When the ride was through, I parked my Big Wheel in the garage and promptly returned to a middle aged adult. My legs were sore. My back ached. I was sweating. But I remembered what it was like to be the kid with the bright orange hair in that Polaroid from 1981. I would have called my mom and told about all the things I’d finally come to understand. But, you know what? I think she gets it.