The Shaggin’ Wagon
By Catherine Sutherland
Everyone believes that his or her mother is the most embarrassing. I scoff at their petty attempts to top my mother. She was bred to embarrass. She comes from a family of loud-singin’, brewski-drinkin’, peanut-shellin’, shrimpin’ and crabbin’ Southerners. I spent my summers of elementary school hiding under the tables of crab shacks and seafood houses, attempting to camouflage myself as a peanut shell. I would sit under the tables hoping that when I climbed up to eat my fried shrimp some normal people would have replaced the lunatics that I call my family.
It was inconceivable for me to be in public with Mary Capitola King Sutherland and not be embarrassed. She would march into the freakishly cold and sterile-lit farmers’ market wearing her favorite jean shorts from the Salvation Army and flip-flops from Kroger on a mission to get the freshest pork chops and greenest artichoke. I would cower next to the lobster tank as she interrogated the Albanian butcher about when the meat was delivered. Once, while visiting a monastery in France, she tested the acoustics of the monks’ dining hall by singing, as loud as she could, the highest note her classically trained vocal cords could hit. Having mastered the art of camouflage, I dove into the nearest hedge and hid there until she threatened to do it again on top of the Eiffel Tower.
My mother knew that she had a special talent for embarrassing her daughter. Yet, she did not change her vivacious personality to make me feel more comfortable. She knew my strategies. When I would walk five feet ahead of her in the canyons of grocery aisles, she knew that it was not because I was bursting with anticipation to get my Waffle Crisp.
She never hesitated to call me out by shouting, “SNOOKER! YOUR WAFFLE CRISP IS OVER HERE! QUIT TRYING TO PRETEND THAT YOU DON’T KNOW ME!”
When I spun around to give her the death stare, the amused smirk on her face would make me realize how childish I was acting. I walked back to her and stood behind the metal grocery cart with my head down, pretending that something incredibly fascinating was on the floor. I felt as though someone must have revealed my clever strategy. She would just wrap her warm arms around my shoulders covered in goose bumps and ask me what cereal she thought Daddy would like.
Now, I could handle the embarrassment at her family’s gatherings on the dock. Sitting on the secluded dock above cloudy South Carolina inlet waters was fine. The egrets and crabs that roamed the green and muddy marsh at dusk did not judge me. I would sit on the splinter-giving, wooden benches that wrap around the dock and watch my family toss back their heads in laughter. The occasional boat that passed our dock would slow down to marvel at how one dock could produce so much noise. I was not worried then; I knew they would not recognize me at the Piggly Wiggly. But, I was worried they would recognize my mother’s car.
There is nothing likeable about a 1994 wood-paneled Chevrolet station wagon. I hated that car. I hated the beige cloth interior that matched the paint job and the collage of haphazardly placed bumper stickers on the trunk. (A personal favorite of mine is the one from my all-girls camp that says, “Girl, leave that boyfriend at home!”) I hated sitting in the back seat, the “leather” stuck to my legs as I tried to hold down my lunch. The front seat was worse. If I was really unlucky, which was often, I had to sit between the driver and the passenger. Because of so many trips to the inlet for family/lunatic reunions, the car permanently stunk of saltwater and marsh bog. The windows were not tinted, which made it intolerably hot in the summer and, worst of all, people could see me in the car.
The car, or Shaggin’ Wagon as my friends dubbed it, was somewhat tolerable until I realized that it, and my mother, would pick me up from my new school. I was going to be the new kid at an elite private school and having a Shaggin’ Wagon wait in the carpool line alongside chrome Range Rovers and black Escalades was not my idea of making a good impression.
I walked into the roasting heat of an Atlanta August to the carpool line, desperately hoping that my new acquaintances would be oblivious to my mother’s car. My hopes were dashed when they saw my mother’s car and my mother standing next to it. Her wild auburn hair glistened with sweat. She was in her yard clothes that were covered in dirt, with our dog, Kelly, who was going to the bathroom on the perfectly groomed lawn of my school.
“Ha-ha. Look at that lady,” said one of my new friends. “That is hilarious.”
“Ha-ha… yeah,” I replied, mortified.
I ran back into the school, pretending I had forgotten something. I hid in the bathroom for about ten minutes, making sure that all of my new friends had left with their Burberry clad, Barbie-clone mothers who sat in their cars blasting the air-conditioning. When I finally walked over to my mother’s car, I could not help but clench my fists and scowl with rage.
“MOM! WHY ARE YOU DRESSED LIKE THAT! WHY DID YOU BRING KELLY? THIS IS SO EMBARRASSING! YOUR CAR IS SO FREAKIN’ UGLY!”
I ignored the crushed look on her face. She had been sitting in the heat for an hour excitedly waiting to hear about my new school. She brought Kelly thinking it would ease any leftover nerves. She liked her car. It pulled the boat to the inlet, had comfortable seats, and got great gas mileage. She had picked it out of the dealership lot herself.
I yanked open the door, threw myself in, and slammed it shut. My mother stood like a statue next to the car. She looked like someone had just beaten her. I stared forward with my arms crossed.
“Can we go now?” I snapped. “I am so hungry!”
Through a forced smile my mother replied, “Sure, honey. How was your day? What would you like to eat? Did you meet anyone you liked? Do you want to go to the pool? I brought you your bathing suit.”
I would like to say that this was a one-time occurrence, but I guess I can’t have everything I would like. My mother did not pick me up every day. I had a carpool that I rode with. It was easier being dropped off in a Suburban. But, I dreaded the days that it was my mother’s turn to drive. I often made jokes to the other kids who rode with us about how sorry I was that they had to be subjected to such unjust torture. They laughed along, but really couldn’t care less if they showed up to school in a Shaggin’ Wagon. My poor mother just sat in the front pretending to listen to NPR.
The Shaggin’ Wagon remained a sensitive subject throughout middle school and the early years of high school. My father, aware of my agonizing embarrassment, derided me for being so touchy about something as dumb as a car. I was always relieved when his burgundy Mercedes pulled up to the sidewalk. I leaned back in the front seat, happy not to be in the Shaggin’ Wagon, and ignored his remarks about my outrageous and hurtful behavior. As far as I was concerned, that car assassinated my social image.
When my mother told me that she was taking my friends and me to my freshman homecoming dance, my father howled with laughter when he saw the traumatized look on my face.
“Catherine,” he teased, “please don’t have an aneurism. I would hate for you to miss the dance.”
I plotted for days to have my mother not pick me up in the Shaggin’ Wagon. I begged my mother to drive my father’s car. I would stare at the Spanish alphabet over the chalkboard in class racking my brain for a clever plan. My scheming was always interrupted when Señora Gomez shouted, “Catalina! Atención!”
However, I became so caught up in finding the perfect dress and planning the homecoming dinner and after-party that I forgot about the Shaggin’ Wagon. It wasn’t until I was drawing on eyeliner hours before the dance that I remembered how I was getting to there. My legs crumpled beneath me and I sat on the cold toilet seat of my friend’s bathroom. My hand gripped the eyeliner pencil as I sat motionless, overwrought about my destined mortification. There was no way out of it. I was going to arrive at my first homecoming dance in a Shaggin’ Wagon. So, I decided to accept the fact that I was not going to have an arrival as elegant as J.Lo at the Oscars. No Bentley for me. It would be the Shaggin’ Wagon, baby, and it would be original.
The seatbelt slipped out of my sweaty palms as I tried to buckle up on the way to the dance. Although I submitted my resignation as founding leader of the Coalition for a Cool Car Campaign, my heart still beat for the cause. My friends in the back seat laughed and sang along to Britney Spears as we zoomed down the freeway. In the middle of “Hit Me Baby One More Time,” I realized that although my friends thought my mother’s car was funny, they were my friends because they liked me and not because of the car my mother drove.
After that night, I recognized that the only person who cared about the Shaggin’ Wagon was me. It was too much of an effort to constantly feel mortified. I embarrassed myself by making such a big deal out of something so small and insignificant. Surprisingly, I grew to respect the Shaggin’ Wagon and all of its unique characteristics. I realized that my mother’s complete disinterest to blend in or be another Stepford wife made her interesting. She did as she felt and bought what she liked, and that was more respectable than a snazzy Escalade.