Let’s be perfectly clear about one thing. Daddy never actually took the Mustang away; rather, he was the one who bought it for me. A brand-spanking new 1986 white Mustang convertible with a sporty red interior. License plate number AXC 76P. (It’s amazing, the trivial things the brain chooses to remember.) I wasn’t quite yet 16. I didn’t know anything about horsepower. But I knew I had a way cool car—arguably one of the most coveted vehicles in the Pirate parking lot. With those wheels, I should have been officially the coolest kid in school.
Yes, I was one of those privileged youth. Raised in a family that enjoyed a relatively high standard of living within the small town we lived in. I think, I hope, that I didn’t let it go to my head. The truth is, although we lived in a nice house, I didn’t have any more than my classmates in terms of flashy clothes or faddish trinkets or spendable cash. At school, the only obvious sign of my socioeconomic status was that car, and a prized possession it was, though I was careful not to show off too much. I didn’t want to be known as the spoiled rich kid. But the car spoke for itself and attracted new friends who were more than happy to hang with me as long as I would drive—in the way cool convertible, of course.
So the Mustang and I spent much quality time together with friends and, later, boyfriends, zooming all around town and beyond, top always down, with wind rippling through our hair. And all was blissful in Mo-land.
But as time wore on, I began to sense that some of my new “friends” cared more about being seen in the convertible than about being seen with me, while others resented my good fortune and really did see me as spoiled. Me, Most Shy, the girl who just wanted to get along. Still, a good-natured joke here, and a snide comment there, and before long it was clear that the cool car didn’t really make me any cooler. Or more popular. Though for the most part the teasing was harmless, and I took it as it was intended—in good fun.
Except it wasn’t always good fun.
I was sometimes teased by peers for not having to work. The implication was clear. I had the easy life, with everything—especially the fancy car—handed to me on a silver platter. The truth was, my parents placed much more emphasis on an education that would lead to a self-sustaining career than on a part-time job that would land me enough cash for the movies or the latest designer jeans. As far as they were concerned, unless I was making straight A’s, my time was better spent studying. Smart parents. Their push for long-term academic excellence in lieu of short-term “gotta have it” gain paid off.
Later, when I finally landed that longed-for first summer job as a waitress, eager to demonstrate a work ethic and establish an employment history, a catty co-worker, who also happened to be a classmate, informed me that my posh car was out of place in the employee parking lot. She then went on to say the thing that humiliated one sensitive and circumspect teen. She bluntly accused me of taking a job away from someone who “really” needed it. Typical, isn’t it, that the coveted dream car fed into an unjust stereotype and resulted in spiteful barbs?
Don’t get me wrong. I loved that car, which holds many fond memories, and I have long since forgiven the cutting remark, having attributed the scene to adolescent inexperience. But I still remember it clearly nearly 20 years later, word for word, because it taught an important life lesson that has stayed with me to this day. It taught me to appreciate the things I am fortunate enough to have, but not to bank my happiness or social acceptance on them. At the end of the day it’s just “stuff,” and only temporary stuff, at that.
Now, these many years later, my family and I find ourselves on the verge of buying a new home. It’s natural to want the best our budget will allow—the most space, the nicest accoutrements, a desirable neighborhood, a swimming pool for the kids. The suburban family version of “stuff.” Yet I find myself remembering the days of the Mustang, and reminding myself that our lifestyle is not about bragging rights or “keeping up.” It’s not about impressing our neighbors and friends or finding fulfillment in our accumulated possessions. It’s about wise choices tempered with modesty and respect, and remembering not to let the things we own define who we are.
And no, my kids will not be getting brand new convertibles when they turn 16. Pity them deeply, because their first cars will be big and ugly and safe. But they will still be the coolest kids in school, because their parents will have taught them it’s who they are on the inside that makes them stand out, not what they have or don’t have.