When my dad graduated from law school a little over a decade ago (a four-year effort during which he worked full-time and raised five kids), he didn’t start practicing right away. Instead he took the family out for a more expensive steak dinner than us kids even realized was possible, moved us to Arizona where he studied for and passed the bar, and kept on teaching. He was a licensed attorney, though, so he practiced a little, on the side. Our lives at home didn’t really change too much. My dad had always used our spare bedroom as a studio for teaching guitar lessons, or a spot for church-related meetings. I barely noticed when he met with the occasional client after his other job. He was technically a lawyer, but he was really a teacher.
I’ll be the first to admit that law school changed me. I can argue without bursting into tears now, and now that I can articulate my feelings about politics, I do it often, and loudly. I also, rather unexpectedly, have money in the bank, and that changes things, too. I can’t say for sure whether law school also changed my dad, because I’ve always been exactly like him, too close to see clearly. I remember my mom hinting a time or two that he became more difficult in an argument, and that she went out of her way to avoid disagreements post-law school. I also noticed that even though having a lawyer dad didn’t mean money in the bank for our family, my dad’s relationship with material things shifted, just a little. Before law school, he spent money on toys. A speedboat for the family. Houseboat vacations. Guitars. After law school, he started spending money on other kinds of toys.
First, we got cell phones. This happened during my senior year of high school. The first time I called my dad and got his voicemail, “You’ve reached the law offices of ____,” I thought it was the funniest thing I’d ever heard. Because, it was a cell phone, not an office, let alone more than one office. Next was the laptop. To be fair, I was the one who got the laptop, as a graduation/going-off-to-college gift. But when I came home for the summer, my dad talked me into letting him borrow it for some work meeting. He’d be wearing his lawyer hat, not his teacher hat, and he needed a laptop to look the part. This is not my interpretation of events, this is what he told me. I thought this was the height of vanity, but also amusing, and of course I showed him how to log on and let him use it for the day. The biggest thing, though, was the car. I wasn’t part of the new-car discussions, but I heard my parents talking it over for a long time. My dad didn’t want to drive the beat up 1992 red pickup anymore. It wasn’t professional. It also probably wasn’t all that safe, but that wasn’t the real point. The point was that my dad wasn’t the man who drove motorcycles and trucks anymore. So my parents bought a shiny new-to-them car with a fancy enough hood ornament and name on the back, and the red truck was passed down the line to my brother, and then my sister, and back to my brother again. And I spent the next however many years being the self-righteous oldest daughter, not-so-silently judging (oldest daughters are never silent in their judgments) my dad’s vanity decisions.
Until! I found myself facing precisely the same professional transition. Only I had to do it in the few months between law school and starting my new job, instead of over the course of seven years, which is what my dad spent building up his practice before he finally quit teaching. Look, I used a graduating-from-law-school check to buy myself a designer handbag, and every time I start I knew job I breathe a little easier knowing I don’t have to worry about what I can carry that will look okay with my suit and that, at least for the first ten minutes, people will think that I’m like them. And here’s this, I may not choose to spend my money on tech-y gadgets, but that’s not because I’m above it. It’s because I’d rather drop money on shoes and organic foods.
The biggest thing, though, is the car. I’m still driving the 1997 Honda Civic that my parents helped me track down and buy in college. It had been totaled and police-auctioned off to a friend of my dad’s, who fixed it up for me. It has 150,000 miles on it and it is beat to hell. The right side of the bumper is coming off, along with all of the paint. The rear tail light has been out since 2008, along with the front headlight since last week. The check engine light works, though, in that glows bright orange at all times. The front windshield is cracked and the back is covered with not as many stickers as the car I drove in high school, but enough that you’d notice. And the inside is a wreck, with sunflower seeds from too many road trips buried deep in crevices that the vacuum tube at the coin-operated car wash will never reach. I always planned to drive it into the ground, over Robert’s objections that it’s no longer fit to carry us across state lines.
Until this weekend. This weekend, Robert and I went to a law firm prom. He wore a suit and I wore a cocktail dress and we drove down to a steakhouse downtown that is even more expensive than the one we went to after my dad earned his law degree. We were both grateful that there was a long line for the valet, so we didn’t have to pull up right in front of the restaurant, and we gave a good tip, happy not to think about the car for the rest of the night. And we didn’t, until we left the party around the same time as a number of partners and their wives, and the valets returned our cars to us, lining them up one by one. Lexus. Audi. A parade of cars with paint jobs and windshields entirely intact. At that moment, I felt what my dad must have felt, before he got the cell phone and had to ask clients to call him at home and risk having his kids answer the phone, or years later, when he was still driving the red pickup. I still want to drive my car into the ground, but is it possible that I can do it without ever letting anybody in my professional life know that it exists? Luckily, the generous tip paid off, and the valet tactfully parked our car around the corner. “Green Honda Civic?” he said? “Right this way.”