The Way, Way Back

This post was sponsored by Fox Searchlight Pictures.


Buenos Aires, 1972

We started in the front, at least most of us did in those days before laws and car seats that did more than hold a baby upright. I had my tonsils removed in the 1st grade, and on the ride home I sat on my mom’s lap with my back snuggled against her chest. My throat was so sore I couldn’t speak, so to describe to my parents what a Popsicle was I pushed my finger through the film of vapor on the windshield and drew a rectangle with two sticks coming out the bottom. I was fortunate it was winter. Her arms were my seat belt.

Being in the front meant comfort.

Later, the only child sat in the front seat in between the parents if the seat stretched out like a bench. If there was a console, they laid (or sat or twirled) in back seats like royalty on wide expanses of bonded leather or short pile upholstery. One brother, then two. My space became crowded, but as the oldest I was able to skirt the middle seat thanks to irrefutable laws of sibling seniority.

Sitting in the way, way back didn’t happen until the fourth sibling in most cars or, if your mother tapped out early like mine did, when friends came home with you from school or out of town family came to visit or your parents picked up a hitchhiker. The reasons for additional bodies in a car were limitless in the 70s.

1973, Duster

My mom drove a brown Buick station wagon, boxy with chrome trim on the windows and enough trunk space to fit a twin bed. One year, when my parents’ friends came to visit from Washington, four out of five kids landed in the trunk and played Sleeping Princess. It was a game I made up on the fly and believed was nothing short of brilliant. The object: one girl laid flat on her back and stayed as still as possible while the car made turns and drove over bumps. The other two girls and one reluctant prince would lean over the Sleeping Princess and monitor her for movement. Whoever went the longest without moving–slept the longest–won. Won what, I can’t remember. Bragging rights? This is where my memory fails, so the prize couldn’t have been great. My last memory of Sleeping Princess is Veronica leaning over me, inches from my face, claiming I scrunched my eyes into a right turn. I can still see her black hair sheeting the cheeks of her pale face. I resented that she looked like Snow White.

1974, Duster

A few years later I was in the back of a dark blue El Camino with Michael and Annette, the children of our babysitter. We were coming home from getting ice cream and because my brothers were younger, they were inside on the bench seat. It was just after sunset on a warm summer day, the three of us leaning back against the cab window to look at the trees while we licked our cones. The mood was peaceful, nostalgic before it was even a memory, until a kid on a bike darted in front of the car and Mr. Gonzalez slammed on the breaks. We slid around the bed of the El Camino like pats of butter on a griddle until we came to a stop with our eyes staring up into the trees and our hands still holding our cones. We sat up, looked at each other, and laughed until our sides hurt. Then I took a big lick of ice cream and wished my parents had an El Camino.

Being in the back meant friendship.

I climbed into the trunk of my mom’s latest station wagon as a teenager to escape my brothers and their growing arms and legs. They were too large, too loud, too annoying. They were altogether too too. I gladly hid among the Samsonites, confident nobody understood, nobody had it so bad, nobody cared about the Many Injustices I Suffered.

Being in the back meant privacy. Blessed, welcome privacy.

Way, Way Back, 4

My boys have had a different experience. By the time Mikey was born, I earned an honorary PhD in Car Seat. Not only did the boys always sit properly latched in their car seats at all times, for the first couple of months I sat in the back with them so that at a moment’s notice I could perform Many Critical Life Saving Measures like pop the pacifier back in, look out for spit up, adjust socks, and–literally and figuratively–back seat drive, something I should have a PhD in, if you ask my husband.

When Mikey turned 9 at the beginning of June, he reminded me that according to California law he was now allowed to sit in the front seat. I expected nothing less from him. But the front seat wasn’t what he was thinking about a week later when he went over the agenda for his birthday party. He wanted to go to a 66ers game (Angels minor league) with his two best friends and then have a sleepover. He had everything planned down to the seating arrangements in the car on the way to the game. He wanted to sit in the middle with a best friend on either side and, since there wasn’t anymore room, his brother would have to sit in the way, way back by himself. When Nico heard this, he burst into tears.

On that day, being in the back meant not fitting in.

Or, as Nico later cried that night when he was far more tired than he wanted to admit and far too young to watch the movie the bigger boys wanted to watch: “Mama, they’re not letting me pay any attention to them.”

Way, Way Back, 5

When we packed up the boys to go to the game, I wanted to spread everyone out, two-by-two, so it was fair. The Mister, himself a younger brother, shook his head and had Nico get in the back so Mikey could have time with his friends. This is how it is for younger brothers, but only for a little while, he said. In a couple of years they’ll meet in the middle again.

Perhaps, and even though Nico was perfectly content once his dad revealed that being in the way, way back gave him iphone video game privileges, I wanted to climb back there and sit with him in solidarity. I didn’t, but when one of the boys turned to Nico and asked to play on the iphone I did happily crow, “Sorry, no can do! Iphone privileges are one of the perks to sitting in the very back all by yourself.” And in my head: HAH! SO THERE.

This may have earned me a side-eye from the Mister, but it was worth it. Turns out mamas can perform Many Critical Life Saving Measures while riding shotgun.

Way, Way Back, 7

The next morning, the boys played wiffle ball in the street. When Nico scored a triple it was his brother, the catcher for the other team, who whooped and hollered and gave him many high fives. They all did, really. Nico soared around the homemade bases propelled by happy thoughts and a team of pixies. At his next time at bat, Nico struck out and burst into tears. Mikey rubbed his hands down his face before looking up at the sky in a plea for patience.

“It’s just that, mama, I want them to think I’m great.”

One day they’ll meet in the middle.

Until then, I’ll have to accept that brotherhood will some days feel like sitting in the front seat, and other days feel like being relegated to the way, way back.


A few weeks ago my husband and I got to see a screening of The Way, Way Back starring Steve Carell. (It comes out July 5th in select theaters.) We both had a great time, though I’m embarrassed to admit it took me a while to realize the movie is called The Way, Way Back because the boy, Duncan, sits in the way, way back of the car and life at the beginning of his coming of age summer. This is why no one pays me to review movies.

Jules Kendall writes about books, family, and easygoing simplicity.


  1. says

    Oh my that was good. I read every single word smiling and chuckling to myself. My favorite part is when you chimed in about the iPhone privileges and your Mister bestowed on you a side-eye. Oh yes, the side-eye! A facial gesture that provides no other explanation, a movement that can speak volumes of information to the person you’re married to. Love it. Such a great post (a fantastic example of how sponsored posts can work when done extremely well)! I’m glad you enjoyed the movie, we will definitely be watching it, especially because I’m an only child and I have yet to grasp all of these complicated seating arrangements and innuendos, as I always got to ride in the front (which I’m sure speaks silent volumes about my personality too), and no doubt will earn me a side-eye from my Mister. 😉 (Plus I love Steve Carell – Little Miss Sunshine is one of my all-time favorite movies. If you haven’t seen it, you should! Such great family comedy/drama. :)

    • says

      I have seen that movie, and I only vaguely remember him being in it! I need to watch it again. Thanks for the comment–sponsored posts always make me nervous.

    • says

      Well, you already know I’m a sucker for anything coming of age. I think I’ve read every book out there featuring awkward first loves.

  2. Fairfax Avenue says

    So glad I took a break to read this!

    I always had the middle, stuck in the backseat over the transmission hump, between two big brothers. Never had the window seat.

    Have a warm – hydrated – weekend!

    • says

      Paul, my youngest brother, is the one who was always in the middle. He hated it, but childhood politics are childhood politics. 😉

  3. Kathie says

    Beautiful. Now that’s how you write a sponsored post! Brought back memories of traveling across country in our El Camino with a low camper shell. My sister and I used the luggage for furniture.

  4. Jeanne says

    I love this post. I am the youngest and we never had a station wagon so I recall being on the front between mom and dad, which minimized all freedom and was pretty boring without your own window. I also remember sitting on grandma’s lap in the front seat flipping her Our Lady of Perpetual Help medal over and over so the chain twisted and got shorter and shorter (until it nearly choked her) and then untwisting it. I could stare at her face, ask her about the scar on her neck from surgery and otherwise adore her up close. Those were the days when no seat belts meant more time to be close.

  5. Larissa says

    Ah, I have so many great memories of riding in the back of hatchbacks, station wagons and trucks. At times, we let the boys ride in the back of Tim’s truck while he drives up and down the street, just so they can get a taste of that experience we had. :) This was a great post, Jules, and those photos of you as a little one are adorable!

    • says

      I wish I was able to find pictures of me when I was around the age of the Buick–heck, I wish I had pictures of the Buick! The only thing I had at the house were these baby pictures, and I was thrilled there was a car in a few of them!

      That’s a great idea to let the kids get a taste of what you had when you were a kid. I remember my dad putting me on my lap and letting me drive up our street. So many memories!

  6. Cyndee says

    This took me forever to read as my mind kept drifting back to trips in our big Chevy station wagon.
    We children were all over that car as my father drove. At one point my mother said ” if we see an accident about to happen and tell you children to get down on the floor, do it immediately with no arguing”. It was not until I was securing my own children into their carseats as how impossible it was to keep children safe back in the day. But what great cars and so much space , we could stand up and look out the front window from the back seat.
    Lovely post and great summer memories.

    • says

      I remember that! I remember standing up and looking out the front window! I also remember doing that and getting an enormous lollipop stuck in my dad’s hair. It didn’t end well for the lollipop.

  7. Phaedra says

    so many memories of riding in the backs of pick-up trucks, sliding around in vans with my cousins, sleeping next to my brother on road trips in my grandparents station wagon (they would lay the back seat down so we could stretch into the ‘trunk’ -otherwise known as the way, way back)… great piece writing Jules! Loved it.

    • says

      Ooooooh, my babysitter also had a van! I just remembered that when you said that about your cousins. It was orange and white and also very cool. It’s like she had every awesome car known to kids.

      • Phaedra says

        One of my Uncles has 5 kids & we used to go stay with them every summer (+ 2) so 7 kids, 2 adults..yeah. They just packed us in to this old style van and we LOVED it! No seatbelts- heck, usually not even all of us had seats- no safety measures at all really, but it was COOL. In a 70’s van sort of way. 😉 Many trips in the pick-up trucks in the country on the way to the river with said cousins, as well. Just add dogs to the mix. Lucky for me, not only am I the oldest in my family, but I’m the oldest cousin on that side of the family so I usually was able to assert my primacy in choosing the best seating. muah ha ha *of course now I’m ‘the oldest’ and it has an entirely different meaning. sigh.

  8. says

    I used to love to lay on the back behind the backseat headrest so I could look out the back window at the stars. Now I gasp that my parents let me do that but I’ll never forget what it was like to lay while we drove on the highway and watch the world go by from that perch. It was so exciting. Can’t wait to see the movie, and I think you made the connection beautifully!

    • says

      You like my super baggy pants, eh? I should show you some pictures of my hair in all it’s curly glory. My poor mom had no idea how to handle it. She just…brushed it. You never, ever “just brush” super curly hair. I looked like a clown.

  9. Samma says

    You do such a great job blending autobiographical and current events into something that is relevant and evocative to your readers. I don’t know what you call it, but that’s the kind of book I see you writing.

    I am not a big Steve Carrell fan, but I watched the trailer to make sure you got click credits or whatever. And, surprise, the movie looks lovely.

    Also, my husband recently was given an ‘early inheritance’ of his family’s ’67 Barracuda. He loves to tell me how when he was a boy, he would sit on the huge ledge under the curved rear window in the way, way back, and pretend it was his space ship to the moon. I guess that’s what I meant by relevant and evocative.

    • says

      My husband is a huge Steve Carell fan, which is why I agreed to go. Normally I’m not much of a movie person, but I thought he would have a good time. I was right! He enjoyed himself immensely, though he was disappointed to see Carell was a bit of a jerk in the movie! He’s used to him being funny and clueless.

  10. Karen F says

    oh Jules, I can so relate to this beautiful post! My younger daughter is 3, but thinks she’s 6, like her sister. It can be hard being 3, sometimes.

  11. Laura says

    I’m a little embarrassed to admit that until this post I thought “way way back” was a term unique to my family. I was the oldest so the way way back was first a privilege and then a curse. I was also threatened with the 1976 Malibu classic becoming my first car…in 1992. Ugh. A girl’s got to have her standards.

  12. Stephenny says

    Thank you for the encouragement! I have two boys as well, I won’t forget this, “This is how it is for younger brothers, but only for a little while, he said. In a couple of years they’ll meet in the middle again.”

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