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Rites of passage 

It's become an inadvertent tradition. Every Thursday when my 12-year-old daughter finishes riding lessons at Pleasant Hill Farm, after she's put Trish out to pasture and a cotton candy sunset glows over a riding ring of young girls finishing their lessons, I let her drive the car. It's about two miles on a winding dirt road just to get off the Flying W Ranch in northern Orange County, and after a while I made a deal with her: She could drive as long as she'd listen to me explain how the car worked.

My explanations of cylinders and combustion and gear ratios were usually met with quiet exasperation, but she listened as long as it meant she could accelerate up the woody hills and steer around the cleared pastures.

So when my car blew a gasket recently, sending clouds of smoke pouring from the hood and exhaust, I figured that at the very least it would be a teaching opportunity. Up until now, she's been the master of a child's best mechanism for self-preservation--not letting on how much she really knows. She'd look as if she weren't listening, then answer questions about gearing and gasoline perfectly and with slight annoyance, as if I'd pulled them from a kindergarten primer.

When the car blew up, I explained oil and rods and engines and gaskets, trying to sound like I knew what I was talking about. Then I threw in a little language lesson, asking if she'd ever heard it said that someone "blew a gasket." She acknowledged that she had. I told her that, well, now I knew exactly what it looked like--clouds of smoke blowing everywhere.

This week, Lillie has her bat mitzvah. On the afternoons she doesn't ride, she's been studying at Hebrew school and with her teenaged tutor for the mammoth event--leading the congregation and scores of friends and family in a Jewish ceremony that can be traced back 2,500 years, demonstrating knowledge of a language and understanding of a text so rich their meanings are still being explored. It's a coming-of-age ritual that's mostly lost in Western culture, an opportunity for a child turning 13 to show she can accomplish something so daunting that even she, despite her mastery at hiding what she knows, likely doubted she could pull off. It's a chance to stand before the adult world and say out loud, "Here I am. Here's what I know. Now treat me as your equal." The closest thing to it may be learning to drive.

Lillie has assiduously kept us in the dark about her progress. Her teachers assure us she's doing fine, but when we ask to hear her sing one of the prayers or the section of Leviticus she'll chant to the congregation, she tells us we'll hear it when everyone else does. She's holding onto her childhood until the last possible moment.

But she's been giving out lots of clues that she's ready to step into the next phase of her life. After looking disinterested during my most recent lesson on auto mechanics, I had to ask, "So, do you get it?"

She glanced over at me. "Well," she asked, "did you blow a gasket when you blew a gasket?"

I guess that means she'll keep making those sunset drives.

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