by Ann Brooke Raynal
illustration by Emily Brooks
In the fog of my second pregnancy I decided that a minivan would make my life complete. I was devoting my life to these children, and a van would tell the world: Mother on board! Like an oyster shell, my van would close around me, protecting the bland bivalve inside. And my little pearls.
The week after Margaret’s birth found us at the dealership trading in my husband Charles’ beloved Camry for a 2003 Chrysler Town and Country. I was ecstatic. I hadn’t wanted a white car, but it was the “Touring” model, and some luxuries were worth concessions. It had all the accoutrements for which I longed: captain’s chairs, multiple cup-holders, and a ceiling-mounted DVD player. And it smelled good. I envisioned a world in which attractively dressed, obedient children slid effortlessly from its automatic doors.
Fast-forward a couple of years, three replacement DVD players, 10,000 crushed goldfish, decaying banana peels, and mashed chicken nuggets…and now I noticed that people hesitated (or outright refused!) to ride with me. A family of moths completed several life cycles in the driver’s side foot compartment. The bloom was off the rose. I still loved the van, but now it was all about utility.
I became obsessed with my children’s ability to watch videos in the car on long trips. Such as to the Harris Teeter. At one point, in a desperate attempt to restore DVD capability to the van, I strapped a barstool between the two front seats with duct tape, and then duct-taped a portable DVD player to it. Problem solved! Talk about life hacks.
The neighborhood children have always loved the van. On sunny afternoons I would sit outside in a metal lawn chair watching my neighbors do yard work, and let all the kids play with the automatic sliding doors and tailgate. Until the battery died. When the children suggested they play “bank” in the car, I gave them all my spare change. I later learned they were making their “deposits” in the tape deck and CD player. I haven’t had a working CD player for the past nine years. But I enjoyed at least two hours of peace.
At age 5, my daughter Margaret was involved in a ballet carpool. The van looked and smelled like Earp’s Seafood. Surveying her surroundings, a ballerina posed the question, “Whose mom has the messiest car?” I met my daughter’s wide eyes in the rear-view mirror. “Um, Mrs. Duffy’s car is pretty messy,” Margaret proffered with calculated casualness, only to be met with a chorus of groans. “Not to be mean,” one child piped up, “but it is SO your mom’s! Your mom’s is like the messiest car I have ever seen!” Another glance in the rear-view mirror confirmed Margaret’s desire to throw me under the moving minivan.
My parents weren’t car people, either. They never washed their cars, much less paid someone to do it. Our much fancier uncles and cousins nicknamed us “the Squatleys” for my parents’ penchant for being perfectly satisfied with most things. They drove a Ford Country Squire for what seemed like 30 years and drank Schlitz from the can. They refused to buy me Izod shirts. I built character.
I grew up and married a man just as “Squatley” as my parents, with that same combination of frugality and rebellion. After we returned to Atlanta from our honeymoon in Italy, we rolled our luggage two miles from the MARTA station to our house. We were babes in the wood, and it never occurred to us to call a cab.
Last summer while I was driving my older daughter to camp in the ten-year-old Volvo (with working CD player! That’s 9.5 hours of heaven right there!), my husband took my van in to be detailed as a special surprise. The guy at the detail place looked at the rusted exterior and the moldy interior and flatly refused the job. What? Charles asked him to name his price and he said gently, “Sir, you can’t afford this.” Talk about judging a man by his van! Five hours and SIX HUNDRED dollars later, the van was as clean as they day we bought it! And stayed that way for over three weeks.
We have talked about getting a new car when the van hits 200,000 miles (by our calculations, January of 2016) and I’m sure Charles was still thinking about this timeframe when he recently took me for a test drive. For a new car. On my birthday. We drove a spanking new Toyota Highlander around town while the saleslady listed the luxury features and the girls caressed the leather seats. And I have to say that the ride was every bit as smooth as the old T&C’s. But not noticeably more so. Charles asked me, “Do you like it? Do you want it?” I said, “Sure!” And he said, “So…this time next year?”
And even while I watched the saleslady visibly deflate, I remember thinking not that I was horribly disappointed, but that I couldn’t wait to tell story of “How my husband took me for a test drive on my birthday but did not actually buy me a car” at every single dinner party we attend. And I have!
The minivan years are almost over for me. I have two girls who can open car doors for themselves. But the closer we get to New Car Day, the more reluctant and ambivalent I feel. To paraphrase Joni Mitchell, something will be gained, but something lost, in driving every day. I will miss having the ugliest car in the carpool line. I will miss the perverse pleasure I get when I have it valet parked. I will miss my bumper sticker collection. I will miss having other people confess to me that my van makes them feel better about themselves. (Um…you’re welcome.)
And the neighborhood kids are still fans of my minivan! The other day I was driving soccer carpool and passing a package of soft-batch cookies to the middle row. My friend’s first-grader, cradling seven chocolate-chip cookies in his lap, captain’s chair tilted waaaaay back, let out a long sigh like a famous rap artist finally crawling into the limo after a late-night concert. “Ahhhh…” he said. “This is the good life!”