By Rebecca Lanning
My friend Juli once said that driving a minivan was like announcing to the world you’ve got stretch marks and saggy boobs. I swore I’d never drive one, but something happened on my way to turning 40. In the span of one summer, I became practical, succumbing to both the skirted bathing suit and the mom mobile. But little by little, my van grew on me.
Spaciousness was what sold us. A distant cousin to the RV, the van hauled our family of four to destinations near and far. During a thunderstorm one summer night, when our tent proved to be as waterproof as a paper bag, we piled in the van, reclined the seats, and slept in quasi-comfort. We criss-crossed the state in that van, traveled south to Orlando, north to D.C. By the time it hit 100,000 miles, the cloth seats had grown fur. Twenty thousand miles later, when side curtain air bags debuted, we traded it in. For another van.
For fourteen years, I drove a minivan.
I schlepped loads of kids to the pool, Chuckie Cheese, skating parties, soccer games. I drove on countless field trips. To the recycling center, Lemur Center, art museum.
“Settle down,” I’d say.
Gazing at my charges in the rear view mirror, I’d recall my senior year in high school when I drove a school bus. When the state of North Carolina actually thought it was a good idea to let high school students drive school busses. But I loved that job, and the students loved me, bringing me sweet notes and brownies wrapped in cellophane. I’d wave to the gaggle of moms at the bus stop as I closed the door, retracted the Stop sign, pulled slowly away from the curb. Don’t worry. I got this.
That was the hit I got from driving a van. The sense of doing something vital. Serving as chauffeur to the next generation. Taking children places they’d never been or just places they couldn’t take themselves. The designated driver. Captain of a tour bus with a moon roof and front strut suspension.
Even after my sons grew big enough to sit shotgun and refused to go on family camping trips, I still loved driving them around. Maybe more so than ever because sitting next to them in the van was often the closest they’d allow me to get to them. They pulled away from my kisses, ducked from my hugs. But belted in the van, they couldn’t keep me from looking over at them, smiling. Hands on 10 and 2
Only it’s 9 and 3 now. Who knew? Apparently, when an air bag deploys at 150 to 250 miles per hour, it can rip your hands off if they are positioned at 10 and 2. Mr. Phipps, the driver’s ed teacher, told my sons this, and they told me. Good to know.
That my sons were giving me tips on how to drive should have been a clue that my van driving days were numbered, but I vowed to drive this second van until my younger son graduated high school in June of 2016. With a flush of pride, I imagined the odometer hitting 200,000 and beyond. Saggy boobs and stretch marks be damned.
But three months ago, while I was I was driving my younger son to a sports event in a flat, far-flung town neither of us had ever set foot in, the van started making a strange noise. A loud whine during acceleration. I glanced at my son, but he was staring out the window, listening to music, oblivious. And I wondered: Can the engine of a minivan sound like a vacuum cleaner sucking up a brick if only a 51-year-old, post-menopausal woman hears it?
When I described the whining sound to my husband that night, he went outside and started the van. I was standing by the side door when I heard what sounded like an F5 tornado. The dogs went beserk. My husband popped the hood, jiggled wires, shot me a look. I knew what he was thinking: The last thing we needed was a major car malfunction. We’d just put a new roof on the house.
The next day, two different mechanics gave us the same dreaded news: It was the transmission. A repair would set us back $4,500. The van was worth less than that. I felt, oddly, betrayed.
“At least we have a roof over our heads,” my husband said, Neither of us laughed.
With the van disabled in the driveway, I forced myself to test drive several vehicles, but they all felt flimsy. The seats were stiff. The trunks too small. They didn’t have enough cup holders. Nothing excited me. Not the 0% interest. Not the free oil changes for life. After weeks of finding fault with every car in our price range, I finally settled on a station wagon.
On the morning of the deal, I sat for one last time in the driver’s seat of the van, ran my hand along the worn upholstery. When I opened the console where I once stashed juice boxes, I spotted the orange crumbs of Goldfish crackers. Gripping the steering wheel, I gazed in the rear view mirror at the empty seats behind me.
I could almost hear the laughter of children, their corny jokes. I could see the pretty girl who’d had a crush on my older son, the way she slid so close to him in the third row seat when she joined us for a family outing.
I saw my nieces and nephew crammed inside on our way to a seafood restaurant at the beach. Eight of us in a van that held seven. Rose, the youngest, stretched out on the sandy floorboard, hiding from phantom police.
I recalled the swirl of snow that surprised us as we left the movie theater one Christmas Eve and ran, leaping and laughing, to the van. I opened all the doors, even the trunk, remotely, so it looked as if the van were opening its arms, welcoming us in from the cold, the rain at the camp site, a hard day at school.
For eight years, this van had sheltered us like a second home. It was part of our family, and I wasn’t ready to say goodbye.
But I did. I patted the dashboard, closed the door, and went inside the showroom where Fred, the straight-talking salesman was waiting for me, smiling behind a mountain of paperwork.
It wasn’t until I was driving away in my new car that it hit me. I liked this car. The roof rails and raised suspension. Puddle lights and new car smell. It was tight and sporty and nothing like my minivan.
It wasn’t my van I’d been mourning. I was mourning a part of my life—the room parent/carpool/Mom-in-charge phase—that was over. It had been over for a while, and I’d been milking it, driving the van well past its prime, ignoring not just the whine under the hood, but the thin voice inside me saying, It’s time to move on.
As I pressed the gas and felt the kick of the CVT transmission, I sensed a curl of joy in my chest. If my sons needed me less each passing day, then maybe it was time to reinvent myself, hang up my chauffeur’s cap, take up a new cause.
Like that, I was ready for a new adventure. And grateful for new wheels to take me there.
Rebecca Lanning lives with her family in Durham, North Carolina. As a former editor and advice columnist at Teen magazine, she admits that writing for teenagers in no way prepared her for the humbling experience of raising two of her own. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications including Brain Child, The Washington Post, Sunday Reader, Southern Magazine, Haven and Woman’s Own.