4 kids in 3 years: reflections on motherhood, art and life.
My first car was a dusty yellow 69 VW Bug, but it should’ve been a brilliant yellow 73 Super Beetle we’d named Herbie. That’s the car my parents bought for my sister that would have been passed down to me. But she totalled it on a small bridge somewhere in western Pennsylvania, wrecking it like all the jeans and corduroys that were ever handed down to me.
Daisy was the replacement car, faded and rusted around the edges with a crotchety stick shift. I remember my father teaching me to drive in strip mall parking lots and along deserted farm roads near our home. He would vacillate between chiding insults and sweet-natured jokes, goading me into trying harder to manage the clutch, which I had to slide my butt almost all the way off the seat to fully engage.
A year later I loaded that car with all my worldly belongings, some clothing, art supplies and so on, and drove it up to my first real job after college at a small boarding school on the ocean in Rhode Island.
I drove that Bug along the walking path beside the dorm, and parked it on the green lawn behind the dorm. Although I never actually put the pink triangle and women-vote stickers that I swore I would on the back of the car, my college sticker in the back of a VW Bug seemed to say enough. At that monastery on the hill, I had somehow gone from being a high-haired New Jersey mall girl, to a liberal, feminist, art teacher in flowered dresses and bare feet.
Over the next few years the holes in the floor rusted all the way through, and the battery started to falter. It got to the point where the only way to start the car was to stick a wire coat hanger into a splice in the starting wire and then to lay it across the battery housed where the back seat once was. Each time I drove off was a shocking feat of pure bravery.
Daisy’s final road trip was a doomed camping trip through Maryland and Virginia with a guy from college who I thought was sort of still my boyfriend. Except he really wasn’t. And over that week we slogged up mountain passes at 30 mph two inches from each other in that crowded front seat, and then flew back down popping the clutch at the bottom, having conversations that never seemed to meet in the middle.
I traded her in for a 1984 gray VW Rabbit convertible we called Eeyore. Also not the most dependable car, but it was a convertible, and I didn’t have to jumpstart the battery all the time, although I did always have to carry a few quarts of oil in the back to feed her every 60 miles or so on. When I was driving along route 90 in Massachusetts to visit a new long-distance boyfriend, the front seat collapsed backwards. I drove holding onto the steering wheel to keep from laying down. It had simply finished supporting me.
When I arrived at art school in that beat up Rabbit with mismatched front seats, I deftly parked right next to the crappiest car in the lot, a red pickup truck with holes rusted all the way through the sides, because misery loves company. I remember admiring the audaciousness of such a bedraggled pickup truck.
I soon sold my Rabbit and bought a 1996 cherry red Jetta which I totalled a year later on 287 in North Jersey swerving around a huge deer with antlers. It was 2 am and I was on my way to visit the guy with the red truck, who lived 12 hours away in Virginia. Only my dog, who was riding shotgun in the front seat, saved me from being stolen away by a strange older man who pulled over after the accident and offered to take me to his home where I could hang out in his basement and drink tea. He said his mother wouldn’t mind. When the police arrived he sped away because he suddenly remembered he had something to do. At 2 am. With his mom.
The next Jetta was a lemon that stalled on the side of the road every time it rained. My husband, the guy with the beat up red pickup truck, helped me pick out a dependable Subaru Forester. And that dependable Subaru Forester brought our first baby home.
When we became pregnant with twins a few months later, we immediately traded it in for a Chevy Equinox named Blue, because it was the only non-minivan, non-SUV that could tether three infant seats, plus it was a cool parent car. Because we were going to be cool parents to our cool trio of kids, and we would have this car forever.
Except a few months later I got pregnant with number four, backed into a Suburban, and we traded in Blue (at a huge loss) for a car that could easily fit four kids. Whoever I thought I was before, I understood that now, finally, I had become a mom in a Toyota Sienna minivan.
And more than any other car, not even that first VW Bug, that minivan sort of became a part of my identity. We’ve put almost 100,000 miles on that sweet minivan in about six years schlepping four kids and a trunk full of kid-gear to Maine for summer weekends and down to Philadelphia and New Jersey for funerals or art shows. She’s seen vomit and diaper changes, pre-school and elementary school. She’s been T-boned by a teenager, backed up over by a huge Verizon truck, my daughter tried to wash her with a sandpaper sponge, and now, neither sliding door works. (Some days I know exactly how she feels.)
A few years back I saw an old baby blue VW Bug in the parking lot of the horse farm where my youngest son did horse therapy. It was such a cute car, he was immediately drawn to it. We went right up to the rolled down windows, and I put my head inside.
The scent of the melted vinyl seats, the rusted metal floor, and the cracked plastic dashboard immediately took me right back to that first driving experience on a small country road in suburban New Jersey, nervous and excited to be embarking on such a journey, with my father beside me. It brought me to tears right there at the horse farm, that smell of being a child to a parent, of newfound freedom, of growing up.
Five years is a long time for a car in my life. And in some ways these last five years driving a minivan have been some of my biggest, or at least the biggest since I was a twenty-year-old kid myself.
In the inimitable words of David Bowie (may he be dancing in a chic club in heaven), “Pretty soon now you’re going to get older, Time may change me, But I can’t trace time. I said that time may change me, But I can’t trace time.”
And so, this week I say good-bye to the minivan (and sadly, to David Bowie, too, although I doubt he’ll ever truly leave us.)
It is time now.
It is time for two sliding doors that work, and an apple-sauce-free ceiling, and a car with less than 125,000 miles on its speedometer. It is time for a car that starts in the rain, that never needs a hanger laid across its battery, that has no hole in the roof or in the floorboards or in the engine. It is time for a new minivan. But still.
Ch-ch-ch-changes. They are never easy.
(Farewell to my minivan, and to David Bowie, who I have rocked out to in every car since that 69 VW Bug so long ago.The new minivan is silver and might just be named Ziggy Stardust. Or Frozen. Or Ziggy Frozen Stardust? Perfect.)