Friday, June 24, 2016

The Minivan

Once upon a time I drove a mostly tidy car. There were notebooks and pens within easy reach of the driver’s seat and a bundle of extra clothes, a warm blanket, and other essentials stashed in the back. These days I drive a minivan, which is basically a mobile extension of the family mudroom – and just as disheveled.

Minvan cargo: Life preservers, jumper cables, and PB&J.
Now, at the start of summer, there are tennis balls and soccer balls rolling around the back of the minivan. They share that space with a boogie board or two, some swim goggles, and a collection of chocolate-smeared paper napkins left from our last outing to a favorite ice cream joint. On any given day, you might also find a wayward soccer cleat, a bottle of sunscreen escaped from the pool bag, and sweatshirts discarded between cool mornings and the heat of midday.

And sand. Sand from the river, sand from the beach, sand from the driveway. Sand is pretty much a constant in my car, along with Goldfish crumbs scattered about the floor, wayward water bottles, seemingly random rocks collected along our travels, and the occasional sock wedged under a seat.

While the mess within can be maddening, I have come to love the minivan, in large part for its ability to (mostly) contain the ever-evolving craziness of life with kids. It was not always this way. In fact, I was horrified when I realized I might need to drive a “mama mobile,” this vehicle that so clearly broadcasts domesticity and parenthood.

I was a pickup truck girl in high school, and there is a photo of me in the yearbook posing proudly by my little Chevy S-10. During my college years, tired of driving the six-plus hours to and from campus to leave me and retrieve me, my parents bought me a used Ford Bronco II – a truck-car so awesome they don’t make it anymore. I drove that boxy gas-guzzler from New England to Upstate New York and back a bunch of times, then out to Colorado after college. I drove it until fourth gear quit working, then I drove it another year or so, jumping from third gear to fifth on the rare occasion I needed it while driving the winding mountain roads.
When the Bronco II was completely used up, I bought a used Subaru. That little car could go anywhere, through any weather. I drove it around town, then across the country loaded down with all my worldly belongings when I moved back East, then to work gigs and fun outings until it started sputtering. The Subaru-wannabe I bought next, brand new, carried me from life as a single girl right into motherhood. Two infant car seats fit snugly in the backseat, and there was space for the dog in the way back. The gas mileage was good, and the car was sufficiently, I believed, sporty – and roomy. Until kid number three was on the way.

I distinctly remember standing in my parents’ driveway, while retrieving kids number one and two from a visit, and lamenting the fact that I was trading in my car – for a minivan. “There goes my image,” I told my mom.

She looked at me with something bordering on pity. I’m not sure if it was because I was soon to enter the wild and sleepless world of a third child under the age of 3 or because I was quite obviously delirious. Image? I don’t know what image I thought I had then, but it certainly wasn’t one of any sort of hipness. Most of the time I had two toddlers clinging to me, an array of dog fur and partially eaten kid food stuck to my yoga pants, and the disheveled hair and overwhelmed look moms of toddlers often sport. I was also quite obviously pregnant. Whatever image I thought I owned had long since shifted irreversibly.

My mother tried to assure me that minivans were just fine. We’d had one of the original models when I was a kid, the first post-wood-paneled station wagon to serve as the standard American family car. That little Dodge Caravan had ferried us to ski races and soccer games and hauled the entire family and our pop-up camper on an epic cross-country adventure.

The minivan has come a long way since those early years – automatic doors, folding seats to create various seating options, cruise control, and more cup holders than any seven passengers could possibly need. After nearly eight years of ferrying our family and all its stuff, my van is not the gleaming silver bullet of family transport it once was. There are dings in the body and rust creeping along the wheel wells, and the doors long ago stopped being automatic.

But it can still hold soccer balls for two teams in the fall (along with several soccer players). It carries our family’s quiver of skis – and skiers – come winter. And last summer we figured out how to fit all five of our bikes – and all five of us – within it. Call it what you will – Mama Mobile, Party Van, Adventure Wagon, Family Car. The minivan may not be hip, but it gets the job done, and I’m good with that.

Original content by Meghan McCarthy McPhaul, posted to her Blog: Writings From a Full Life. This essay also appears as Meghan's Close to Home column in the June 24, 2016 edition of the Littleton Record.

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