At The Root Of Things

As I stood ensconced in the familiar greasy aroma of George’s mechanic shop with the phone to my ear, my husband Kyle’s words rushed in: “I think it’s time we get you a new car.” Tears dammed behind my eyes and clogged my throat. Seconds passed before words could push over an unexpected junk-pile of emotion. The previous night, after twelve years and 190 thousand miles, my Honda Odyssey had lurched home from a theater rehearsal in what my daughter, Joy, called a “Harry Potter experience,” the one when Harry and Ron flew the car in fits and starts across the sky.

In its own wizardly way, the Odyssey had served as dining room, confessional, schoolroom, music room, rehearsal space, and only safe space. Other times, road conditions or tempers, alike, sent words or clothing flying making us much less safe. But each day my two girls and I were stuck there until we weren’t. There was no walking away.

In our family’s life, a typical after-school involves puzzle-piecing transportation from one extracurricular activity to another, and the question “Does your family regularly sit down for dinner together?” brings cackling, simultaneous laughter.

Inside the van is is where the mothering happened.

“You’ve spent more time there than any other place in your life!” I shook my head as I broke the bad news to Emma, my eleven year old, after school. “All the books from when you were a toddler are still jammed in the seat-back pockets.” Tears dripped into the dishwater as I talked. In the reflection of the water all I could see was the girls in my rearview mirror with bouncy curls, blue eyes wide in their books, while the hundreds of songs we’ve sung shuffle through like a CD player. “You are my sunshine. . . ” Drip. Drip.

“I know. It’s really sad, Mama.” Emma pattted my arm. “Oh! But, what about the art project that the teacher gave you for helping that hangs from the rearview mirror?”

The four by six inch, first-grade, geometrical drwaing with an Einstein quote about creativity on the back swings back from faded, multi-colored yarn and forth as I drive—a nuisance—but it helps us to find our car in a crowded lot, so we keep it.

“I’ll probably just save it.” I returned to the dishes and sniffed. “It was always in my way anyway.” I gasped and looked up. “But what am I going to do about the ‘No on 8’ and Obama bumper stickers? I’ll never be able to get them off!”

The car became a campaign vehicle of sorts, when I managed the local “No on 8” campaign in South County in 2008. During the campaign, talk of same-sex marriage and its opposition frequented our time in the multi-bumperstickered minivan. The girls quickly took notice that we were the only car on the block with either an “Obama” or a “No on 8!” sticker.

Every time we’d drive through our neighborhood, I’d hear at least one shocked and appalled gasp of, “Mom! There’s a ‘Yes on 8’ sign!” as the girls kept lookout from the backseat.

With young children, there’s a very thin line between “bad guys” and the opponents’ side; it’s hard to teach a child that you don’t have to respect someone else’s belief’s, but you have to repsect their right to have those beliefs. But there in the Odyssey, we waded through those sticky topics, too.

The van’s seats configured for even more difficult conversations we might never have navigated face to face. From the backseat one day on the way home from school, Emma’s six-year-old questions turned to having “babies without a husband” because, she said, “I either want to have a baby and not get married or marry a girl and still have babies.”

“You don’t have to get married to have a baby, but it’s a lot harder to take care of the baby by yourself.” I dared from the driver’s seat. “But whether you marry a man or a woman, you can still find a way to have kids.”

“I’m glad,” she said, “Because I really don’t think I want to marry any of the boys in my class.”

In the Odyssey, I made parenting mistakes and learned lessons: it is where I got shoes thrown at me for invoking punishments within public view rather than appeasing until we arrived home; where I learned to lock the doors when the wild beasts cried to prevent dangerous escapes; where I practiced over and over again the art of dropping a subject that wouldn’t fall.

The van escaped twelve years with a few miscellaneous dents from my bad parallel parking or someone who left a dent without a note, but luckily never a major accident.

After all the meals and snacks, changing clothes for dance, soccer, recitals, rehearsals, carting dogs to the vet, trips to the beach, occasional camping, road trips, even vaccuuming or the occasionally detailing, the van would only remove so much evidence. So, we lived with pockets of sour, grimy smells we couldn’t trace.

At several points during its tenure, we’d had kids as young as four and five years old climb in with big eyes and say, “Wow! This car is dirty!”

So, I developed a routine where I apologized to any time first-time rider. “I’m sorry,” I’d say. “I know it’s really dirty.” But even those few times we cleaned it and tried to keep it that way, crumbs and papers, books and tupperware quickly snuck into the floorboards and seat crevices like comfy cats in an old lady’s cottage with the door left open. The van had a natural state, and anyone who didn’t like it could look for a ride elsewhere.

Mostly we filled the van with music. From the time they were born, every time one of the girls cried, I sang. I sang Raffi songs on the CD player, or whatever children’s songs I could think of at the moment. I sang lullabies and movie soundtracks and any other songs I knew.

In return, they were singing back to me in squeaks, coos, and baby tones before they could talk. For a long time, they were both in rear facing carseats, just two and one-half years apart. The songs were a promise that we were there for each other even if seatbelts, hardware, and vision separated us.

As they grew, when the four of us took road trips—mostly to Tahoe to ski—we’d put in movie or a Broadway soundtrack and sing it start to finish over the mountain, staring out as the redwoods thinned to pines and thickened again as we descended. Joy doesn’t like to go for drives; heights make her nervous, and she used to get carsick. But there’s nothing like singing to distract her. My husband is the only non-actor in the family, but he’s happy to alternate between belting out the tunes and hushing himself to hear the girls sing.

Joy recently returned from her own trip to Tahoe—a long weekend camping with her friend’s family. Curled up next to me on the couch, she said, “I missed singing Les Mis on the way over the mountain.”

I keep retelling myself this story, so relieved she actually missed us. Joy is a teenager now—starting her sophomore year in high school. I know how fast these next few years will fly; how many hours she’s away per week already, which increases every year.

She’s talking about college in New York or Chicago for musical theater, and while I want whatever she wants for herself, I’m already aching from the loss of her beside me in that Odyssey, those long rides to the theater, the only times I’d often see her all week. The car I drove her to so many auditions; the car she rode in on her first day of kindergarten. To lose her seat is like losing yet another part of her childhood too soon.

People keeping asking me, “So how do you like your new van?”

I hate to seem ungrateful. I know it’s a luxury to buy a brand new car. But I’m not a car person. I would’ve driven that old Odyssey forever without complaint. So, depending on who asks, I shrug off the question or talk about memories in the old van.

But there is something to be said about the new van. The old one had a busted antenna, so the radio never worked. Once the girls started their busy extracurricular schedule, we rarely remembered to dig through those big, dusty CD cases while constantly eating in the car between hopping in and out. We had gotten so focused on where we were going that music fell by the wayside, silence and keeping the peace becoming more precious than one of the things that had bonded us together.

Special Cargo by Michael Gil with Amy McElroy quote 600px

In our new van, we play the Broadway channel, Sirus XM, non-stop on satellite radio.

“It’s ’In My Life’ from Les Mis!” Emma looks up from her Kindle. “I really want to be Cosette on Broadway, someday,” she says, as she rolls her eyes and catches my glance in the mirror.

“I want to be Eponine.” Joy says between songs and looks out the window. “Or Jean Valjean,” which launches us into an age-old discussion about how men have all the best roles.

Somewhere during those last twelve years, it turns out I lost the title to the old Odysssey. So, it’s parked in front of the house under a tree, where the gold paint fades under more layers of thick dust. When the new title arrives, we’re selling it to my reliable mechanic, George, who can replace that tranmission himself. Every time I open the old van’s door to look for a document or finish cleaning it out, the smell of must and grime hits me a little harder. I must be growing used to the new car smell.

The kids still say, “It smells like a rent-a-car.” I keep telling myself that rent-a-cars are made for new adventures—as I turn up the radio and try not to look too far down the road.



Photo credit: Creative Commons License “Special Cargo” by Michael Gil is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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