Lee was vacuuming out the van, first with the lightweight upright and then with the portable, meticulously digging into all the crevices.
“I wonder if this feels like getting a corpse ready for burial?” she said.
“Oh, surely not!” I laughed. “I would have said sprucing it up, like putting on a new suit when you go in for a job interview.”
“No, I really think it’s more like grooming a dog before it’s going to be put down.”
I sighed. It was time. It was due. It was overdue. The van was being readied to head over to the used car dealership, part of a potential exchange for a newer used car, the daughter’s first car purchase.
Van Origin Story
We bought the white Honda Odyssey in the spring of 2001, the year of 9-11, before the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, before smart phones and iPads. The kids were not yet six and not yet four, the age where we could take them on long driving vacations, up to the lake, or camping, with plenty of room for luggage, tents, pillows, and the other accoutrement you drag around with children.
When we test drove the car, we had to persuade the salesman to let us take it home to see if it would fit in the garage. This “mini-van” was the longest of its class and the heaviest, the hardest on the tires (we went through four sets in 17 years). We had measured but needed to see if you could really walk around it with the garage door closed. Just barely. The salesman seemed to find that a really odd concern, as if you would buy a car and then, if it didn’t fit, just park it on the street for the rest of its useful life. Who uses their garage to park cars in these days anyway? The answer is us and our next door neighbor, and no one else in the neighborhood. But she fit.
I christened her Lady Penelope because we were going through a Thunderbirds Are Go! phase, where I was extracting TV shows I’d liked as a kid for my own to watch. Thunderbirds and Jonny Quest were favorites, the former a very unusual puppet show depicting a spy family solving capers by using multiple rocket ships that they flew out of their garage. Later on, literature major that I am, I realized the Penelope<=> Odyssey connection and thought myself oh-so-clever.
We’d owned the car about three weeks when we drove somewhere for camping… Mendocino?… and my very capable-driver-wife was backing it carefully into a spot. Neither of us saw the low post sticking out of the ground (why is that there in a parking spot?). The unavoidable scrape was quite noticeable in the white paint . We never got it fixed–nothing else ever scratched the car on that side, making it worth repairing. Penelope carried that ding like a scar, like the one my son got on his forehead a few years later when he and the neighbor boy were playing at swords with branches.
My Life in That Car
Why do we get attached to things, to inanimate objects? They become family members when we have them for so long. I might be tempted to say it’s due to their advertising except I’d bet you farmers in the Middle Ages got attached to their wagons and plows if they had them for 17 years.
As I was rooting around for photos, I realized that in 2001 cameras hadn’t quite gone digital yet, so the pictures were still in photo albums. I only found the two pictures of the car, really pictures of the kids with the car in the background. Maybe it’s only in the digital age, where we don’t have to “pay” to print the photos (yes, we used to have to do that) where we take pictures of everything, including cars, clothing, food. Flipping through those photos showed my son all gangly, about to start sprouting on his way to six foot plus, and my daughter, always with a book in her hand, with hair that refused to unsnarl.
The van went to Iowa and back, to Washington and Oregon and back, Canada and back. I’m pretty sure that was the car we used for the 8-day road trip up north to my brother’s, the year of the Shoes Incident. It had to be because my teenage son’s plaintive observation, “Mom?! I think I forgot something…” four hours from home was definitely issued from the depths of a large car, from the very back row where he lounged alone, spreading his pine-tree size out in full. That could not have occurred in our fuel-efficient sedan. That was also the trip where we smuggled a three-foot-tall carved bear up to my brother’s as a Christmas present, cloaking it with clothes so he wouldn’t see it when we arrived. We would have needed the van for that.
Karin drove that car on the long trips, but I drove it the most, daily to and from the train station for my commute, squeezing it into the spaces labelled compact. The van puffed up hills sometimes, and the brakes were pretty spongy, but it had a surprisingly small turning radius for its size. It was a nuisance to parallel park, though. Lee still remembers me trying to angle into a spot on the crowded streets of Berkeley, issuing expletives that made her ears burn. In my defense, please recall that this was before rear-view cameras. As I backed it up the driveway two days ago for the Grand Cleaning, I struggled between the mushy brakes and the no-camera, to make sure there was clearance from the door. I remembered correctly, too, that if you left at least a foot in front of the garage, the van would poke past the driveway into the sidewalk.
I got skinnier in that car. The pictures of 2001 remind me that when we first started raising kids, we didn’t eat all the green stuff and low-fat meals that permeate the household now. We used to put four bicycles in the back (two kid sized) when I could persuade the others to come on an outing. But most often, I threw my bike in there every weekend for 15 years.
While Lee continued cleaning, I rummaged around in the garage for the headrests for the back seats, removed more or less the week we bought it and shoved forgotten on a shelf. The two of us had trouble getting the middle one back on and pushed until we realized it was backward, then couldn’t pull it back off. As she gave a last tug to yank it free, a pencil briefly surfaced like a periscope, then dropped back in the hole. We looked at each other. “Kelson did it!” she immediately said, in that way children forswear: “It wasn’t me!” But I knew she was right. It really seemed like a boy thing, to shove a broken pencil into a random hole in a car, not knowing whether it might muck up the works.
Changing of the Guard
Lee got the van to take to college with her junior year. When it came home for the summer, there was her roommate’s boyfriend’s discarded clothing under a seat, along with a lot of candy wrappers and innumerable broken pens and pencils. There were weather-worn paperbacks stuffed into the seat backs and a travel bingo card–the one Lee was using in 2003, when we drove through the South Dakota and saw all the buffalo (as we pointed she shrugged and said, “It’s not on my bingo card…”)
She also had renamed the van; she said Penelope really never fit. She redubbed it Reinhardt, a character in the online game Overwatch that she plays deftly and dizzingly. Reinhardt is a gruff old warrior, covered with scars and wearing an outdated battle suit, but still able to defend the innocent and fight off the demons whenever called back into duty. The name did seem a lot more fitting.
“How’s that?” Lee said, turning off the vac. We were carefully stepping around the three extension chords precariously linked to the garage outlet, long enough to reach all the way down into the front of the van. “Does that meet your standards?”
She was being a little snarky and a little nervous at my answer. We’d had a few scuffles about housework, and she’d already worked a full day’s shift, starting at 6 am. Here, we were waiting on dinner, and she was diligently cleaning since the visit to the car dealer was scheduled for right after work the next day.
Actually, she did an excellent job. Without all the Skittles wrappers and ten-year-old Cheez-it crumbs, Reinhardt spruced up pretty well, looking almost ladylike. Younger at least.
As we opened and closed various doors to maneuver, I had to tug several times and hit the unlock button the key fob, again and again. “How long’s it been doing that?” I asked her.
“Pretty much the whole time.” she sighed. “It really feels like I’ve been driving it on its deathbed. I will say this, though, I got a lot of free meals, giving people rides at school.”
Out of My Hands
I didn’t get to go to the car dealer to watch the transaction because I’d agreed to a work thing. I hear that the sales guy oohed and aahed about what good shape Penelope Reinhardt was in for a 17-year-old relic. Yeah, there were dings. The one where I backed into a guy in a truck, where neither of us had looked but at least had been going slowly. (Not worth fixing, we both agreed). And the camping scrape, still there.
They gave us $793 in trade-in. My wife said she’s pretty sure that at least $200 was because it was so clean. The most excellent vacuuming.
I was right about one thing. It was more like a job interview.
The new Chevy is compact, much easier to park, with twice the gas mileage. It was a bargain, four years old with less than 10,000 miles on it. According to the dealer, a little old lady bought it and only drove it to church and the grocery store until she dinged somebody and, due to her age and whatever happened, her license was permanently suspended. After that the car sat unused until it finally went on the market, and Lee snapped it up. I don’t know if the little old lady story is true or not.
But it’s great for Lee to have a car that starts with a story. She’ll make more.
From my other post: First Car
Chip in for gas, friends!
My car goes where I aim it.
Just us. No parents.
–First car haiku