Van of My Dreams

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    Uh-oh, she’s making those sounds again – the grumbling, the whining, the full-throttle complaining. I’ve tried to ignore it, but it’s not fair to put her off any longer, especially when I consider how far we’ve come together.

    But there comes a time in every relationship when the road ahead is nothing more than one big billboard fashing four simple words: We need to talk. And now there’s no avoiding that sober conversation.

    Baby, it’s time to trade you in for a younger model.

    And who can blame me? Her mileage is north of 100,000 now (I won’t tell you just how far north) and we’ve made so many trips to the garage this year that the mechanics are ready to engrave my name on one of the waiting room chairs.

    But I suppose we haven’t always done our part keeping the old girl looking and feeling her best. We’ve skated past regular oil changes, averted our eyes from the “check engine” light staring us full in the face, and dragged our feet when the tire treads have worn narrow and smooth.

    It also doesn’t help that her interior looks about as tidy as a backwoods campsite taken over by gypsies. The foor mats and carpet are sticky with ancient candy and gum, every seat-back pocket is stuffed with leftover French fries, and hardly a week goes by without one driver or the other spilling an entire tumbler of coffee between the two front seats.

    Add to all that the exterior damage that testifes to everything we ever scraped or whacked in fast-food restaurant drive-thru lanes. The concrete parking curbs we unwittingly drove up and over. The times we crashed into cars in our own driveway.

    Then there are the pleas from the children, now twelve and ten. “It’s embarrassing, Dad!” they cry, and they don’t just mean the unrepentant chunka Chunka chunka of the crippled passengerside panel door lurching open and drawing stares from their friends in the school pick-up line. They mean the concept, the theory, the oeuvre of the minivan – the entire idea of a vehicle that seems to them an ancient relic of toddler days.

    Which it is, I’ll gladly admit. Yes, as a family I suppose we may now be past our minivan prime. But there was a day when those panel doors slid smooth and clean, allowing us to plop the kids into their car seats with the greatest of ease. We were just starting out, we were awash in strollers and Pack ‘n Plays and Exersaucers and Diaper Genies, and anywhere we needed to go, we could pack it all in the back of the van.

    But let’s face facts. Fixing her proper would require a new transmission (threeyear, 36,000-mile warranty, whichever comes frst), and even though I frmly believe in driving a car until the wheels fall off, well, like I said, there comes a time.

    The dealership makes it easy enough to think brand-new. Leave your van for an overnight diagnosis and they’re only too happy to offer you a loaner – which, in a crafty bit of salesmanship, is usually the latest, greatest model of the vehicle you’ve been driving for years. And it barely takes ten minutes for you to realize that automobiles have taken a great leap forward since you lapsed into your Rip Van Winkle slumber sometime back in the late twentieth century when all the cars you currently own rolled off the assembly line.

    Yes, you say as you settle in behind the wheel. I could get used to this. A full-bore navigation system embedded in the dashboard. More satellite radio stations than I’ll listen to in a lifetime. A rear camera that lets you see what’s behind you as you’re backing up. Windows that slow just slightly as they zip to a close.Leather seats that wrap their arms around you in a way you’ve never known before.Oh, yeah, mama. Where ya been all my life?

    Pretty soon we’re visiting showrooms with our kids in tow to test-drive the Modern-day, state-of-the-art, crossover SUVs. And their twenty-frst century delights go far beyond the virtues of that proverbial new car smell. There are TV screens embedded in the backs of the headrests. You can plug your smartphone into the convenient USB port inside the center console. There’s a sunroof and a moon roof and a constellation roof and sometimes all three. The one thing this year’s car doesn’t have is a key. Just press a dashboard button, and your engine revs to life.

    But as we fawn over the shiny new Range Rovers, Land Cruisers, and Pathfnders for every whim and price, I can’t help but glance back at our family van, once gleaming silver but now a faded gray, dour and downcast as she awaits word of her trade-in value.

    And I think: Which of these new models would give us that great windshield that invited us to behold a hundred road-trip vistas? Which interior offers room enough for heads and legs that will only grow taller and longer?And which among them could open their yawning rear-hatch maws wide enough to hold every beach chair, boogie board, and oversized cooler we can think to take along on vacation?

    Yes, we need to talk. And soon enough the day will come when even the charms of a rebuilt transmission won’t be enough to keep you rolling down the highway.

    But for now, the kids will just have to suck up their minivan shame. We’ll blot up the coffee and clean out the French fries and grease the tracks of your old panel door once and for all. With a bit of luck, a touch of paint and a timely oil change or two, we might just drive you another 100,000 miles.

    Or until your wheels fall off.Whichever comes first.