It wasn't really a gift or even a surprise but the car dealer put a giant red bow on the rearview mirror anyway.
Perhaps because my husband picked up the van without me in the week before Christmas, the staff figured he was playing Santa Claus. We don't have the kind of marriage financially or otherwise that allows for clandestine purchases of vehicles, so I knew it was coming. Still, the bow was a nice touch.
That was more than six years and 150,000 miles ago. I'm recalling the bow and the newness it once represented as I stand in a puddle at the “touch-free” car wash, waiting for a young man in wet sneakers to clean one of the cup holders for a second time. The first time, he left the sticky brown residue of chocolate milk in a perfect dried circle at the bottom of the vinyl well.
“Who had chocolate milk in the van?” I wonder. Probably the same person who left an unopened, but crumbled package of cheese and crackers in the seat pocket.
I spent the first 10 minutes at the car wash offloading trash crusts of peanut-butter toast from the passenger door's storage compartment, gum wrappers, two travel mugs, two eraser tips, a copy of Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express (not trash, just abandoned), a section of old newspaper, a collection of ponytail holders. At least this time there were no dirty socks.
Every so often, I land here in the deluxe car wash to reclaim my van from the clutches of life with four children. When I do, I promise myself that it's going to stay clean for a while.
“A while” is roughly three days.
I hadn't realized, before children, that, in addition to wreaking havoc on my sleeping patterns and our joint checking account, they would transform my vehicle from a tidy transportation system into a mobile snack-center-locker-room-confessional. My van fills more roles than the Batmobile though it doesn't float or fly, which sometimes would be helpful.
The change occurred immediately with the first child. One day I drove a pristine Honda Accord, and the next I realized its interior conveniently was the same color as old raisins, allowing them to blend into the carpet for weeks between visits to the “U-Vac” auto center.
The plush interior inside my Honda couldn't hide the smell of sour milk, though. It's a smell mothers get used to eventually, but not everyone can control the gag reflex it induces. I once offered to drive my boss to lunch so we could continue a meeting while eating a burger. My car had warmed nicely while sitting in our sunny employee parking lot, heating my eldest daughter's lost baby bottle to a putrid, curdled stink.
Being both a mother and the owner of the car, I simply didn't notice it. I should have realized there was a problem when my boss put his head out the window for the entire ride to the restaurant. Usually particular about his hairstyle, he allowed his meticulous comb-over to blow wildly in the breeze while he gasped for air and shouted over his shoulder, “Can't you smell something?”
It took a few weeks, but I finally found a bottle wedged under the upholstery, forced there by the back edge of the infant car seat that marked me as a changed woman.
These days, I spend roughly a third of my day in my minivan, a private office for parenting that holds 150,146 miles of secrets and tears, laughter and lessons.
It's where I first hear about long days at school or a lonely night at a dance. It holds gangs of friends on Halloween or a single, sad, homesick girl on her way back from a failed sleepover. It's the private space to explain a bad grade or a missed shot or a poor choice. It's familiar and safe, an extension of the home it finds almost by rote.
The dents and spots reveal my van's storied past. On the ceiling is a Diet Coke stain from a 2-liter bottle that rolled around undetected for a couple of days before exploding on the way to school; the bumper recalls the time I backed into a car parked at the bottom of my brother's driveway that belonged to a couple from China whose limited English did not include the words “no-fault insurance.”
The car-wash staff gets impatient when I ask them to re-vacuum under the third seat. “I'm sorry, but for $25, I have to insist you actually clean the car,” I say with a smile to hide my irritation. I've already put a tip in the jar, so I'm determined to get my money's worth.
Finally driving into the brilliant sunshine, I breathe in the “new car” air freshener I requested. In my perfect future, when my children are grown and gone, and driving cars of their own, I'll cruise about town in a sporty sedan that smells new for as long as I keep it.
I'll never open a rear door and find a forgotten trombone, an assortment of colored pencils, a geometry book or a half-eaten bagel. My car again will be my personal domain, its interior reflecting my neat-freakish personality.
Until then, I guess I'll just enjoy the perfect world I'm in now, raisins and all.
(Marybeth Hicks is a writer and author of the features “then again.” and “A View from the Pew.” A wife of 17 years and mother of four children from second grade to sophomore year, she uses her columns to share her perspective on issues and experiences that shape families and the communities we share. Marybeth began her writing career more than 20 years ago in the Reagan White House. She currently writes a column for the Washington Times. Learn more about Marybeth and her work at www.marybethhicks.com. This column first appeared in and is reprinted with permission from the Washington Times.)