Sometimes a vehicle becomes inextricably linked with the life of a family. In this essay, which originally appeared in the Globe and Mail in September 2019, I wrote about saying goodbye to my minivan.
On a February morning nearly 13 years ago we pulled into the driveway, excited and proud, and lined up our kids for photos. It was a momentous day, but back then we had no idea how it would ultimately shape our lives.
We had resisted. We knew it marked us as uncool. But we had become minivan people.
It was shiny and silver, with sliding doors and a nifty tape-deck/CD-player combo stereo system. It had tons of space and, even though it was already three years old and had been “previously loved,” we were enthralled.
Now, I should tell you that I’m no gearhead. To me, a car is useful for carting groceries and getting from point A to point B. What it looks like doesn’t matter. And climate change worries me deeply so I regularly take public transit.
But living in the suburbs with two active boys and a dog, and with family spread across vast distances from Northwestern Ontario to Ottawa to Florida, sometimes you need a set of wheels that can carry everyone and everything. So, in the depths of winter that year my husband and I traded our sporty compact car for a used minivan, making room for baby seats and cargo, dog beds and the detritus of daily life.
Now the kids are almost grown and the dog has passed on. The minivan is spending nearly as much time in the shop as on the road. The time has come to let it go.
And it’s breaking my heart.
That van is inextricably linked to so many memories. School runs, soccer games and a gang of 10-year-old boys piled in for a big day at Canada’s Wonderland.
Cottage weekends and camping trips. The time we saw a moose on Highway 17 near Nipigon, Ont., and then realized the poor moose was only on the road because it was being chased by a bear.
Short jaunts, long drives – such as the 24-hour journey to Florida to see the grandparents and the three-week epic holiday to the Maritimes – with long conversations and lots of Gordon Lightfoot and classic rock playing on the cassette deck, and kids in the back seat with headphones on.
I’ve laughed my head off in that van, heading out for the evening with amazing friends, and cried my eyes out when life threw curveballs, including the death of someone I loved.
I’ve dreamed and planned and gradually pulled a home together while travelling on those four trusty wheels, and the results are all around me. We packed in a massive lamp that my sister was getting rid of that now looks great in our living room. We brought home the apple tree sapling that’s grown into the centrepiece of our yard. We even managed to fit a full-size, fully assembled barbecue in there once – and made trip after trip with all the materials my DIY husband needed to finish the basement.
There were white-knuckle drives through sudden blizzards on the way home from the many curling bonspiels my youngest son competes in. And that day last March when we got lost in rural Quebec but discovered the most picturesque snow-covered village I’ve ever seen.
Prom and graduation, when we found ourselves with a car full of young men all dressed up in suits and excited about the future – some of whom had been part of that gang of 10-year-olds on the Wonderland trip.
There was also that last drive to the veterinary clinic with our beloved family dog. We put a tiny envelope with a lock of her fur in the glove compartment on the way home afterward even though, if I’m being honest, she never really liked car rides. But we miss her and it was a way to keep her close.
I know it’s just a vehicle. But the first time I watched my teenagers drive off in it alone, I realized they were growing up. We moved our eldest to college residence in that van last fall.
There were days when it drove me nuts, too. On frigid winter mornings, the sliding doors freeze shut, so anyone who wants to sit in the back seats has to climb in through the front. There’s the fold-down seat in the back that, well, just doesn’t at the most inconvenient times.
Still, we’ve held on to our van for as long as possible. It never ever let us down or left us stranded, although every year the repair bill grew a little higher and we faithfully fixed whatever was needed to keep it safely on the road.
The body is in great shape, other than some scratches on the roof where we’ve loaded and unloaded kayaks countless times over the years, and some stone chips from those backcountry adventures down gravel roads. There’s no rust, the engine runs well – but now the brakes are failing, there are problems with the suspension, there’s a crack in the windshield and the exhaust system needs to be replaced. As fast as we fix them, the list of expensive repairs just seems to keep growing.
On the day we decided to go out looking for a newer, smaller, more energy-efficient replacement, rain flooded in through the seal around the top of the windshield. I took that as a sign. The van was telling us it was time.
Saying goodbye is never easy. As we close the minivan chapter of our lives, my heart is a little wistful – not just for the much-loved and somewhat battered metal box on wheels that we’ve driven around for more than a decade, but for the days, months and years that have passed in a blur.
The story of our van is the story of a family.
Farewell, old friend. Thanks for everything.
Monta Johnson lives in Oakville, Ont.