This is the post in which I pay loving tribute to my Toyota Sienna minivan, a vehicle that was the bridge between my single, career girl post-collegiate days and my present state as a working wife and mother of two.
The van saw me through it all over almost 15 years and 192,000 miles of faithful service. It still ran great, but it had a few minor problems. Sure, the emergency brake light was stuck permanently on, the van made a weird metallic creaking noise when I turned the wheel too far to the right, the brakes had all the firmness of overcooked pasta, and the front passenger door no longer opened from the outside handle. It needed a new set of tires stat.
I had a feeling the time was coming when something big would go wrong. I had previously committed to driving the car as long as possible, but trading it in just before the big repair bills and unreliability set it. I think I did pretty good.
But all good things must come to and end, and we decided the time had come to look for a new car.
It was bittersweet saying goodbye to the van. With my other previous 2 cars (I’ve only owned 3…well, now 4…cars in my life), I couldn’t wait to get rid of them. I would even say that I loathed them at the end. But the van. The van was very good to me – hands down the best vehicle I’ve ever owned (including the vehicles my husband has driven) and it steadfastly saw me (and my family) through so many changes and life events that it’s woven into our family history.
We bought the van back when Y2K was something to be excited about and feared at the same time. It was the fall of 1999 and my son had just turned 2. My daughter wasn’t even a blip on the horizon but we knew we wanted another child so we were planning ahead.
The van saw us through the turn of the millennium and the birth of our second child. It carried our daughter home safely from the hospital after she was born and carried all 4 of us on our earliest family road trips. It took our kids on their first visit to Disney World. It took both kids to their first day of kindergarten and middle school and carpooled our son through his first year of high school.
The van carried me back and forth to Tampa when my husband had brain surgery back in the late 90’s and I worried that he wouldn’t get to see our toddler son grow up, both in the sense that the ultimate Terrible Thing would happen and in the sense of the very real danger of permanent brain damage or loss of vision. Thankfully, none of that happened. I remember the day of his surgery, the still relatively new van carrying the two of us quietly down the dark and semi-deserted parkway in the pre-dawn hours to the hospital.
The van took the kids to all of their first practices, games, lessons, and playgroups and continued to ferry us to countless soccer, baseball, softball, gymnastics, tae kwon do, dance, tennis, and swim lessons, practices, rehearsals, meets, matches, and games. For years, folding camp chairs were a semi-permanent fixture in the back cargo area.
The van saw my daughter though her infant years, sitting backwards in her car seat – a rough patch on the headrest served as a silent reminder of the mirror that used to be affixed there so that I could see her in my rear view mirror. She went from rear-facing to forward-facing car seats to a booster set to a seat belt and graduated to being able to sit up front, all in the van.
The van saw my son go from toddler to teen with the additional step of bravely serving as his wheels when he learned how to drive. He took his driver’s test in the van and earned his operator’s license, proudly driving the van home as a newly licensed driver.
It carried us several hours south to Miami when my cousin’s little boy was in the hospital and served as a quiet restful place for my other cousin, his aunt, when the darkest news came and we were consumed with grief and she needed a respite from her long vigil for her nephew. It took us back home again, grief-stricken and quiet, and then took us down to Key Largo for his memorial service and again a month later to celebrate the birthday he would never get to have.
It took on on many joyful trips too – to Atlanta, the northern Georgia mountains, Pigeon Forge, Kentucky, back to Tennessee to Chattanooga, to Hilton Head, and all over North Carolina, including the nightmare trip driving up the dark icy mountain roads at night. It took us all over Florida, including beach trips every summer and to visit family. It took us to Tallahassee for my uncle’s funeral and back a few years later for my aunt’s second wedding at the age of 70-something. It took the kids to their first Gator Growl and Florida Gator game, and a few years later, to University of Florida’s open house for my son as a prospective incoming freshman. It’s rather surreal to attend open house at your alma mater as a parent.
The van went from being top of the line with all of the newest modern features (can you control the radio from the steering wheel…wha-whhaaat? Separate AC controls for the backseat too? No way!) to being outdated and behind the times. What do you mean there’s no port for my iPod and I have to use a cassette tape adapter? Never mind the fact that iPods didn’t exist when the van rolled off the assembly line.
I remember the school safety patrols in the elementary school car line standing at the curb, looking mystified at why the sliding door didn’t slide closed on its own after my kids got in the car. “It’s old school, kiddo – no power doors,” I would call. They would give me a look as if I had just mentioned a typewriter or rotary dial phone but graciously stepped over and pulled the door closed.
It went beyond outdated to being charmingly and unabashedly retro, casting a skeptical glance and quirking an eyebrow at such flavor-of-the-month bells and whistles – looking at you Bluetooth connections and back-up cams. The van wasn’t concerned – these things will come and go just like the rest. Remember automatic seat belts? What a flash in the pan. The van simply endured.
The van was the first new car my husband or I had ever bought and as young and fairly newly marrieds with one child and another in the game plan, it was a leap of faith to spend that kind of money on a car. But we figured we would try it – an experiment of sorts- to see if we took really good care of a new car that we new hadn’t been abused or misused, would it take care of us? Turns out, it did.
We almost traded it in 2009 when we got hit with a sizable repair bill. I think it was the timing belt or serpentine belt or maybe both. It was $1,600 – I do remember that. My husband and I were having dinner at Chili’s with his family after we got the call from the repair shop and it was there over nachos and chili con queso that we hashed out whether to repair or trade. We weren’t sure if this repair bill was just the beginning of more Big Giant Repair Bills and unreliability or just a fluke.
We had had the van for 9 1/2 years at that point and we thought maybe the time had come to trade. But then we figured at an average of $500 per month for a new car payment, if the repair got us more than 3 to 4 months more on the road, we were to the good. So repair it was. Good thing too because 6 months later, I was out of a job and things were tight and panicky enough without a $500 car payment too. I remember revisiting our dinner at Chili’s and being so very thankful that we decided on the repair.
Fast forward a few years and the AC compressor had to be replaced. It made a horrible and embarrassing grinding growling sound that drew stares when I started her up in the parking lot or while I crept through the car line to pick up the kids at school. I would turn off the AC and stay on vent when I got close to the curb to pick up or any time I had to sit and idle when people around me. We nicknamed the van the Angry Van at that point but the van resumed its easy-going personality once a new compressor was in place.
Here we are, several years later and other than the belt and the AC, we’ve had nothing more than routine maintenance and minor repairs. Far from being the beginning of the end, the $1,600 repair was a fluke. Which brings us back to the beginning of this post. The time had come to say goodbye to the van.
Pulling up to various car showrooms in my almost 15 year-old minivan (with the original paint job too), was a bit embarrassing. At our first stop, my husband parked front and center – I imagined the salespeople licking their figurative chops over the easy pickings that we were – clearly, we needed a new ride, stat. At our next stop, I suggested that we park our noisy geriatric vehicle in a less visible location.
With each test drive, I found myself wondering what adventures and elements of life our next vehicle would see us through. As I drove, I would ask myself “Is this the one?” I wondered if it would be as reliable as the van. Would it be as accommodating? Assuming I drive the new car as long as I drove the van, I could have grandchildren in 15 years that will ride in the new car. Yikes, now there’s a sobering thought!