The cars of our lives
According to studies, Americans spend about 37,000 hours of their life in their cars. The soundtrack of our lives is the thrum of rubber on pavement, a constant backbeat to our daily grind. It’s so constant that sometimes we don’t even notice it, like the way the windshield wipers keep time with a song in our head.
I’m not a car guy. Truth be told, I don’t know a piston from a camshaft. But I do believe the vehicles we drive say something about us. The vehicles we own mark a moment in our lives, don’t you think? They’re more than just a setting; they become part of the story, a character. In looking back through my life, I link certain periods with whatever I was driving.
I passed my driving test in my mom’s 1978 red Thunderbird, which was a decade old at the time. Let me tell you, parallel parking that behemoth was like docking a battleship. But I passed. Somehow.
My first car was a silver Datsun 280ZXR with a blue racing stripe and a spoiler. A two-seater, it had little room for anything else besides the driver, a passenger, a stick shift, and the smell of leather. The thing about a car like that is that it never mattered where you were. It was all about where you were going and how fast you were going to get there. They said its top speed was 130 mph. I never went that fast, but I likely tried once or twice. Predictably, my time with that car ended in a wreck so bad that my ankle can still tell you when it’s going to rain. Back then, I guess I thought the faster I drove, the quicker I’d get to my life.
I passed my driving test in my mom’s 1978 red Thunderbird, which was a decade old at the time.
After that I owned a used Ford Mustang; it was a four-seater from that era when Ford forgot to make Mustangs cool. It perfectly mirrored me. I wanted to be cool but wasn’t. I went on many road trips in that thing, and finally it just up and died — a sad day.
After college, I bought a blue Neon. As I was traveling long distances for my job as a reporter, my lovely new wife suggested that it was an economical and smart purchase. I call it my first boring car. I don’t even remember what happened to it. I do remember it started underwater once when I was reporting on a flood. I wrote a lot of stories in that car, but to me it was always just a cubicle on wheels.
But I will tell you that I made one of the biggest (and best) decisions of my life in that car. My first daughter was crying all the way to day care. She wanted to stay with me. I had to get to work at the newspaper, though, so I lifted her out of the car, tried to console her, carried her in, hugged her, and walked outside. But the truth is, I never made it back to my car. I could still hear her crying. And that’s where everything changed.
Standing still in a parking lot on a random Monday — that’s where I finally made up my mind that either my wife or I were staying home to raise the kids. (She was already pregnant with our second daughter.) I called in sick that day, walked back into the day care, picked her up, and we spent the day together. As I was walking out with her, the lady told me I would still be charged for half a day. I told her that was fine. When I put my daughter back in her car seat, I played peekaboo in the rearview mirror. One moment there, and the next moment gone. She could laugh because she knew my big fat smiling face was always coming back. That was the most important and best game of peekaboo of my life, and it changed everything.
Standing still in a parking lot on a random Monday — that’s where I finally made up my mind that either my wife or I were staying home to raise the kids.
I started working from home after that. And I bought my first seven-seater van. No measly four-seater could handle the growing Archbold clan. I get it. Minivans are a national punch line. So clichéd. Common, yes … but that’s commonly where our lives take place. Life drawn on palates of white diamond pearl, lunar silver metallic, or obsidian blue with a gray or black interior and 17 convenient cup holders.
When I think about my messy, loud, wonderful van, I don’t think about where we were going. I recall the heavy eyes of toddlers nodding off in car seats, their wide-open eyes the first time they saw mountains, the smiling braces, the sing-alongs, the laughter, the smell of sweat from practices, the wind blowing their hair because the air conditioner didn’t work, ice cream, and pumping the brakes slowly because the baby was sleeping. All that life. That laughter. That love.
From a guy who drove a 280ZXR, I still say that van was the most exciting car I ever owned. That’s where everything happened. That’s where life got messy. I realized then that you didn’t have to drive fast to get to life. Sometimes the good parts just showed up, such as when you were going 15 mph in a school zone as your son excitedly recounted how his teacher threw up in school. From the way he told it, it was like a free trip to Disney.
From a guy who drove a 280ZXR, I still say that van was the most exciting car I ever owned.
Or when we pulled into our church parking lot on Good Friday to attend a prayer service and I told the kids they had to be quiet because it was noon and Jesus was on the cross right now, and my little one jumped up and yelled, “Let’s go save him!” You don’t get stories like that in a two-seater sports car. There’s no room for them.
I drove that van to school, volleyball, basketball, softball, dance classes, Christmas concerts, Mass, birthday parties, and a million other places. I literally drove it until a wheel fell off. I’m not kidding. We were driving, and the front right tire just came right off. I watched it roll past us down the road. So we got a new beautiful shiny van that soon became messy and wonderful, too.
We’ve taken many long trips in our van. And this month I’ll drive my oldest daughter to college for the first time. She’s already packing. The little girl who didn’t want me to leave is leaving me — at least for a few months. I’m excited for her, but I’m not looking forward to it.
I literally drove it until a wheel fell off. I’m not kidding. We were driving, and the front right tire just came right off.
I’m sure she’ll smile at me in the rearview mirror as we head there. I’ll hug her, and then I’ll go back to the parking lot. But this time I’ll drive off. There’s no calling in sick from this one. She’ll be there one moment and then gone; it’ll be the hardest game of peekaboo I’ll ever play.
But just like 17 years ago, I won’t be able to wait to go back and see her. When she says she wants to come home for break or even for a weekend, I’ll drive this old, messy, wonderful van maybe a little faster than I should. I’ll drive until the wheels come off. And my big fat face will be smiling.
Editor’s Note: This story first appeared in the September 2018 print edition of Catholic Digest.