The phases of her life can be spelled out in cars

The Middle Ages

Staying young, growing old and what happens in between

December 23, 2007|By SUSAN REIMER

BUT MOM, that van defines you," my daughter, Jessie, said during the family's latest round of musical cars.

The 10-year-old Lumina we had given her to drive had serious health issues and it was time for a new car.

But the suggestion that she take a seat in my 10-year-old Chevy Venture and that I get the new car was met with howls of protest. The notion that a child will drive any car just to have a car to drive was proving false.

"What if I don't want to be defined that way?" I said, taking the argument into impracticably esoteric levels. "What if that is not how I see myself?"

Hold on, my husband said. Can we stick to the topic? This is about a car, not about personal development.

The truth is, the van did define me, just as all the cars in my life have defined me -- or at least the me I was when I was driving them.

For a decade, that birds'-egg blue van had been the giant pushpin that placed me on the map of my children's lives -- the soccer and lacrosse fields, the gyms, the concession stands, the schools.

The van's impossible color let everyone know where I could be found. If there was any doubt, the bumper stickers promoting my children's teams and schools were confirming evidence.

I bought the van because I wanted to be what I was -- a soccer mom -- and all the soccer moms were driving mini-vans back then. But it was a practical decision as well. The van, with its three rows of seats, provided a DMZ for my battling middle-schoolers.

And it had plenty of room for friends and equipment for sports tournaments, all the beach vacation supplies and the Christmas presents that went home with us to Pittsburgh every year.

It had room for a couple of friends and another parent on the college tours. Flip down the seats, and there was room for all the stuff you need for your college apartment.

The van was a far cry from the Datsun 210 that I drove right out of college. I remember putting a $5 bill from each paycheck in an envelope in the glove box to cover a week's tank of gas.

I traded that little lunch box of a car for a Chevy van and my father helped convert the interior, with carpet and cabinets, into a kind of poor man's RV. I quit my job and spent six months traveling around the country in it. The college sweetheart who had become my husband did all the driving, and my mother was sure that's why we divorced at the end of the trip.

It was also far from the Datsun 200 SX I drove as a newly single woman between marriages. That car was silver and it had a stick.

I traded that racy 200 SX for a station wagon not long after I brought my first child home from the hospital -- it was impossible to load a car seat in the back of a two-door sports car -- but there was more to it than that. I was officially trading in one kind of life for another, and my car was the symbol of it.

Likewise, the blue van was my entree into the group of women deciding elections in those days, its size symbolizing the impact our choices had on the economy and politics. We soccer moms were the deciders. Our vehicles should reflect that.

But the truth was, we had given our lives over to our children and we needed a vehicle big enough to carry all those lives.

Those kids are out of the house now, in college and working, and driving their own lives.

Jessie inherited her father's 4-door coupe during the car crisis of last summer, and I was stuck with the van.

I started then trying to make the case for a sexy but sensible Prius for me. I thought maybe that was how I wanted to be defined now.

"You need a car big enough for you to carry your life around in," my husband said as I loaded the old van with dry-cleaning, groceries, items to be returned, books on tape, a gym bag, a brief case, a lunch bag and a purse.

Well, I have a new car today, and it is red. Not midlife-crisis red. More find-it-in-the-parking-lot red.

It is a Saturn VUE -- a kind of combination SUV and mini-van -- and not a sexy little Prius. It has heated seats and lumbar support and it makes my back feel better, even if it doesn't make me feel irresistible.

It is the practical choice, because I am still responsible for hauling our lives to the beach or home from college, and you can't do that in a Prius.

I guess I am still the one carrying everyone else's life around with me.

You just can't always see it in the back of the car.

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