Saying Goodbye to the Family Car and the Memories That Came with it

It's been with me since I became a parent. It's carried our family through a lot.

by Neil Turner

Like most newly expecting couples, my wife and I made the requisite first two purchases. The first one was a camcorder. The second one was a car more suited to hauling around an 8-pound baby and the 600 pounds of accessories and supplies that go with it. The camcorder model we bought was obsolete within two months of buying it. The car we bought has 200,000 miles on her and is sitting in the garage, its tires still warm from running kids all over town.

Her name is Bluebell. Or maybe Blue Belle. I have never really given much thought how to spell it until just now. She didn’t come with that name, of course. It didn’t have one until years later when my daughter Ella got to the stage of naming things. It’s a blue Toyota Highlander, so the name seemed to fit, even if it wasn’t high on the imagination scale. Ella still names things and the creativity has dialed up over the years. Usha’s Volvo has the name Fishlegs.

When we got Bluebell, she only had a couple of dozen miles on her. I think back to Usha and I leaving the lot in Bluebell and how shiny new, unscratched, and naive we all were embarking down the parenthood road. Neither she or we could have predicted the journeys and adventures the next years would bring. None of us were expecting the highs to be so highs and the lows to be so low.

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It’s an interesting exercise to consider how the world and our lives have changed when looked at from the point of view of a car. Consider that Bluebell has factory-installed cassette players and ashtrays. When last did you hold a cassette in your hand? More than one guest has asked to connect their music via Bluetooth. Nope.

Befuddled, they follow up with “I guess I can plug it in if you have a cable.” Nope. No cable and no place to plug one in. But I have a Wheels on the Bus CD if you don’t care for the radio station.

Bluebell is missing all of today’s popular add ons. No handsfree phone, no onboard navigation, no DVD player, no backup cameras, no auto-lift gate, no heated seats, and no cooled seats, either. But she is still the fanciest car I have ever owned. I suppose that’s not too high of a bar as most of the others were just lucky if they had matching hubcaps.

It’s not just technology that has changed. When we bought Bluebell, we were still newly enough married to go parking on a date night. Heck, we still had date nights. I also had hair, was two pants sizes smaller, and could have a drink without getting sleepy.

All-in-all, and certainly by comparison to me, Bluebell’s held up well.

Despite her age and miles, she still gets me where I need to go…and sometimes in a hurry. A couple of years ago, I was a few hundred miles away from home and out to dinner with dear friends. Just after we sat down, my phone began ringing. Caller ID said it was Usha’s phone and figured it was Ella trying to reach me, so ignored it with plans to call her back later.

She called again. And again. So I excused myself, stepped outside, and returned the call worried it might be Usha and it might be an emergency.

When I called back, sure enough it was Ella. I was cross with her for not having better phone manners than to repeatedly dial over and over. “Ella, you can’t call like that unless it’s an emergency!”

“Well, there are about eight nurses and two doctors in here. I think this counts.”

Usha was in the emergency room. Dinner ended and Bluebell flew down some back highways at more than 100 mph. The old girl still had it. Usha was okay, thankfully. And while I hope to never have cause to test it again, I have little doubt she would be capable.

My car has never left me stranded by the side of the road. Sure there was that blowout 12 miles outside of Pampa on a 12 degree, 50 mph wind day after Thanksgiving. Not fun conditions to change a tire, especially when accessing the spare meant unloading the luggage and bags of Christmas shopping from the back. Not a car passed by for 10 minutes, but as soon as one bag of presents rolled into the highway it got plowed over by a BMW speeding its way back to the Metroplex. Not even the rubber Gumby survived. If you didn’t get a Christmas present from me in 2007 and you were expecting one, now you know why.

But you can’t hold Bluebell accountable for me not checking the tire pressure before setting out on a seven hour drive. So she gets a pass and I paid the price for my mistake with the challenge of changing a tire with numb fingers and frozen-air blasted eyeballs.

The only real problem Bluebell has had over the years is with the air conditioner. The number of times her compressor or blower needed to be replaced is surely in the double digits. More than once, it failed in the middle of summer and more than once I have sworn that was the last straw. Many of the repairs were covered by warranty and even after the ones that weren’t, as soon as the air was blowing cold again the idea of car shopping suddenly would lose appeal.

Lately, I have been giving more thought to replacing Bluebell. “Lately” meaning I’ve talked about it off and on over the last few years. Truth be told, I haven’t really been in any hurry for another car. I think I just talk about it, because I know one day it will be inevitable.

I have never been prone to sentimentality over vehicles. Maybe it’s because of the having cars with hubcaps thing and always being excited about something nicer. But that is probably just a small part of it. After all, there are some really nice cars and features these days.

The more likely reason is I have never been a parent without her. The crayon marks, the kid throw-up, the roll down your window diaper blow-outs. Those pull-over-the-car-because-a-kid-said-something-so-funny-you have-to-belly-laugh moments. The sing-alongs with funny words. The serious conversations about boys or why kids at school can be mean. My mind is filled with other examples, but it all fits under the umbrella of quality time you get with kids in the car that doesn’t happen any place else.

Bluebell has been with us to drive all three of our kids home from the hospital. That includes driving at 12.5 mph with Ella because of new dad overcautiousness. Once she had to carry me home from the hospital when I had to leave my daughter behind after she died.

The highest of highs. The lowest of lows. She has seen a lot. More than we ever could have imagined on her purchase day.

To this day, my car knows secrets no others do. She knows I like a good road trip and that isn’t a secret to many. But what has been a secret until now, is that she also know that if I am on a road trip by myself two hours is the most I can go before crying. Two hours without the distractions of phones, tvs or computers and my mind has too much time to think and too many memories of things I miss and I hit a limit.

Someday, I’ll be breaking in another car. She will have to learn that secret and the others. She won’t have the full history and won’t understand. But that’s okay. She’ll make her own memories. And maybe she will get a name even cooler than Fishlegs.