Ode to the family minivan, upon its demise

The other night, at about 1.15am, our 19-year-old son woke us up to say there was a problem with the car he had just driven home from work.

A "predicament", I think he said.

Previous "predicaments" involving our decrepit 2005 Honda Odyssey have usually been reported by Sam over the phone, sometimes from faraway places, as the much-travelled minivan suffered its protracted death throes.

My first thought, as I tried to clear my head and put on my slippers, was that at least this situation was nearby. But it turned out to be worse than usual.

Sam has been living at home and going to college and playing in a band. This summer, he got a job washing dishes at a restaurant and gets home late, so we worry about him in the city in that dilapidated old hulk.

It has chalked something like 289,680km on it - family trips with four kids, mad dashes to grandma's house through holiday traffic, teenagers learning to drive and, lately, Sam hauling his band's amplifiers and drums all over the region at all hours of the day and night. He seems to get flat tyres every couple of months.

The van has been squeaking and thumping and burning oil like crazy. Our mechanic said it would cost more than its worth to fix, but with college bills and our recent move to Richmond, Virginia, we just could not deal with the expense of replacing it yet.

So, yes, the minivan has been on borrowed time. And we were lucky that Sam was turning into the driveway when it finally did what it was going to do.

There is a dip at the foot of our driveway and the van had stalled in the dip, with its rear end jutting into the narrow neighbourhood street.

We could not push it out of the dip in either direction - it was too heavy or we were too tired.

Sam thought it might be out of petrol. Naturally, my lawn mower petrol can was empty, so I had to drive my car to a petrol station and fill the can. But the petrol did not help, so we decided to try a jump-start. That worked, for a moment, but the van cut off when Sam tried to shift into reverse.

As 2am and then 2.30am rolled by, we kept jump-starting and trying to outsmart the dying van, until smoke was pouring off the radiator.

My wife, Joanna, had come out onto the front porch. We huddled. I tried calling tow-truck services.

One after another, promising 24-hour emergency towing, either would not answer the phone or told me they had no truck available.

Sweaty, with my night's sleep ruined and sure that a car was going to hurtle down the street and smash the back of the van at any moment, I felt trapped.

"I hate that van so much, I don't even want to look at it," I said.

My wife and son were quiet for a moment.

"It's actually been a pretty good car," Joanna said.

Sam agreed. "I was going to say..." he began.

Immediately, I felt like I had kicked the dog. They were right.

The dents on all four sides of that van are a record of 13 years of swim meets, sleepovers, school meetings and snowstorms.

The stains on the carpets are summertime Slurpees and maybe a few bad reactions to winding mountain roads.

We literally took the brand new van from the dealership to a soccer tournament in a driving rainstorm; the new-car smell lasted less than 24 hours before it was overtaken by mud and sweat.

There is dog hair between the seats and beach sand everywhere. Probably 17,648 bobby pins from our daughter Caroline's prepping as we hustled her, always late, to ballet lessons.

And one compartment in the back is crammed with river rocks that our son Will must have collected over years of hikes.

Under the centre console is the 2001 Rand McNally road atlas that got us everywhere before Google Maps ruined my best dad skill.

It is all there, all our lives as a family, from army men in the secret box under the floor to a folding chair in the back that was cast off from a college dorm room.

It was just as well that I could not get a tow truck that night.

We finally summoned enough desperate strength to push the dead van back onto the road and park it along the kerb.

It was after 3am and I was thinking, as miserable as this was, there was something magical about being out there solving this problem.

The van did, one last time, what it always did - bring us together.

That's it, though - there is no going back. It would not leave that spot under its own power. We are donating the van to a charity that helps children.

We no longer have a vehicle that our whole family will fit into. Which seems sad, but there are girlfriends now and the whole family could not fit into anything smaller than a bus. So we are moving on and making new memories.

But let me say this: All you new parents who moan about what you are giving up if you buy a minivan? Get real. You have no idea how much you will love that thing.


• The writer is a reporter with The Washington Post.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 14, 2018, with the headline 'Ode to the family minivan, upon its demise'. Print Edition | Subscribe