A minivan, a maxi-crisis, and a life lesson from Jim

For some families this is an old story, a compromise made long ago. For us it is a new one. The day we bought our minivan, it rained for the first time in weeks. It's a sign, I said. Even the heavens are crying.

We should have swallowed hard and gone with a van years ago, but I had my principles. The fact that we enjoyed all the other trappings of suburban life - the house, yard, children, pets - didn't matter. It was the van that symbolized the suburban life I swore I'd never live.

Besides, I had a true bond with the old Saab my husband bought before we married. It was the car that carried our children home from the hospital, the one with the stained seat cushions and more than 200,000 miles on the odometer. I especially enjoyed pulling up to the school, disgorging my three long-legged children, then pulling a cello from the trunk for good measure.

But there came a moment last summer, a broiling afternoon when the air conditioning faltered and the exhaust system, too, when I began to doubt my motives. We needed new wheels and a minivan fitted us best. We chose one that was small for a van and made in Kentucky (my home state), I rationalized.

Besides, for a few weeks no one would know we owned it. I clung to this point most firmly, and it drove my kids crazy. They'd wanted a van for years, and now they wanted to show it off. "There go the Rileys, Mom, but they don't see us." Of course they didn't see us. In the suburbs you're known by what you drive, and we drive an old sedan. We had a good month of incognito road time ahead of us.

I was grateful for the grace period. It gave me time to contemplate how a van would change my experience of the road and the world. The first thing I noticed was how quickly I could accelerate; speed was not one of our Saab's strong suits. And then there was my new vantage point. Perched up high, a prelapsarian Yertle the Turtle, I could see for miles. I felt less vulnerable on the road. Motorists respected me more, too. I was sure of it.

But this heft and height came with a price. Our old car hugged the road so tightly I could downshift and lean into the corners. I'd felt almost like a race-car driver on one stretch of road I drove, a real perk on the third carpool run of the day. The Saab let me feel the bumps in the pavement. I knew I was alive.

Now I was floating along the highway on a cushion of air; my whipping-around-the-corner days were done. I am van woman. Watch me glide.

On the other hand, piloting a van helped me understand the suburban mind-set, which is largely about ease. The cup holders, the power windows, the CD player. The van sure beats waiting for the bus on a windy Chicago street corner, which I did in my single days. But our van's back windows can't be opened at all. The outside world is mere backdrop. No wonder vans have come of age at the same time as suburban sprawl.

All the time I was contemplating the "van-ness" of my new life I was also waiting for the moment when I'd feel the van was really mine. It came when I least expected it - on a dark fall night in a crowded parking lot.

I was attending the wake of our friend Jim, who'd lived in the Virginia suburbs for decades and had let us cultivate one row of his lush garden. Jim had found a way to turn suburban life into a pastoral idyll and he was still full of projects, his pampered fig tree just beginning to bear fruit. As I pulled into the tight spot I heard an ominous scrape. I quickly backed out, but it was too late. Our new white minivan had an unmistakable dent on the right-hand side.

I was heartbroken; the sad occasion became sadder. Even when a closer inspection revealed the damage was minor, for months I couldn't bear to look at that spot. Had van resentment clouded my judgment? Had I ruined our new car or baptized it?

A year later, driving the van has become second nature. I still worry that I've lost my edge and my principles. But when I look at the scratch I remember Jim, who never let the suburbs get him down. I think about how it's possible to lead a rich, full life anywhere. I wanted to be distinctive - and I am. Our van is the one with the marred right-hand side, the one that's been touched, if ever so slightly, by the life around it.

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