Confession: I’ve never owned a new car.
Every one I’ve ever driven has been a hand-me-down Honda. They all started with my grandpa, who drove each one for about one year, kept it in perfect condition, then passed it down to my mama. Of course, he wouldn’t give it to her outright. He’d ask her to pay $1.00.
Then, my dad would drive it, then me, then my younger siblings. By the time it got to my brother, it was well-loved and ready to be recycled. Of course, by that time another vehicle was already making its rounds. My grandpa’s been gone for five years now, but I can count at least three of us that are still cruising around in cars he once called his.
There was one I got to keep for a little longer, though. I got Rhonda right before I went to college. She was dark, hunter green and my dad had worn her in well for me.
When she arrived at North Carolina State, she was in pretty good condition. Sure, the cloth seats were threadbare in spots and the steering wheel cover was cracking, but as contractors and real estate agents say about old homes, she had good bones. In my 19-year-old hands, however, those bones aged a little faster.
I ate so many burgers and late-night nachos in that thing I’m surprised the gears didn’t stick from cheese. I wore out the speakers playing country music when I was happy and angsty punk when I wasn’t. I dated my now-husband in that car for almost 10 years. There’s no telling how many times we sat in it alone in the dark outside my townhome, talking about our future, or fighting, or making up.
We drove it back home and started a life together after graduation. We parked it outside our little brick house that didn’t have a garage and exposed it to the elements. Giant pecans fell from above and pock-marked the roof. Pin oak leaves fell behind the windshield wipers and practically buried it in the fall.
It was big enough for us, but barely. My husband is tall and broad-shouldered and any tiny sedan was a squeeze, much less a 2001 model that lacked extra legroom or any of the smart features that today’s cars are equipped with.
In the spring of 2014, we bought our first car seat. I read way too many reviews online and finally found one that fit our budget and got at least 4/5 stars on Amazon (my super-scientific measurement criterion).
We got it and unboxed it. We took it outside and gleefully moved up the front seat to make room. It fit, but everything was shifted and pushed way up. Still, we made do and in June, I delivered a seven-pound baby girl, while Rhonda delivered us safely back home.
I sat in the backseat and held her hand the whole way there, totally terrified.
We managed that way for almost two years. I’d duck my head and protect hers with my hand and somehow navigate her into her tiny seat day after day. I rode shotgun with my knees to my chest just so she’d have enough legroom.
When we found out we were expecting another baby, we tried to figure out the logistics. We’d move one seat to the middle, and the other could go behind the passenger’s side. But, weren’t babies safer on the sides than the middle? What about getting them in and out? I should also mention there were no car seat clips in Rhonda – just a seat belt and buckle system. It worked, but took 10 hands and a Harvard education to finagle.
We bought a bigger, transitional car seat for our daughter and planned to move our new baby into her old seat. We put them both in the Honda and looked at each other.
It was time for a change. For the first time, the words “new car” crossed my mind. The only problem? I had no idea where to start. We didn’t even have a credit card and we were in no position to financially take on another monthly payment.
I went online and researched how to find loans with no credit. I cleaned Rhonda top to bottom, all while playing really sad folk songs on my phone and thinking about our time together (pregnancy hormones).
We sold her to a family friend for a steal and he took it off for his first year of college. During the clean, I lost a really important homemade necklace with a stone given to me by my dad. I never found it and like to think it’s still hidden under a floor mat somewhere in there, riding around and keeping him safe.
Graciously, we were gifted another secondhand family vehicle, our first non-Honda. It’s an SUV that’s a little larger and can accommodate a family on the go. It even has car seat clips. What a world!
But, every time I cruise down Main Street and see a dark Honda, I do a double-take. It’s not her – she’s in Raleigh. But I see one just like her and think about when I was young and just as green. A sleep-deprived college student, then a sleep-deprived young mom. I remember the Sonic runs and the burnt CD my sister made me when I left home and our shared bedroom wasn’t shared anymore.
The wet towels on the way home from the pool and the melted chocolate in the cup holder I could never get out.
She taught me how to navigate big city streets in the dark. She survived a gas station bump up and gracefully wore a giant bruise while I tried to navigate filing a claim against the uninsured motorist. She felt my shaking hands as I drove to my first real job, and she saw my hot, wet tears on the nights that job got really hard. She cradled my babies.
When I saw her drive away, I thought of those babies. The ones who’ve seen me through the worst of it all, too. The ones who don’t care if my hair hasn’t been washed since last Thursday and love me just the same in my pajamas or my church dress. The ones who look at me with big, round, blue eyes and listen to me like I’m translating some ancient secret scroll.
They’re not all that different from Rhonda. They take me where I need to go and they just get me. They’re usually a little stained and grimy but they’re nothing if not wholly loved.
I hold onto things that last. I grab onto them and love them fiercely even when the shine fades. And when they roll off toward college, I miss them before they even leave the driveway. That applied to my old car, and it applies to these new children, too.
I’m at the wheel, but they’re very much the navigators. Showing me new discoveries, leading me to new and beautiful places, and guiding me into journeys unfamiliar.
I do have one request, though, ever the backseat driver that I am.
Slow down, kids. This ride is going way too fast.