Who remembers the TV show from the 60’s, “My Mother the Car”? It only ran for one season, and I was maybe 7 years old, but my imagination was captivated by the notion that one’s mother could be reincarnated and inhabit the spirit of your favorite car. I remember giggling through many of the arguments between mother and son. It was my earliest understanding that our cars become family — and saying goodbye can break our hearts a little bit.
I have always had a hard time saying goodbye — whether it’s to family on Christmas or to my dad as he was dying. Goodbyes are hard. It’s no different when it comes to the family car.
Growing up, it was a cherished station wagon — you know, the ones with the faux wood paneling on the sides — that I cried over as it drove away to its new home. That car was the only car I had known at the time. It took us on our family vacations with four of us in the back, untethered by seat belts (a thing of the future), bickering and fighting, wanting to know incessantly “are we there yet?” It was the car my mother drove and so after she died, it became one of those Mom-things I didn’t want to part with. Dad sold it for a newer model and we all stood there as the new owners drove it away, so very sad.
Fast forward to my first car as a young adult . . . a Nissan Sentra. It was 1981 and I had to finance it, but it gave me freedom and independence. When I was laid off of my job, it drove me across the country, to SF and new adventures. It was an automatic, but after a few years of braving the craziest hills this East-coast girl had ever driven, it was time to sell it and trade up. When the new buyer stood in my living room, counting out the cash, I felt those familiar pangs. But I had purchased a new Mazda 323 in a beautiful blue and I was ready for new adventures!
Except that it was a manual transmission and I didn’t know how to drive a manual. I lived in SF and the hills weren’t going to move for me, so I had to learn. Friends gave me the basics and then I drove in circles around the fairly flat Richmond district, where I practiced shifting from first to second, quickly to third, sometimes even into fourth gear.
This was a car I would love dearly. We drove — my car and I — throughout the Southwest, exploring parts of the Four Corners, Santa Fe, Taos, and Canyon de Chelly. I camped, sleeping in the tiny back fold-down, and rolled down the windows on long stretches of empty roads, cranking up the CD player.
When I finally sold it, I was married with two children. We had a van for family and Husband had been using the Mazda for his commute. But the lure of a first model Prius, with its incredible gas mileage, was too much for my Silicon Valley commuter and we quickly sold the Mazda as soon as the Prius landed at the dealer’s. The Mazda went to a good home — and like a new love, we were infatuated with the Prius silent motor, the dashboard graphics that showed you where it was drawing its power from (ok, with the Prius, “power” is not terribly powerful, but it was functional!).
That was almost 17 years ago. It had over 200,000 miles on it but had never been in an accident or even a fender bender. Until last week. Last week, it was parked (parked!) on the street in a quiet neighborhood when someone backed out of his driveway, with obvious acceleration — or maybe distraction. He plowed into our sweet car. Yesterday the insurance company told us they had to total it.
I ran over to the body shop to clean out the car — the glove box, the back seat, and even the trunk all held remnants of our life with this car. It had been a long, long time since we sold a car — and I’ve never had one totaled — so I was not prepared for the flood of emotions. I wept as I filled a yellow, plastic bag.
When we sold our van, I cried a bit — but the van was being driven away by a young dad who was expecting twins. I knew the car would be filled with babies and laughter, car seats, bottles, and toys — all the stuff of raising children. It was going to have a new life as a family car. But the Prius? There was no new life for it. This was a real good-bye. It struck me as fitting that it was parked in a handicapped spot.
This was the car that not only safely transported our babies, but it was also the car they practiced in and learned to drive. It was the car that became our teenagers’ car and finally removed “chauffeur” from my job title as Mom. For me, this car meant a loosening of schedules, more freedom. It provided countless, safe hours in the worst Bay Area traffic and brought my husband home each evening. Like the mother in that early TV show, this car had become part of the family.
Our cars do that, don’t they? They become treasured family members. We can track the stages of our lives by the cars we were driving — and we can track our ages just by naming make and model. When we say good-bye, we are often moving to another stage of life.
With the passing of our Prius — because it really does feel a little like a passing — we are staring at the beginning of our transition to an empty nest. Our HS Senior will need a car — but she’s heading off to college next year, so it’s likely to be the last “family car” she’ll drive before she buys her own, her first.
Good-bye dear Prius. With 17 years and 200,000+ miles under your hood, you had a good run. A good run indeed.