The Legend of the Cream Puff:
Told by our favorite guest writer, iHusband.
Yesterday we purchased a minivan.
Along with the other exhausting emotions that come along with buying a car, I am mindful today that this is not simply a car, it is a minivan. Something has changed. I am more irrelevant than I was only 24 hours ago. I find the music blaring from teenagers' cars louder than it was, I crave drive-through food, and I want to learn how to smock.
We did not intend to buy a minivan. It just happened, which is, I guess, the way these things go down. No one sets out to do something like this, you just wake up one day, you are in your 30s, and you own a minivan.
One of the more difficult parts of this transition was letting go of our beloved Toyota 4Runner, a car that served our family for 120K miles of childbirth, long sojourns from Evansville to Birmingham and back, and general family formation. In the interest of full blogging disclosure, I wept a bit on the way to the dealership, the last ride in that silver box-on-frame wonder. I may even have said a few words, just to let the car know how much I appreciated how hard it had worked for us.
It has always been hard for me to say goodbye to a car. I blame my parents--particularly my father--for that.
The first time my parents sold a car after I was born, a 70s model white VW Rabbit (white is a theme in cars purchased by my father), I did not understand what was happening. This was a member of the family. At five years old, I was convinced that if my parents were heartless enough to let go of the Rabbit, I could be next. I ran down Hawksbury Lane, crying for that poorly made German econobox to return. Luckily, my dad knew the woman who bought the car, so occasionally in those first few days, he drove my by it to let me know it was doing okay in its new home.
The next car to grace the Erickson family was a turn-of-the-decade Subaru wagon, in a delightful non-metallic creamy beige. This was my parents' first effort at a legitimate "family car" (as it became clear that they were going to continue bearing children), and it was not a terrible first effort.
This car took its place in family lore as the car that rolled down the street with me and my sister in it after I learned to pop the emergency brake myself. As my mother ran screaming after us, I calmly opened the passenger door to catch a tree, which slowed us down, and ensured that said door would never properly close again. The more famous incident surrounding this car, however, was a classic Brad Erickson moment, who, just a few years old at the time, took an orange marker and added flair to the creamy beige paint job the way only a two-year-old can. When my father questioned me about the recent highlights to the paint job, I turned to Brad, asked him his favorite color, and he replied "Owanj." I looked at my father, and said simply, "I rest my case."
While my father had company cars during this time, an endless array of suit-tone Oldsmobiles, it was my mother's car where the legends were born. You see, my father has an amazing ability to keep things clean, unbroken, unscratched. If my father owns it and it is metal, it has fresh wax on it. My mother is a more functional person, which means that she likes to keep her metal coated in coffee, toddler vomit, or cracker crumbs. Since Mom was outnumbered by her children 3 or 4 to 1 depending on the decade, she did not have a lot of time to coat things in wax.
But that did not stop my father from trying. When we made the pinnacle family vehicle purchase, a mid-80s Dodge Caravan in a metallic blue, my father took all four children to the car dealership, where we proceeded to make life hell for the local salesmen until they accepted my father's demands. If Mel Gibson were to make an epic movie based on my father's life, my father would lead a group of screaming middle-class businessmen into battle against car salesmen. His fervor has not changed since the 80s. Last year, when my brother got a great deal on a new Honda, the vehicle had to be driven over to Alabama from Mississippi (none of the Alabama dealers would match this fantastic price that my father had found. In Mississippi.). But when the car arrived, my father discovered to his horror that they had driven the vehicle over, instead of loading it onto a truck so that it would not have any miles on it. "This is a used car! My son wants a new car!"
The large slab surfaces of the Dodge Caravan seemed made for waxing, so my father would often be found outside shining it up until he could see himself in the paint. These waxing excursions always produced 2 reactions in my father. Inevitably, he would find a scratch in the car from the grocery store parking lot or carpool. My dad would rather the vehicle not be used for such dangerous missions, so he would come in and let my mom know about the scratch, imagining she would be just as horrified. The second reaction would always be to buff out the scratch, stand back 5 feet or so from the vehicle, and proclaim it "a cream puff." This second reaction could last up to 45 minutes, and could include the consumption of beer in a can.
The "cream puff" designation was the highest honor my father could bestow on a car. It had nothing to do with handling, or the mechanical reliability of a car. For some reason, it only referred to the paint. The Caravan, the car that basically saved Lee Iacocca and Chrysler, was a terrible car. It had a 104-horsepower Mitsubishi-sourced engine, a 3-speed automatic transmission, and was built on the "K" platform, the same exciting family of cars that brought you the "Reliant," the "Aries," and the "LeBaron." Any car that uses a French article in the name probably is not going to run well for very long.
And sure enough, within a few short years, the Caravan began to struggle to make it up our driveway. In this particular vehicle, "automatic transmission" meant "transmission roulette." Whenever something mechanical would break, my father would do the same thing: clean the car. I am convinced this is where I got my anthropomorphic respect for automobiles. My father seemed convinced that the cars would heal themselves, if only they were shown respect and love.
But while respect and love were being shown on the outside, my mother's kingdom of children and easily spillable beverages reigned on the inside. The Caravan's abundance of cupholders and child-friendly third row seat meant that my brother could often be found in the back, simply pouring his drink into the cupholder. Since my father rarely went to the very back of the van, these half-filled cupholders could remain that way for weeks or months.
When it finally came time to let the ol' Caravan go, my father put a fresh coat of wax on it, poured some Transmission Fix into the transmission case, and parked it on the side of a busy road in Rainbow City, Alabama. He sold it in just a few days for exactly what he was asking (too much). He loves to tell that story now because he sold it to a mechanic. For my father, that is almost as good as selling a used car to a car salesman.
As time has gone by, my father's memories of the Caravan have only grown fonder. Like a lost loved one, a car that leaves my family usually becomes more precious in my dad's eyes. Occasionally even now, he will pass a mid-80s Caravan on the road (because it can only muster 28 miles per hour), and he will pause with disgust at the lack of wax on the paint. He will remind us of the Cream Puff, and what a perfect car it was, and how good it looked when he sold it. To a mechanic.
Religious sociologists (both of them) say that the healthy pattern for a young adult is to dissolve whatever values and ideals their parents have instilled in them, struggle for a bit, and then create a worldview of their own. Often this worldview looks a great deal like their parents' perspective, whether or not the young adult realizes it.
As this generation of the Erickson family journeys into the alternate dimension of "Life With a Minivan," my hope for our kids is that they can fill up those slab sides and cupholders with their own memories of adolescence, some carbonated beverages, and maybe a keener sense of their parents' humanity.
To the Cream Puff.