Elegy for a Minivan: Mourning the Demise of the Lovably Uncool Family Car

minivan elegy
Itani/Alamy Stock Photo

The last time I saw my minivan was at a wrecking yard in Richmond, California. Just a few yards up the road loomed one of the San Francisco Bay Area’s largest active landfills, the final resting place for everything plastic and unrecyclable. It seemed like an appropriate place for a car to die. My ex-wife and I signed our names and transferred the title. I posed for one last picture next to the van and then hitched a ride home with my ex.

I had scoffed several months earlier when an obscure regional government agency sent me a letter offering a thousand bucks if I agreed to take my 1996 Nissan Quest off the road. I was no reckless polluter! My minivan had never failed a California smog inspection. The odometer broke a few years back, so I can’t say exactly how many miles were on the car, but the total was surely under 200,000. It seemed greedy and disrespectful to put the old warrior down at the first whiff of a state handout.

But then, a few months later, the engine overheated. My mechanic told me that the cooling fan was busted, which would be a $500 job. He also noted signs of long-term engine wear. Without rebuilding the entire engine, he said, there was a chance the minivan could seize up randomly on the freeway. When your mechanic tells you to stop giving him money, it’s time to listen. So I called the government agency and made a date for the minivan’s dismantling.

Then I started moping around as if my dog had died.

Tears welled up on the minivan’s last trip to Costco. The sight of the spot on the driver-side windowsill where 20 years of my cocked elbow had worn away a soft patch, like marble steps in a church scalloped away by centuries of worshippers, filled me with gloomy awe. I considered the pile of Maxell UD XLII tapes on the floor and lamented: I’ll never own another car with a cassette player.

Good grief. I was in mourning for a fucking minivan—the least glamorous of all vehicles, the favorite ride of soccer moms, a veritable monument to testosterone deficiency. It was ridiculous. My Quest was no classic and I’d never treated it as one. No car wash crew could ever fully eradicate the patina of crushed Goldfish crackers and spilled milkshakes that insinuated itself into every crevice. The suspension was shot, the paint job was freckled with rust spots, and the electronic door locks had a bad habit of randomly misfiring. My children were convinced that it was haunted, and my daughter was afraid to drive it. I felt stupid for being so sad and mad about being so stupid.

And yet.

Sure, the minivan was a no-doubt-about-it clunker that only the nanny state of California would pay good money for, but the memories it contained gleamed like fresh chrome. I drove my daughter to preschool and to college in that car. From San Diego to Eureka, Lake Tahoe to Pismo Beach, the minivan was a sublime road trip machine. I remembered the kids sleeping in their car seats, curled up with their favorite stuffed animals, as I roared down Interstate 5 to visit their great-grandmother in Los Angeles. I remember so many children trans-ported en masse to so many birthday parties and Pixar movies and karate classes and fencing and piano lessons. I remembered fitting a kid-size mattress in the back and sleeping in the van before tackling brutal bike rides in the Sierras and on the Lost Coast. I remembered transporting a group of grown men tripping balls on mushrooms to a basketball court, and thinking how their deranged chatter wasn’t that much different from a pack of 7-year-olds singing a song about farts.

AS I CHECKED UNDER THE HOOD OF MY OWN LIFE, I HAD TO CONCEDE THAT MY SUSPENSION WAS ALSO MORE THAN A LITTLE SUSPECT. I, TOO, HAVE RUST SPOTS.

And I remembered, when my best friend and I were hanging on to each other for dear life while both our marriages collapsed, driving around the block repeatedly just so we could listen to the dreamlike end of a Sonic Youth song before we were forced to park and return to our wearisome lives.

The minivan was part of the custody deal. My ex and I lived five blocks apart, and when the kids changed houses, so did the Quest. There were some obvious emotional costs to sharing a car with your ex—it’s hard to let go and move on when you cohabit a vehicle—but it also felt like a grown-up way to approach the messiness of divorce. Mature, efficient, safe—kind of like a minivan.

The author bids farewell to his beloved 1996 Nissan Quest.
The author bids farewell to his beloved 1996 Nissan Quest. Courtesy of Andrew Leonard

Seven years ago, I finally cut the cord and bought out my ex’s stake in the car. But I never got around to recording the change of title with the state, and when I made my appointment for the van’s dismantling, I learned a funny thing: To get my check, all registered owners of the van had to be present at the wrecking yard. Call it the circle of minivan life. We had bought the car together in 1996 at a dealership in Long Beach. Now we’d be together again, a quarter century later, at Carlos Auto Wreckers.

It’s a lot harder to end something than begin it. I gradually realized that my mopery wasn’t just nostalgia for road trips gone by and the fleeting adorability of toddlers. It was about coming to grips with the narrative arc of my own life.

When we bought the car, my career as a writer was taking off. I was making real money chronicling this new phenomenon called the internet. That same year, we bought a house. We already had an amazing 2-year-old daughter, and an equally incredible son was just a year away. I was feeling pretty goddamn good about things, and if there was one thing I knew for sure, it was that I needed a car with a lot of cupholders.

By the time of the minivan’s final ride, all of the cupholders within reach of the driver were broken. And as I checked under the hood of my own life, I had to concede that my suspension was also more than a little suspect. I, too, have rust spots. I realized that the longer I held on to the car, the longer I was pretending that I was still that person who bought it, that person with healthy knees and a great marriage and a future beckoning as wide open as California’s Central Valley. But the wrecking yard comes for everyone.

I felt a lot better once I realized I was sad about my minivan because I was afraid to die. So I threw a wake. I gathered a community of people whose lives intersected that of the minivan around a fire in my backyard, and told them to tell stories about crushed Goldfish and Tahoe blizzards and that time everyone in the car got a stomach virus after a trip to Big Sur. I handed out shot glasses full of tequila. And I made a toast:

“You were uncool, minivan, but you performed your duties with stodgy grace. You raised my family. You took us all where we needed to go.”

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