A few months ago we traded in our beloved Subaru Outback wagon for a brand spanking new soccer mom-esque mini-van. I must confess that while I was excited by the prospect of a new automobile, I was not initially jazzed about a mini-van being my go-to choice for transport. I was fiercely loyal to my Subaru. I felt rebellious and cool in the parking lot after school in a sea of mini-vans; my manual transmission a big anarchist’s “A” in the face of all the other van-driving mommies. (Right now you all should be thinking, “Newsflash: the station wagon was the mini-van of two generations’ ago.”) But like that nerdy dork of a guy who turns out to be a diamond in the rough, I gradually became enamored with the promise of a large cargo hold, the ability to actually car-pool with my kids’ friends, decent gas efficiency and if I had my way, leather trim, a back-up camera and satellite radio…
The Subaru, while trusty and reliable for the past seven years was showing its age. And while plenty of devotees hold on to their Subees for at least two times this easily, we were just done. So we did our research, we test drove, we compared and contrasted and finally settled on a very beautiful Honda in a seductive mocha metallic finish totally befitting of the suburban mommy I had become.
I can fondly recall the excitement surrounding my family’s purchase of a new car when I was a kid. There was the stately black Buick Regal with its vinyl top, then there was the sporty Mercury Capri with its bucket seats, and then finally the sexy champagne colored Toyota Celica Supra with those headlights that futuristically flipped up and down… It was fun scrambling around the showroom, sitting in the driver’s seat, touching things on the dash we weren’t normally allowed to touch. Everything was new and shiny….and then, voila! A new car! Life was good.
When my husband and I made our announcement about our new car, we braced for similar excitement expressed by our children, complete with lively rounds of “Cool!!!! When can we take a ride in it!” But what we got instead was a seven-year old immediately bursting into hysterics and in between shoulder-shaking sobs, him dramatically crying out, “But… but… Why? I love the Subaru. It’s the only car I have ever known. How could you do this to me?”
Upon reflection, we hadn’t made any real effort to discuss the potential purchase of a new car with the kids in advance of its actual purchase. I didn’t think it was necessary to call a family meeting in order to “soften the blow” caused by the new tricked out mini-van, because to me buying a mini-van was not as life-changing as like, say, having another baby or moving to Tibet or even getting a new puppy might be.
This apparent fierce and soul-crushing love our seven-year old had for the Subaru caught me off guard and in another one of my finer moments, rendered me completely devoid of empathy for what he was experiencing. “Come on!” I said to him incredulously, playfully mussing up his thick crown of dark hair. “Are you kidding me dude? New cars are so cool! You will love it when you see it… I promise…There’s so much more space and all these cool buttons to push…and a back-up camera!!!” This was met simply with, “How? How could you give away the only car I have ever loved?” As he was going on and on with the histrionics, I made a mental note to write to Subaru’s marketing department, for their advertising campaign was clearly the most effective in the whole industry if they were able to capture the heart of a seven-year old non-driver.
Look, I do recognize that people can and do feel all sorts of deep love for their cars. In fact, I think I saw a television ad recently where a Subaru owner whose life was saved by his Subaru was standing in a junk yard emotionally saying goodbye to his trashed car as he yanked the gear shift cover out as a memento. So I get it. But these car loyalists are usually adults with driver’s licenses. My son is only seven and just learned how to ride a two-wheeler. And furthermore, nothing of any major significance ever happened in that car… Nothing at all. He wasn’t conceived in that car. He wasn’t born in that car. The most we had ever done in that car was eat some chicken nuggets and change a few poop diapers…
I figured at some point he would just get over it, but he didn’t. He moped around the house for days as if his best friend was moving away, searching me with his tear-filled eyes “Why, Mom? Why?” Finally, I could not take his dramatic shit anymore and so I screamed, “For g-d’s sake, you need to get over this dude! It’s not like this car was a relative or a friend! It’s just a car! It’s just a thing! Metal and rubber and glass! You are acting like I told you your stuffed bunny rabbit’s ears fell off, when all that is going on here is that we are buying a new car and just so you know, most people think that getting a new car is COOL!”
Mr. Intractable looked at me with his puppy dog eyes and said, “But there is nothing wrong with the Subaru and even if there was something wrong with it, why don’t you and Daddy just fix it?” My boy, ever the pragmatist, indeed raised a valid point. Why, when there were only 65,000 miles on the car and we owned it free and clear, were we getting a new one? Well, it was going to need new head gaskets in less than a year and that repair alone was close to $2000.00. To us, that was the slippery slope whereby the old reliable Japanese stand-by turned into a money-sucking vortex of frustration.
On the eve before we were to trade in the Subaru for the new mini-van, the seven-year old went to bed still deflated. I went to bed feeling frustrated as hell but then that old friend of mine, Guilt, started to creep in making me feel like the grand prize winner of the “Biggest Bitch on Earth” contest because I couldn’t muster up any empathy for what the kid was going through. If a friend moved away or a pet died or a bully was bugging him, I would be right there to squeeze all my love into him and make it better. But his attachment and connection to this car, this thing, was just something I could not relate to.
So I decided to take an informal poll of my mom-friends to see whether any of them had experienced this type of reaction from any of their kids when buying a new car. Much to my surprise, quite a number of them reported that their children too “had a hard time with change” when it came to a new car purchase. I was humbled, for it never dawned on me that something like buying a new car could represent security-threatening change to a kid. It never occurred to me to look at this event through the lens of a child. My child. I had to make this right.
In the light of a new day, the morning that the trade was to go down, my son came to the kitchen dressed and ready for summer camp, but clearly still sullen. I considered this beautiful sensitive child for a moment and how unsettled the poor kid was feeling and decided that we should immediately go into the garage, climb into the Subaru, and sit in it one last time as a family to take turns eulogizing the car. There were tears, stories, laughs and hugs, the three-year old made up nonsensical stories about the car and a princess and Dora and a dragon and a cookie. I took silly snapshots of the boy hugging and kissing the car goodbye, and afterwards I think we all felt a little better. As we climbed out of the Subaru for the last time, I thought of that television ad and I turned and dramatically reached in the car to pull out the gear shift cover to keep for the seven-year old. But no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t tug that sucker loose. So I settled for the ashtray. I wiped back a rogue tear, went back into the house and gave the ashtray to the seven-year old.
Then later that morning at the camp bus stop, the most ridiculous thing happened. My son, you know the one moping for days over the whole new car thing? Well, he ran up to his counselor Mike with a noticeable spring in his step and announced with unmistakable glee, “Hey Mike! Guess what? We are getting a brand new mini-van today!!! It has a back-up camera in it… How cool is that!!!”