By Lisa Molinari Smith
“What the (unexpressed expletive)?” my 16-year-old daughter, Lilly, stopped herself short in front of our minivan on a blustery, rainy morning before school this week.
There, on the driveway, was a pile of shattered black glass. Just above the shards on the passenger’s rear side was a gaping hole where the window used to be.
“Holy … cow!” I adjusted the expletive to accommodate my teenage companion.
Two days prior, I had noticed that the rear window had detached from the mechanical arm that opened it, and made a mental note to do something about it, having no idea that it might blow completely off the side of the van.
I peeked inside the hole left by the absent window and saw gum wrappers floating in rainwater collected in the cup holders.
“Good Lord,” I muttered helplessly, and told Lilly to get in.
Of course, my husband, Francis, was away with our other car, so I had no choice but to drive the minivan to school, rain and all.
After dropping Lilly off, I headed straight to the auto body shop to plead my case.
“She’s old,” I told Tiego, the mechanic. “We really don’t want to plunk too much money into her.”
Our minivan, which we bought used in Virginia Beach 11 years ago, had almost 200,000 miles on her. Even though her headlights were hazy, her body was pitted with chips and dents. There was a crack running across her dashboard, the alloy wheels were corroded, the carpeting was worn bare in spots, and the various school stickers on the rear window were peeling. Yet, her engine ran like a top. We were waffling about whether to keep her for a few more years to save money or trade her in for an upgrade.
I explained to Tiego that I had to take my daughter to Pennsylvania for college visits that weekend, but he wasn’t sure he could get a replacement window in time. I envisioned Lilly and I pulling up to a group of visiting prospective students on an ivy-covered campus, and jumping out of our old minivan with a pizza box duct-taped over the window.
“I’ll see what I can do,” Tiego said.
I walked to a nearby coffee shop to wait for the verdict. Tiego called just as I burned my tongue on a cup of green tea.
“Well,” he paused, indicating that the news was bad, “I can get the replacement window today, but it will cost $300, $450 with labor.”
“Why am I driving such a hunk of junk, anyway?” I thought. “Francis served in the Navy for 28 years, and all our family has to show for itself is two used cars, credit card debt, a bunch of Polish pottery and a paltry savings? Is this all you get for dedicating your life to military service?”
I wondered whether I should tell Tiego to put our old minivan out for scrap.
But then I remembered that our minivan was a beauty when we bought her, gleaming white, with only 8,000 miles and lingering new car smell. Through three tours in Virginia, she carted us to soccer games, school pickups, speech therapy appointments and the commissary. She gave me no mechanical trouble during Francis’ yearlong deployment and didn’t complain about all the dog hair, upchuck, stray French fries and fruit snacks that we dropped on her carpeting.
In 2008, she moved with us to Germany, where she safely negotiated winding roads in Austria, Italy, France, the Czech Republic, Spain, Poland, Belgium and Switzerland. When we moved to Florida, then Rhode Island, she zipped over U.S. highways and byways, taking us to visit friends and family up and down the East Coast.
I realized, regardless of our modest budget, our military life had been quite rich all along, and told Tiego to replace the window after all.
“She’s got a few more years in her,” I said, suddenly appreciative of our family’s unique lifestyle.
I was a little bummed that I wouldn’t be able to embarrass Lilly with a duct-taped pizza box, but I was grateful for whatever adventures our military family would encounter on the road ahead.
(Read more about Molinari at www.themeatandpotatoesoflife.com.)