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31Things | Day Eight: Transportation

The safest car on the road... because it's always in the shop!

THE VOLVO | My first car wasn't really my car, it was my parents' car. It was a gray 1985 Volvo 740GLE, and from the time we bought that thing when I was in 2nd grade until the day my mother finally sold it for scrap in 2010, I hated it. Of course, for many years I had motion sickness from riding in the backseat, but my mother never even knew such a thing was possible, so nothing was ever done about it. By the time I got to drive it, the fabric on the ceiling was ripped and falling down, revealing gouges in the foam. The closure on the glove box was busted and we sometimes had to tie the left passenger door shut. I left the stereo face in the car one night and someone broke in and stole it. I was told if I wanted music I could buy a new one with my own money - so I got used to driving in silence. Now I prefer it that way. In 1996 the odometer rolled over 100,000 miles. In the brief time I got to take it with me to college, the transmission went out and left me stranded alone on a Friday night on the side of the interstate.

Still, it was freedom, and at the time I wished for nothing more than my own car that wouldn't be subject to my mother's rules of when and where I could take it. On the other hand, because it was hers, I didn't have to make car payments, or pay for gas or insurance.

The only other vivid memory I have of the Volvo is driving with my dad to pick up Jeff at Roosevelt High School; he must have had a band function over there or something. It was dark, and I didn't see the railroad tracks coming. That crossing was a bad one, one that jostles you around in your seat even when you crawl over it; I hit that sucker at 40mph, and Dad hit his head on the ceiling. I remember being glad that it was dark, so he couldn't see the tears welling up in my eyes, knowing that I had hurt him.

Cadillac Seville
The Cadillac was like the good china: saved for special occasions (like my baptism).

THE CADILLAC | What I really liked driving was my parents' Cadillac, a 1992 Seville, dark "polo green" that sparkled in the sunlight. It had a V-8 engine and man, that was fun! I loved accelerating onto the freeway with that powerful engine. The almond leather interior smelled nice and the ride was so smooth and quiet. It was a big deal that the stereo actually had a CD player in it instead of a cassette tape deck. I'm pretty sure the Cadillac was the only American car my parents have ever owned.

I had my first accident in the Caddy. My college friend Staci and I were on our way to McAllen (via San Antonio) before she got married, probably for her bridal shower, which was being thrown by her future mother-in-law. In San Antonio, the frontage roads all have yield signs where the freeway exits, so I was doing my lawful duty by granting the right-of-way to the traffic coming off the freeway. On this day, there was enough traffic that I had to come to a complete stop. Behind me, a big pickup truck also stopped. But behind him, an old junker flew up the hill and slammed at full speed into the back of the pickup, never seeing us stopped in front of him. The pickup was too close to me and didn't have much traction on the wet pavement, and was pushed into the back of my mom's car. I was so afraid of what I would see when I got out. Thankfully, neither Staci nor I were hurt at all - and amazingly, neither was mom's car! There was just a small plastic piece on the bumper that had popped out, and my mom collected a $200 repair settlement from the other guy's insurance company for our repairman to simply give it a good whack and pop it back in.

Toyota MR2
Daddy's "toy" car. Mom was so mad when he bought it without consulting her.

THE MR2 | Before Dad died, he taught me how to drive his turquoise 1986 Toyota MR2, which was a stick-shift. I'd always loved riding in Dad's car, even when I had to sit Indian-style in the seat because my horn was taking up all the room in the leg well. I probably would have enjoyed learning to drive it more if his cancer hadn't made it so painful to endure my jagged stops and starts as I learned to manipulate the clutch. His physical pain caused me emotional pain, and it wasn't too long before I told him a small white lie, that I had lost interest in learning to drive stick and would just settle for driving the automatic Volvo, which was easier. But I was always jealous of my little brother when he eventually learned to drive it and it became "his" car (in the same way that the Volvo was "mine").

Ford Tempo
Yes, those are condoms filled with shaving cream tied to the radio antenna.

THE TEMPO | I'd always thought my family's Volvo was the worst thing ever... until I met Chris' 1989 gold Ford Tempo. Oh my. It even had manual window controls. It got even more fun after Chris spilled a milkshake down into the nooks and crannies between the front seats, and as it spoiled the car smelled like a dumpster. We nicknamed the Tempo "The Bitch" if that tells you anything! It was a cantankerous old thing, and you never quite knew when it was going to break down on you again. Usually at the most inopportune time. My "favorite" breakdown was our senior year when a major leak in the radiator fluid caused the engine to overheat so bad the pistons actually melted. After we got married in 1999, with over 100,000 miles on the odometer, the air conditioner suffered an irreparable failure. The repair shop gave it 6 months to live... and that was the end.

My favorite memory of the Tempo happened one scorching summer afternoon. Chris and I were driving through downtown McAllen with the windows down - since it was about 104 degrees outside and no air conditioning in the car - and I had Emily (our cat) on my lap. She was freaking out at being outside, being in the car, the stimulation from the "fresh" air. She had her back legs on my lap (my hands firmly gripping her middle), her front paws on the windowsill - and her head stuck out the window, yowling for all she was worth. In downtown McAllen, which is a major shopping district. In the middle of the afternoon. It was like having our very own private siren, and everyone on the sidewalk was staring at us. It was hilarious!

Ford Focus
We brought Hannah, our first baby, home from the hospital in this car.

THE FOCUS | We were thrilled when the local Ford dealership offered us $1000 trade-in value for Chris' Tempo, which was about half of our down payment on a brand new 2000 "sangria red" Ford Focus. I loved this car. For one thing, it was the first one I'd ever gotten to pick out. And for another, it was sporty, without being a real sports car. It handled like I remembered the ride from my dad's Toyota MR2 being. It was small, and low to the ground, and I could park it anywhere; even in downtown Houston, finding parking was no problem. It got great gas mileage, which was awesome when I was literally driving almost 100 miles a day.

I was in my only other accident in this car (which wasn't really "my" accident, since Chris was driving). One rainy, windy night on I-10 in Katy, we hydroplaned and spun out. 450 degrees later, we landed in the grassy median, only to get crunched in the bumper a second later by a pickup truck who I'm sure was going way too fast. The impact left a dent about the size of a dinner plate. The other driver stopped only long enough to make sure that none of us were bleeding out before he took off. Jerk. Hannah was a toddler at the time and slept through the whole ordeal, safe in her car seat in the center back seat, but it doesn't take much for me to remember seeing the halo of headlights coming at us as we spun, and being so sure that we were going to die. For a long time after that, I wasn't able to sleep in the car; every little sideways movement left me wide awake in an instant and gripping the armrest against the impact.

After just 4 years, we'd racked up 96,000 miles on the Focus. Considering that it was an American car, we decided it was time to let it go, before we found ourselves making car payments and paying major repair bills.

Toyota Sienna
Nothing screams "Mom" more than a minivan with a "Baby on Board" sign in the side window!

THE SIENNAS | In 2004, we bought our first Toyota Sienna, a silver CE. At first, I resisted the idea of owning a minivan, since it's such a stereotypical suburban mom car, but you know what? I was a mom who lived in the suburbs! It didn't take me long to get over it and fall in love with all the extra seating and extra cargo space. Not to mention it felt great to sit so high above the road - now I was on an equal footing with the pickup trucks. No longer could they so easily bully their way into my lane. We counted sixteen cup holders and a "conversation mirror" among the interesting features of our new ride. We also loved the fold-flat 3rd row, the captain's chairs in the 2nd row, the option to have the 2nd row seats right next to each other or with a space in between (great when you need to separate the kids!), and the dual air system.

Four years later, after the big stock market crash, the car dealers were hurting terribly and were offering some pretty good deals. So we decided to jump in and trade up for our current family car, a 2008 Sienna LE in midnight blue. This one has some really cool features that I never could have imagined when I started driving 15 years ago: the auxiliary plug for my iPod and the power sliding doors chief among them. We decided to pass on the optional DVD system; it would have required a $1500 stereo system upgrade that we didn't need, and we figured we could always install a less expensive one after-market when the time came. Funny thing is... as it turns out, our kids are so good in the car, they don't need movies to entertain them! They are both quite content to sit and look out the window for long stretches of time, nap, or play with their toys.

Toyota Corolla & Sienna
Our current vehicles (and some sidewalk chalk art, courtesy of my kids).

THE COROLLA | In 2009, as my grandmother's dementia worsened, we had to sell her house in San Antonio and move her into a nursing home. And that's how we ended up finally owning 2 cars: we brought home her 1998 teal Toyota Corolla (it's also how we ended up not being able to park any cars in our garage!). It is literally the car owned by a little old lady who only drove it to church on Sundays. As of right now it has barely 70,000 miles on it. Physically, it's a little worse for wear, having a dent in the front driver fender thanks to the lovely parking skills of Grandma's home care helper. The best part is that the plastic door handle snapped off some months ago, leaving just a little bit to manipulate to get the door open - which is darn near impossible when it's pouring buckets and your hands are slippery and wet. Unfortunately it can't be replaced for less than $200, as it is necessary to disassemble the entire door.

But I am so thrilled to finally have a second vehicle in the family that I don't even care. I am able to do so many things that I wouldn't otherwise. I used to feel so guilty about running off to rehearsal with the only car and leaving Chris stranded at the house with the kids. I know that's not how he felt, but that's how I felt about being left during the day if he took the car to work - stranded. And now that the kids are getting older and they are both into extracurricular activities, we don't have to choose who gets to do what when the inevitable schedule conflicts arise. Thank you, Grandma.

XLE 4-cylinder shown in Cosmic Gray Mica
Image (c)
THE HYBRID CAMRY | Actually, this one's not ours... yet. But my friend Bobbi just got one, and I got to ride in it, and man is it cool! It's incredibly quiet. Still small but roomier than my Corolla. She starts the ignition with just the push of a button. And she doesn't even have to get her keys out of her purse to unlock the car! Somewhere between science fiction and magic! And 40mpg in the city... Wow. I totally want one.

What do you drive?


  1. Hi Heather - You are doing a great job with the 31 Things prompts. I enjoyed reading about your cars! My parents let me pick out my first car my senior year of high school so they could pay it off by the time I graduated. Of course, I had to wait a year to learn to drive it, then another year before I had my license, then I had to share it for a while. But the night of my graduation, all the keys were "turned in" to me & the title put in my name - I loved that red Plymouth Horizon because it was all mine!


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