Farewell to the Mom-Mobile

After 13 years of driving my practical van, there’s a new vehicle in my life. It’s a sleek sedan with a racy profile and metallic gray paint. A protrusion on the back of the roof looks like a small shark fin. The Michelin tires flash more chrome than rubber. Its technology system, which has a two-inch-thick manual that is too daunting to read, is so sophisticated that the car can practically drive itself. Its rear seats are heated. Despite a few nods to practicality – including a very roomy trunk — it is a sexy car.

Bob and I kept the 1999 Toyota van that once served as the “mom-mobile,” for trips to Lowe’s and in case one of our grown children needs it to move to a new apartment. But the old black warhorse, with numerous scratches and 186,000 miles under its belt, no longer has the pampered spot in our garage. The sexy car is parked in that spot now, and the unglamorous van is parked outside the house, next to the garage window, peering in like a jilted accountant spying forlornly on his ex and her personal trainer.

I don’t drive the van much any more – just enough to keep its battery turning over – but every so often I look through its windows, or sit in it and breathe in the old-car scent and the memories. When we brought home the van I was 44, newly remarried and newly relocated, with a blending family and a bonus baby. We brought John, now 13, to the apple orchard in the van when he was just a year old, running around the orchard with a half-eaten apple in each hand. The van brought our son Ben on his paper route during icy afternoons. Its front seat served as a psychologist’s couch during the years before the kids could drive themselves, when they’d (very) occasionally share their worries and ask our advice.

That car survived a rear-ender on a cold January night, when I had picked up my daughter Rachel and her friend from basketball practice and I foolishly changed lanes without signaling. Its rubber bumper still shows the bash from a parking lot hit-and-run in State College, PA. Our grown sons took the van to the Outer Banks six years ago, stopping at numerous souvenir shops selling hams and Confederate flags along the way, while we drove ahead in the sedan. Beach sand from Cape Cod to North Carolina still dwells deep in its battered car mats. Crumbs from a cookie baked in 2005; sliding doors sticky from spilled Juicy-Juice; stains on the gray velour seats from a preteen with motion sickness…they are all still there; badges of valor on a vehicle that did its job, year in and year out.

When I drive the van now my hand goes to the wrong place when I shift from park to reverse to drive. I feel a twinge of impatience when the van doesn’t accelerate as fast as I expect. The new car is fast becoming the regular car.

Old cars always make me feel wistful and a little melancholy. Every unloved car in the junkyard once made someone’s heart quicken. After a year or two new cars stop exciting us, and after a decade they become a problem, until we need to do the math to decide whether the cost of maintaining them is worth it.

But for now, the old van is our retired hero…no longer in active duty, but still venerated and appreciated. Its 186,000 miles are a symbol of how far we’ve come.

The Mom-Mobile's replacement.

How do we manage the end game?

Talked to my mom this morning, our usual Sunday morning ritual, and she shared a story that is troubling to any of us in middle age and worried about our aging parents. I’ll tell it here without any judgment and let you think for yourself.

Mom volunteers at a local school, and was going through her yearly orientation meeting when she a teacher whom I will call Anne. At 56, Anne is dealing with a series of interrelated tragedies, which she recounted to Mom. She has been caring for her mother-in-law, stricken with Alzheimer’s. Her father-in-law’s health also recently took a turn for the worse. Along with caring for her ailing in-laws, Anne also is dealing with severe storm damage to her home – including a flooded basement and uprooted trees — which her homeowners insurance will not cover.

Overwhelmed by these pressures, Anne and her husband Jack asked her sister-in-law Janine, an unmarried teacher in her 40s, to step in and take over the parents’ care. With no husband or family of her own, Janine had given her heart and soul to her career and to generations of students, and she loved teaching. Taking care of her ailing parents became a fulltime job, and Janine had to abandon the career that she loved. Depressed, she killed herself.

This story raises a lot of questions. Couldn’t the parents have gone into a nursing home? Didn’t they have a house that could have been sold to finance that? Couldn’t Jack and Janine contributed towards paying for someone else to step in and care for the aging couple at home? Would a more resilient person than Janine have toughed it out? If insurance had paid to fix the overwhelming problems in Ann and Jack’s home, would the couple have had more strength to be caretakers?

We always hope that we won’t have to face tragic circumstances like these, but the fact remains that many of us will as our parents age. I know of several middle-aged friends facing the anguish of watching a parent transformed by dementia or Alzheimer’s, and making difficult choices as to whether to care for them at home or institutionalize them. Some are empty nesters; others are still raising kids – including good friends of ours who are taking care of their three children and a woman with advanced Altzheimer’s in a very small home. Some are families with money; others are struggling. The choice doesn’t seem to be any easier.

In my family we tend to dance around the question of “what if?” My mom tells us to “Call in Dr. Kevorkian” if she ever gets that bad; never mind that he’s dead and we’d never think of doing it anyway. My mother-in-law, who is in robust health, has long-term care insurance; my father-in-law, whose health is worse, does not.

It’s easy to question why Anne’s family tragedy happened and offer suggestions on how it could have been prevented. It’s harder though to see your way clearly when it happens to you. Maybe we boomers need to spend more time planning for the end game, even if it means asking tough questions.