An ode to the banged up, indelibly stained family minivan

John Kelly
Columnist January 22, 2012

As I prepare to consign its old and battered body to the grave — well, to charity — I’d like to remember my minivan as it once was: young and handsome. But frankly, it wasn’t handsome for very long.

We bought our silver Mazda MPV on the 4th of July, 2000, and just two weeks later, My Lovely Wife spilled a purple Slurpee on the floor between the two front seats, indelibly staining the putty-colored carpet and rudely baptizing the vehicle into the role it would play in our family: as rolling crumb-catcher, juice-box repository, ant-magnet.

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

Kid carrier.

When you drive a minivan, you announce to the world that you are no longer carefree and cool. And when you drive a Mazda MPV, you announce to the world that you were too cheap to get the Honda Odyssey.

But the minivan was useful. It hauled mulch and dogs and drum sets. It carried countless Girl Scouts. Countless Girl Scout cookies, too.


Charlie contemplates life without the minivan, which has ended its useful life with the Kelly family. (John Kelly/THE WASHINGTON POST)

I remember one year driving it to a light-industrial complex somewhere off the Beltway to pick up the Thin Mints, Samoas and Do-si-dos that my daughters’ troop had sold. I rolled up to the door of a low brick warehouse and waited as the Cookie Moms efficiently packed the back of the minivan to the ceiling with cases of cookies. The setting, the vibe, the bloodless efficiency reminded me of a scene from a thriller. I wouldn’t have been surprised if a man in a cheap leather jacket had come to my window and said in a heavy Uzbek accent, “Here, as promised, is shipment of Stinger missile parts.”

That initial Slurpee mishap was just the first of many spills that would eventually turn the minivan into a giant, half-sucked Life Saver. It was always sticky, awash in Cheerios, Goldfish, animal crackers, raisins, apple cores, peach pits, pizza crusts, granola bar wrappers and the paper backing strips to Fruit Roll-Ups, which, as they coiled around our feet, resembled the detritus from a ticker-tape parade. At some point during our annual stay at the beach, we would discover a narrow line of ants leading to the minivan. They could probably smell our heady, saccharine aroma from a mile away.

Those trips to the beach gave us some of our most cherished minivan memories. There was the year other motorists pointed to us as we drove down the interstate. When I angled the outside mirrors to look up, I discovered I hadn’t lashed the beach chairs to the roof rack tightly enough. In the 70 mph slipstream, they had unfolded, looking like the sail on a sampan or the dorsal membranes of certain dinosaur species.

It may have been on the same trip where, pulling out of a fast-food drive-through, I spilled an entire soda over the dashboard, shorting out the radio and, with my flailing arms, inadvertently knocking the van out of gear. My pathetic shout as we careened down the service road — “I’m in neutral! I’m in neutral!” — has become a Kelly family rallying cry.

Over the years, the minivan accumulated scars, like some great whale gouged by sharks or slashed by boat propellers. The lip of the liftgate was bent after I loaded all four of our bicycles on an improperly attached bike rack. The snub nose had a dent from when our older daughter — driving solo for the first time — kissed the white bollards that protect the pumps at the gas station. The right flank was creased when our younger daughter backed into a tree, just after I had assured her, “Don’t worry, you’ve got plenty of room on this side.”

A few months ago, one of the pneumatic struts that hold the liftgate open snapped off in my hand. After 12 years and 130,000 miles, after all the indignities we had visited upon that vehicle, was it worth fixing?

Any doubt I had about disposing of Old Bessie — that’s what our younger daughter called her — evaporated when I went to start the minivan the other day. The “check engine” light came on.

“It’s time,” the Mazda seemed to be saying. “Let me go. Perhaps we will meet again in the spirit realm.”

Good night, sweet minivan, and flights of tow trucks sing thee to thy rest.

For previous columns by John Kelly, go to postlocal.com.

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