Children change. The youngest, Kafi, has a new job and a different attitude. The Virginia girl has become a New York woman. She no longer wants the little Toyota Echo car we bought for her two years ago.
"It's not who I am," she said.
And so the Echo has been left home in Virginia, the repository of so many things she and her siblings accumulated in youth and abandoned in adulthood. We parents are there, too -- not so much abandoned as we are reassigned. We're no longer caretakers. We've become curators. We're keeping the Echo.
We had considered selling the car, especially after it was ticketed in front of our house for not having the appropriate Arlington County tax decal. But we've reconsidered. That $40 ticket cost more than all of the regular unleaded gasoline we had pumped into the Echo in 400 miles; and we still had a quarter of a tank of fuel left.
We began washing away the dust and grime deposited on the car after two years of open-lot and on-street parking in Syracuse, the Bronx and Manhattan. (Are there no carwash facilities anywhere in New York?) The paint, pedestrian gray, was scratched in places. But it could be made presentable with a good buff-and-wax job. There were a few body dings, mostly in the vicinity of the front and rear bumpers. But those were easily repairable, too.
The interior -- odd and ugly when the car was bought new as a 2003 model -- remained that way 28,000 miles later. But its appearance was made all the more drab by a thin brown layer of dust and film coating the top of the Echo's frog-eyed instrument panel.
Why did we buy it?
Two years ago, when Kafi was starting out in her first TV reporting job, she needed a car that would allow her to eat, pay rent, stay warm in a Syracuse winter and get to her assignments. We looked at a Honda Civic Hybrid, a Chevrolet Malibu compact sedan, a Toyota Prius and a Saturn Ion. She nixed them all as being either too expensive or too boring.
But on a return visit to a Northern Virginia Toyota dealership, she spotted that odd duck of an Echo and fell madly in love with it the way young people fall madly in love with many things that baffle and worry parents. "This one!" she said, pointing to the Echo. "This is me!"
A lot happens in two years, especially to young reporters. She covered rapes, robberies and murders. She discovered that the milk of human kindness can be putrid. She has also chronicled personal triumphs and unselfish acts of heroism. She has seen what can happen to children who are loved, and to those who aren't. She's no longer the little girl reporter in the little car. "It's not who I am," she said.
But the Echo is what it has always been, and what it continues to be, even in its 2005 iteration. It is a simple, exceptionally reliable, fuel-efficient small car available at a relatively small price.
There is nothing fancy about it. The one we're keeping has hand-crank windows, which work perfectly well. That's more than we can say for the inoperable power windows in our substantially more expensive Mini Cooper.
In two years of enduring New York winters, driving and parking abuses, that little front-wheel-drive Echo has started every time its ignition was switched on. It has not faltered once. Repair bills have been minimal -- primarily for brake pads worn thin in brake-and-screech city traffic.
The Echo's 1.5-liter, in-line four-cylinder, 108-horsepower engine is still a wimp -- especially at speeds of about 70 miles per hour, where it begins to wheeze and whine. But commuting speeds in and around the Washington metropolitan area, where the car is likely to spend the rest of its useful life, tend to be lower than that. The Echo should be okay in that environment.
With the money we save on gasoline, we may even replace the hubcap missing from the front right wheel. The car may no longer be Kafi's definition of her inner self. But it remains who we are as her parents: We're cheap.