Last September, my family’s 2008 black Sienna Minivan skid to a stop and released a massive flume of smoke on Highway 50, halfway between Santa Cruz and Sacramento. My dad was driving. My brother was in the passenger seat. They waited an hour for a tow-truck, and my dad thanked God he had renewed his Triple A membership the week before.
I was 3,000 miles away sitting in my American Literatures class. I was devastated. I thought I’d get at least one more drive.
When I left for college in Boston, and no longer needed the minivan to drive between work and school, the car had become my family’s designated road trip vehicle. Our other cars just couldn’t fit five people, a dog, four suitcases and two hockey bags.
The mechanic told my parents the car was done for. They unstuck my dashboard hula girl from below the windshield, and left the minivan at her final resting place: Jim Bagan’s Toyota Repair Shop.
My family bought the minivan in 2010 as a family car. I got my driver's license in 2019. My mom told me I could have the minivan if I agreed to pick up my siblings from soccer practice. I was sixteen and itching for freedom, so I said yes. Minivans were made for picking kids up at soccer practice anyway.
The very first place I took the minivan, on my own, was my highschool’s parking lot. I had the newfound freedom of a driver's license, but I was still mandated, by law and by my parents, to go to school.
My classmates designated the minivan "The Swagger Wagon" mostly out of irony because a minivan is, perhaps, the most un-swagger vehicle I could have possibly owned.
It was my minivan that my friends and I sat in, chatting, while we waited for the first bell to pierce through the frigid morning air. Emma sat in the front next to me, and Ana sat in the back.
"This is a car for a mom," Ana said one day. She was brushing her hair in the back seat.
"But doesn’t it make sense?" Emma said. "Maddy is such a mom."
Which was true, of course. It had always been true, even before the minivan. I was the oldest sister, and the oldest grandchild. I sat at the childrens table until I was nineteen, not because anyone saw me as a child, but because it had become my responsibility to watch my nine younger cousins. The adults enjoyed their food and laughed with each other, while I wiped mashed potatoes off little faces.
"What would we do without you?" my aunts and uncles often ask.
"Take care of your own kids for once, maybe."
Of course I never said that. I usually didn’t even have the chance to respond before a cousin needed me to cut their turkey, grab the fork they dropped, or help them get out of their high chair.
As frustrating as it was, it was always important to me to make sure no one in my life was left without a necessity. And I found out that the minivan was big enough to contain anything anyone might need.
In the center console.
In the glove compartment.
A pen? A charger? A snack? A shoulder to cry on?
Yep, I had all of that.
The minivan had seven seats, more than any of my friends' cars, and more leg room. It made sense that we always used it. Trips over the hill to Target, milkshake runs after football games, fancy dinners before homecoming, hungover journeys home in the early morning, me and my minivan took everyone everywhere.
I became nothing if not reliable, and I can’t recall if it was before or after the minivan that I stopped saying no.
"Can you grab your brother from his sleepover?"
"Can you give us a ride to the game?"
"I know you drove last weekend, but can you drive again tonight?"
"Can you come get me? My ride bailed."
"Can we go for a drive? My parents are fighting again."
I always said yes. I loved these people, even when they drove me crazy. So the answer was always yes, whether that meant picking up takeout or letting tears fall into my passenger seat. The minivan helped me help others. It made me a good friend, a good sister, a good daughter. I thought "good" was the most important thing I could be. I felt like being needed was how I knew people loved me, so I did what was asked of me, again and again, even when I was worn out.
Sometimes, I contemplated making a conscious change in my personality, contemplated stopping all the little errands and favors, contemplated filling the Swagger Wagon up with gas and driving away without anyone else. Just me and my van, just us, doing something for just us, for once. I was tired of being everyone's crutch, and I was desperate for a break. But I never did run away from my responsibilities. I couldn’t find a way to not be there when people needed me.
Even when I left for college, and left the minivan at home, I held onto those same qualities I had when I had gripped that leather wheel beneath sweaty palms. I still didn’t know how to say no, and I was still the friend that could be counted on.
"Can you call us an uber home?"
"Can you put your card down, and we can pay you back later?"
"Can you sit with me? I don’t feel good."
"Can you read this paper for me?"
I had tried to be the person who needed others. The person who asked the questions instead of replied. Every once and while, I wanted to be the burden. But I couldn’t shake the minivan, even if she was sitting behind a garage door 3,000 miles away. Maybe that's why I was so ready to go home and drive by the end of my freshman year. I had spent nine months being the mom friend without the car to complete the look.
The minivan was not going to last forever, she was creeping closer and closer to 200,000 miles. I wondered, when she eventually took her last drive, would I be able to let the weight of responsibility go?
Part of me blames myself for the Swagger Wagon’s demise. The summer before my senior year, someone in my grade decided house parties were out, and driving forty minutes up a dirt road to get drunk in the woods was very, very in.
I thought it was stupid, and unsafe, but my friends wanted to go. So I said yes, everytime. I knew the jagged, steep roads were slowly killing my van. But if I wasn’t driving my friends would have ended up in someone else's car. Someone who would maybe be drunk, or high, or distracted. I had heard too many stories about other friend groups who hadn’t been careful, stories where girls were injured jumping over fences, stories where boys reached so far out car windows they fell onto concrete, stories where friends got lost in the forest running from police. Of course, I wanted to party too. And I did, sometimes, but every beer came with horrifying thoughts of what could go wrong now that I wasn’t the one taking responsibility. If something happened I would find a way to put it on myself. I had to be in control, so I risked the vans' well being, and mine, every other weekend for two summers straight.
After every trip up that dirt road, the van drove a little more slow and a little less smooth. I knew it was probably best to stop taking my minivan up that mountain, but I never did. People needed me. And. as a result, the minivan began to wither. She couldn’t go more than 60 miles an hour if there was an incline, and she made a weird bubbling noise if she was running for more than an hour and a half. We weren’t incredibly surprised that she broke down. My family used to joke that one day one of us would be driving the van and the wheels would stop and all the doors would fall off.
Which wasn’t far off from what happened in the end.
The Swagger Wagon stopped moving forward, but my people pleasing tendencies did not. There may not be a car to drive, but there are still people to look out for. There will always be friends who have had a little too much to drink. There will always be siblings who need help from someone a little older, a little wiser. There will always be someone who needs me to listen. And, unlike the Swagger Wagon, I will not waver after too many years of work.
About the Author:
Madeline Monroe currently splits her time between her hometown, South Lake Tahoe, California, and Boston, Massachusetts, where she's earning her BFA in Creative Writing at Emerson College. Both her west coast and east coast homes are close to her heart.