Before I had children, my car was clean. In those days, I wondered how my friends with kids let animal cracker crumbs accumulate in the seams of their seats. I stepped over their Happy Meal toys and sippy cups half-full of fermenting liquid and played with their offspring in the back seat and questioned why they just didn't tidy up in the same way a childless woman puzzles over why parents just let their infants cry in restaurants and on airplanes.
In the evenings, I garaged my two-seater convertible and sometimes dusted the black paint with a long-handled fuzzy tool that looked a bit like big bird on a stick. I wiped down the steering wheel with Armor All, leaving it oddly greasy. In the glove box, I kept a tube of sunscreen, a ponytail holder and several mixed tapes, although I listened to the same one again and again -- the soundtrack of my life in those last few years of being responsible for no one but myself.
The year my daughter was born, I sold the convertible (accidentally leaving the mixed-tape in the cassette player) and got a 1999 silver Lexus SUV. It was delivered on a truck from a dealership in Florida and sat shiny and large on the street in front of the house for a week or two before I felt comfortable driving it. An infant car seat base was snuggly secured atop a protective mat that was meant to keep the leather from becoming creased. I didn't realize at the time that car seats and boosters would press into the seat for a decade and their evidence would be inevitable.
The car was clean for about a month. I soon learned how convenient it was to keep a tote bag filled with diapers and wipes in the back. I attached a mirror and black-and-white printed mobile to the rear seat. I stored blankets in the seat-back pockets. Spit-up and teething biscuit became encrusted in the seat belt clasp to the point that it needed to be soaked in a Windex and water solution and then sprayed with WD40 to function properly.
The kids grew and so did our messes. We enjoyed long-driving vacations as well as short trips to play groups, baby music lessons, soccer practice, occupational therapy, school and kung fu lessons. Faded beach parking stickers line the driver's side window, reminders of summers past. Deep between the seats lurk detritus of 16 years of french-fry salt and cookie crumbs. The ceiling is stained in spots by a soda that exploded on a drive home from the Berkshires.
In the years when the kids became old enough to pick up after themselves, I asked them to throw away their trash, reminding them that perhaps one day they would be driving this car and they wouldn't want to find the chicken nugget remains of their childhood when they were on a date or hanging out with their friends. They never imagined 143,000 miles later they would be in the same backseat.
I keep a pair of sneakers in the back so that I can stop by the community garden as well as some garden clippers. We each have a sweater or jacket, and there is an emergency hairbrush, a stick of deodorant and a first-aid kit. I carry a dozen grocery bags and a cooler. There are two muffin tins in there now because I haven't bothered to bring them inside after a party a month ago. And there is a sweatshirt that doesn't belong to anyone in my family, but I am sure that I will figure out whose it is. There are also a couple of bottles of coolant. When the check engine light goes on, I know to pour the green liquid into the container under the hood.
The mechanic has warned me that I need to think about getting a new car in the next year or so, but I can't imagine driving anything else. This is the car in which I have carried my family. We have listened to the radio and sang made-up songs. We've discussed everything from waiting turns at the playground slide to not being nervous before AP exams. We have been lost. We have been late. We have stuffed the back with too many helium-filled birthday party balloons. All of these years, we have been together.
Krista Richards Mann is a Westport writer, and her "Well Intended" column appears every other Friday. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.