Ode to a Minivan

People love to make fun of us suburban parents with our unstylish, utilitarian minivans. (Toyota capitalized on the minivan’s stodgy reputation to comic effect with its 2011 “Swagger Wagon” ads for the Sienna.) But I came to love the 2002 red Honda Odyssey van that I drove until a few months ago, and am coming to love my 2014 dark blue Odyssey that we bought just after Thanksgiving. Here are five things I love about my minivan.

1. I feel tall (or at least, not so short) in my minivan. Here is what happens when you are not quite 4-feet 8-inches tall (and are not a fifth grader). In crowded rooms, people careen around corners or turn suddenly to change direction, while looking straight ahead at their eye level, which is usually a good foot above my head level. I experience lots of near collisions and elbows in the face. I can feel invisible in large crowds of adults. Not so when I’m driving around town in my minivan, which lifts me up to everyone else’s level. This seems so silly on the surface, but I realized in planning our kitchen redesign how much energy I gain from the sensation of being up higher than my surroundings. I was immediately drawn to a photo I saw on a home design web site of a kitchen desk area that was at counter height, rather than normal desk height, and asked for something similar in my new kitchen. I’ve always preferred sitting on a high step stool rather than a chair at our kitchen table. For me, being up makes for a more confident, comfortable outlook. It allows me to see, and be seen, in a way I’m not when I’m so far below everyone else’s sight line.

2. I can be the mom who says “yes” to requests for carpool help. The little things that other parents do for us can make a huge difference. I love that I can invite another child to come over to play after school, because I have enough room to bring an extra kid home with us. This arrangement not only makes for a fun afternoon for a couple of kids, but relieves another parent of the after-school pickup routine. I love being able to say “yes” when another parent (or two) needs a ride for their child to a Girl Scout meeting or gymnastics class. I love being able to transport a whole bunch of kids for a field trip. (Truth be told, I really don’t love going on such a trip…but the transportation? That I can do.)

3. Road trips! We have a whole family culture around road trips south to visit family in Virginia and North Carolina. Having a minivan allows the kids to spread out, with their electronics and journals and drawing supplies. We have traditions of stopping at particular restaurants and rest stops along the way. While I would never call these 10- to 15-hour trips “fun” exactly, our road trip rituals have most definitely produced memorable moments for our family. We could take on these trips in a smaller vehicle, but in considerably less comfort.

4. My minivan makes me feel connected (i.e., the “Cheers” effect). This is when I miss my old red minivan most: I’m driving around after school, dropping kids off and picking them up from piano, choir, or play rehearsal. I see a friend’s car coming toward me on the opposite side of the road, raise a hand to wave….and they don’t recognize me because I’m no longer driving the red van they all know. There was something so grounding about waving to neighbors and friends in my recognizable red car. For many weeks in a row, a Thursday afternoon wave might be the only contact I would have with several close friends. I look forward to a time when my new van becomes recognizable in the fleeting moments when friends and I pass on the road. I didn’t realize, until I traded in my old red van, just how much those moments made me feel that I belong here in this town, which is not that small a place (population about 60,000), but that feels small when I know I’ll likely pass by a friend or two each afternoon. Instead of everyone knowing my name, everyone knew my van, but the effect—a sense of place, of belonging, of connection—was the same.

5. My minivan empowers me. When I got my driver’s license at age 16, that marked the first time that I could negotiate the world on equal footing with able-bodied peers. I couldn’t run or do sports, I couldn’t walk long distances. But I could pick up friends to drive to the movies or out for ice cream. As my physical challenges have ramped up again in middle age, I have continued to feel empowered and equalized by being able to drive. I’m at a point when taking care of my kids is much less about physical care and much more about helping them get where they need to be. Thanks to my minivan, I can easily handle this aspect of being a mother.

So, why all this virtual ink about a minivan? Is this post just a lame attempt at posting something, anything? Maybe. But I hope it can be something more. Here in progressive Christian land, we tend to be suspicious or outright dismissive of material comforts and luxuries. But, as I’ve written in other contexts (such as at Sojourners, about shoes), our well-meaning dismissal of material comforts in the name of service or sustainability or justice can sometimes deny our dependence and limits as bodily, material creatures. My minivan is a gas guzzler, no question. I expect this van to last until my youngest child is at college, and look forward to driving something much smaller and less environmentally damaging then. But for now, my minivan allows me, as a mother of three with significant physical limitations, to feel comfortable in my own skin, care for my kids, help other parents, connect with friends, and be empowered to do what I can within my limits.

No aspect of human life on earth is without some conflict, without the push-pull between dark and light. We’re being redeemed, but we’re not there yet. The kingdom is here, and it’s also still coming. If we don’t see the kingdom, in all its here-but-not-here-ness, in the commonplace, where are we to see it? Jesus revealed the kingdom in the commonplace—in bread and wine, at wells and in fishing boats. Perhaps it’s not so silly for me to see the paradoxes of the kingdom in my relationship with my stodgy, commonplace minivan.

About Ellen Painter Dollar

Ellen Painter Dollar is a writer focusing on faith, parenting, family, disability, and ethics. She is the author of No Easy Choice: A Story of Disability, Faith, and Parenthood in an Age of Advanced Reproduction (Westminster John Knox, 2012). Visit her web site at http://ellenpainterdollar.com for more on her writing and speaking, and to sign up for a (very) occasional email newsletter.

  • http://timfall.wordpress.com/ Tim

    We’re well into our second minivan, Ellen, and have many of the same appreciative thoughts about owning them.

    My wife tops out at less than 5 feet tall, just like you, and the minivan gets her up where she can see the road a lot better than when she has to drive my sedan. The family road trips and neighborly carpools and the times we loaned it to the youth group for retreats, and all the other great uses we’ve put it too make our minivan a treasure.

    Well, to us anyway. Using it for God’s kingdom was the reason we bought our first one long before our first kid came along. Minivans for God – that should be on a bumper sticker somewhere.

  • pastordt

    I love this, Ellen. And I find it sad that there is almost always a sense of apology surrounding the purchase of a larger car. Now some of them — Expeditions? Suburbans? Hummers? Yeah, those even I have a problem with. But mini-vans and regular-sized SUVs? Nope. They help families survive for all the reasons you noted and few dozen others. I’m tall and I still love being higher in my seat. I feel like I can see what’s coming much better and more quickly. Hooray for minivans!

  • livingtxlife

    I think there are cooler cars (SUVs and Suburbans) that would do exactly what you like about your minivan, but I have a list that means I ended up with the minivan instead of the cooler choices.
    1) You aren’t TOO high in a minivan – I didn’t like feeling like the kids and I were climbing a mountain every time we needed to get into our SUV.
    2) No matter what SUV owners argue, minivans will beat them in interior space with all the sunken floors and under seat compartments. Our family fills a minivan so we need all that space.
    3a) Our choices are limited to a minivan or suburban and I choose to drive the car that has better gas milage.
    3b) Try as I might, I can’t park Suburbans in all the tight spaces we seem to have around town. Minivans park more like cars.
    4) Yes, you might be able to fit a pack of kids in your SUV, but girls in formal dresses can get into my minivan easier than your SUV so I get to hear all the good stuff!


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