An ode to some minivans, and the woman who drove them
Hi everyone, bon weekend. This week’s letter is a touching ode to a place we’re likely all familiar with, but perhaps overlook from time to time: the car. Car’s possess distinct personalities, not only in part due to the people that drive them, but even from how they look on the outside. Whenever I’m driving, I imagine the headlights of passing vehicles as if they’re eyes staring back at me – punctuating features of otherwise emotionless faces. I have fond memories of all the cars I’ve ever had, but also those of my family’s and friends.
In today’s letter, writer Lakshmi Sarah reflects on several very special cars – that of her mothers. Emanating with personality, the vehicles are a lasting reminder of her mother’s spirit. Places of adventure, but also of comfort, and resourcefulness. We hope you enjoy reading it as much as we did.
People who know my mom, can also easily recognize her iconic vans. The first of many I rode in was a VW named Peachy. Peachy was, predictably, a sunset orange shade. She was covered in bumper stickers, a vehicular testament to my mom’s most deeply-held views: “US out of my uterus”, “it will be a great day when the schools have all the money they need and the military needs to have a bakesale to raise money for bombs”, “witches heal”, “angels protect.”
When I was in third grade, Peachy was replaced by a more modern minivan with a gilded hue called Goldie. By the time I was in high school, the minivan was out and Moonbeam, a Toyota Echo, was my mom’s heart on wheels.
Moonbeam’s dashboard was an altar upon which my mom affixed photos of each of her three children and her granddaughter, slightly awkward photos from our various family travels together, mostly all of us beaming into the camera, cut around the edges so they fit more easily on the dashboard. She accumulated feathers and other found objects from her frequent nature explorations in the front two cup-holders, like a child tucking the remnants of a day’s adventure into her corduroy pockets.
The pièce de résistance on Moonbeam’s dashboard was a bright pink sparkly cut-out of the words “MOM ROCKS!”, a gift from my sister. Sure, it slightly obscured the speedometer. But even on the freeway, mom had to be coaxed to go quickly. “You’re not even going the speed limit,” I’d complain en route to catch a flight. But she always got us there in time, and always left me with the same instructions: “Don’t forget to drink water and take your vitamins.”
Every single time she dropped us off at the airport she would cry. LOVE LOVE is how she ended her emails.
My mother always had snacks in her car, somewhere to put your trash, and a comfortable bed to lie down on in the back during long road trips. She even repurposed an orange Halloween bucket, once used for trick-or-treating, into a portable road toilet.
The car is an easy place for talking — driving on the open road facing straight ahead, eyes transfixed to the horizon. For a woman in the 1960s the car was a form of freedom and my mom always loved a good road trip. She traveled several times across the U.S., with my older brother in tow. For many Americans and Californians even more so, the car is also a necessary evil. There’s often no other way to get groceries and travel to work and school.
But hopping into my mom’s car always felt like a joyful adventure rather than a chore. It helped that we often drove to state parks. What’s more beautiful than a sunset over the ocean, watching the moonrise or the awe you feel staring at a majestic waterfall like Yosemite’s Vernal Falls? We discussed life, love, death and everything in between — mostly in the car.
When I was little, I’d often ask my mother about the story of her youngest sister’s death. “How did Izzy die?” I’d say. She’d repeat the story over and over. Her therapist had told her to tell and retell it again and again — that only then would the impact, the deep grief, begin to lessen.
Izzy’s was the second death in my mother’s immediate family in two years. First was Aunt Francie from leukemia, then Izzy, in a tragic accident after a particularly harsh rain came just as she was rafting down the Pescadero creek to meet the ocean. Then barely a year later, my grandmother died from breast cancer. My mother was 29.
After the grandmother I never met died, my mother sold her first VW van, a blue one, and used the money to buy a backpack and a ticket to India.
It was on this grief-filled quest in the late 1970s that she met my father at an Ashram in the foothills of the Nilgiri mountains in Southern India while studying with Guru Nitya Chaitanya Yati — a philosopher, psychologist, author and poet. My mom and dad eventually returned to the Bay Area. That's when she bought Peachy.
My mom and I were in my own car — a sky blue Toyota Fit named Ocean — when we drove to the coast for the last time. If I had known it would be the final beach trip where she would remember my name, I would have committed each detail to memory. Instead, I take what I recall and blend it into familiar routines from our many past outings: We take the winding ride on 84 over the hill, past the place we used to pick olallieberries; we are mostly quiet, unless we’re puncturing the silence by belting out Paul Simon songs, like “You Can Call Me Al” and “Graceland” and crooning our way through Peter, Paul and Mary classics like “Where Have All the Flowers Gone”.
Taking a pilgrimage to Pescadero state beach is a family ritual. A homing device, or a way to recalibrate. A way to get closer to something larger than ourselves. Something vast and universal.
During our last trip to the beach together, my mom scoured the sand for rocks, plucking them out of the wet grit and depositing them into her pockets. By the time we walked back to the car, she had gathered so many that she was physically weighed down, her pants and sweater drooping at the sides, her footsteps slowed. My mother was always our family’s keeper of memories. Holding on to so many small things is heavy work.
No, my mom isn’t dead. But these days, with Alzheimer’s taking it’s hold, she resides in an assisted living facility near my older sister in Arkansas, far from the rocks of the Pacific Ocean. I try to anticipate her needs and wants before I arrive by bringing her a raspberry truffle from See’s candies on the flight from California — the same kind she used to eat when pregnant with me. She no longer drives and it’s sometimes unclear if she knows who I am.
I’m in the driver’s seat for doctors and dentist appointments. Still, when I ask her if she’d like to go on a little driving adventure, even if it’s just five minutes to the museum, she usually perks up.
I bask in the freedom my car provides me with. I can take a trip to the coast whenever I please. And though I am content in my independence, I miss the gentle acts of love I was so used to receiving as a passenger in my mom’s car.
My own car is not quite as decorated as my mother's. The items I keep in it are mostly useful and functional things — maps, masks, a phone charger.
But there are also a few rocks in the cup holder. To remind me of my mom and her grounding presence.
A poem about the sadness of a place,
and more poetry, this time from Lviv, Ukraine.
Join us next week for another adventure.