The road of life & ‘The Hot Mess Express’

By Claire Mullen

My first car was a 1991 Mazda 626. It had been my dad’s, a practical sedan he’d driven for years until the paint began to peel and the brakes squealed enough to make a 15-year-old girl turn a lovely shade of crimson when he came to a stop in the school parking lot. My siblings and I were so embarrassed by Dad’s car, not yet understanding that our selfless father could have owned a Maserati with the money he sacrificed for private school tuition times four, SAT tutors, piano lessons, travel soccer, summer camp and so on.

But let me tell you something. On my 16th birthday, when Dad handed me the key to that little old Mazda — dangling from a beaded lanyard keychain I’d made for him in elementary school — it might as well have been a Maserati. I took to the driveway with the garden hose, a bucket and a dishrag and made that car sparkle. I scrubbed every interior nook and cranny of my new (to me) wheels with a toothbrush and soap, adorned the back window with a Dave Matthews Band decal, dangled a Hawaiian lei from the rearview mirror, and ceremoniously moved my zip-up binder of about 200 burned CD mixes from my bedroom to the passenger seat of my 626. I knew that with this car came the responsibilities of helping cart my younger sisters and brother around town and waiting tables at Applebee’s over summer break to help pay for gas. But man, I didn’t care. I had my very first, my very own car.

With the exception of what I swear was a sticky accelerator that most certainly contributed to my two speeding tickets before my 17th birthday, that Mazda served me well until she met her demise in a collision between my mom, who was behind the wheel, and a speeding driver on Morganton Road. It didn’t take much to total that little 12-year-old car.

After that accident, I reckoned that I’d spend the rest of high school waiting in line to use the family minivan. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that I would walk out of the school gym one evening after a basketball game to find my parents standing beside a brand new, two-door, soft top Jeep Wrangler Sport. It was my senior year, and I guess looking back, Mom and Dad knew I’d need a reliable way to get to and from Chapel Hill come August. I was a good kid who did well in school, went to church every Sunday, respected my parents and stayed out of trouble, so I suppose I deserved a car. But a NEW Wrangler?! It was the surprise of all my 17 years.

I wish I could remember how many miles that Jeep and I clocked between Chapel Hill and Fayetteville and wherever else tickled my fancy on the weekends. I packed it to the brim with all my belongings when I graduated from college and moved away for work. I loaded it up once more several years later and parked it in the driveway of my first home with my new husband. When we found out that we were expecting our first child, for a fleeting moment, I thought that it would be perfectly reasonable to transport my precious cargo in my precious Jeep. Sure, it may have only had two half doors, but I figured I could unzip a window to finagle an infant car seat in and out. And, yes, I often drove with the top off, but a little fresh air is good for babies, right? After much marital debate and a mourning period on my part, I bid goodbye to my Wrangler and took ownership of a top-safety-rated SUV.

And these days, my vehicular situation is a far cry from my tiny, tidy Mazda. I’m behind the wheel of a veritable mom-mobile capable of hauling seven passengers, a large dog and two weeks’ worth of groceries all at once. Those who have had the displeasure of riding shotgun with me can attest that my name for my GMC Acadia, “The Hot Mess Express,” is quite apt. I like to reason that what may appear to be a disgusting mess to some is merely one of the myriad things I would need in a survivalist situation. If my children and I should ever find ourselves stranded for an extended period of time in our vehicle, I swear we would not only survive but thrive off the collection of things that litter the floor of my car. The three of us could ration the half dozen or so nearly full water bottles that perpetually roll around the floorboard, the last squeezes of discarded applesauce pouches, and stray waffle fries that tend to topple from their bag at abrupt red-light stops. There are enough ketchup packets in the glovebox to go around. The world. We could explore the crevices of the kids’ booster seats and dig out enough Goldfish crackers, Cheerios and semi-melted M&Ms to make a lovely little snack mix.

By my last inventory, I am hauling four umbrellas, five lawn chairs, jackets of every size and degree of warmth, three pairs of socks and shoes, a jumbo roll of packing tape, an assortment of books that rivals the public library, a stash of athletic gear that would make Dick’s Sporting Goods green with envy, two trash bags full of clothing intended for drop-off at Urban Ministry that will inevitably inhabit my cargo space for about six months before reaching their final destination, and enough crayons and scraps of paper to piece together and scrawl an “SOS” sign that would be visible from the exosphere. And should the need for defending ourselves arise, we are heavily armed with a plastic samurai sword, a Darth Maul lightsaber, an Iron Man mask, two Nerf guns and approximately 125 foam darts.

Though I’d prefer that my primary mode of transportation not reek of sweaty cleats and have green slime forever melted into the carpet, I must remind myself that in 10 years that I know will fly by, my spotless and unoccupied back seat might make me a little misty. And, I’ve come to appreciate the value of having a fabulous mobile car detailer on speed dial, Febreze vent clips, and sympathetic teachers who just smile when they open my car door at drop-off and Tupperware containers and soccer balls tumble out along with my children.

As I carefully drive the speed limit on my daily routes to and from preschool, elementary school, the grocery store, the dance studio and the soccer field with KidzBop playing at a reasonable volume from its preset station, I sometimes wonder what became of my two-door, soft top Jeep Wrangler Sport. I like to think that maybe somewhere a teenage girl is behind the wheel with the top off, her hair wild in the wind, Aerosmith blaring from the speakers, and no particular place to be.