I have owned more dogs than new cars. I have owned 3 dogs.
Shortly after we were married, Karen and I bought a new Ford Taurus. It was an ordinary car -- blue, base model, nothing automatic except the transmission. It lived to the ripe old age of 14, taking us across the country and back more than once. But like many of us, it got a little thin on top and lost its youthful ability to run without squeaking. Eventually, it had a heart attack and died along the side of the road. Nobody noticed.
That's when I bought The Car.
It was September 2003. We were a young family, with three boys ages 10, 9 and 5. We had a minivan. We were living on one small income. We had little to spare.
I remember test-driving vehicles, looking for a suitable replacement. I tried a used Ford Focus (station wagon). It was "roadside gravel" gray. It had windows and seats. It was $10,000. I remember thinking, as I putt-putted my way up 270 with a pudgy salesman beside me, "This might be THE MOST BORING CAR in the universe."
But my dream car was the brand-spanking-new, hot white, stylish, Toyota Matrix. It was only the second year of production. The Matrix had a black grill, sweet rims, and was shaped like a laser beam. It drove like a BMW, and could turn inside a hula-hoop. It had electric mirrors and doors. It had a six-disc CD changer -- imagine, being able to store six discs at once! It even had a "moonroof," which is similar to, actually is exactly like, a sunroof. I imagined Keanu Reeves in the driver's seat, the ultimate in cool in his long black trench coat and sunglasses, looking over at me in the passenger seat and saying, "Woah!" I wanted that car.
Still, I was conflicted. The Ford was the frugal choice. We could pay cash. The Matrix would cost twice as much and we would be making payments for years. I wanted to be wise. I wanted to be prudent. Then I had "the dream," the one in which I saw the Matrix's cool, back-lit reddish/orange dash shining like a beacon in the night. No lie. I took that as a sign. I signed the papers. I brought my baby home. Somewhere, Dave Ramsey was angry with me.
But Karen was not. "It's the right car for us," she said. "It's the right car for you. You will love it. You will drive it forever."
"You're right," I justified. "I'll teach Jon to drive in this car."
"You'll drive him to his wedding in that car," she laughed.
I loved that car like a fourth child. Or maybe more like a first child. The first child is treated like fine china, always washed and well-dressed, protected from any threat of harm, coddled and cuddled. The first child never drinks from a bottle that hasn't been boiled for four days or wears an outfit that didn't come straight out of the package or eats anything less than organic baby food or goes 27 seconds without an adult checking to make sure he is breathing. The fourth child? He drinks from an old beer bottle and wears tattered hand-me-downs and eats whatever he can find on the floor and is left overnight in the basement before anyone discovers he is missing. Yes, I loved the Matrix like a first child. I certainly bathed it more often.
Imagine my horror when, at the tender age of six-months, my Matrix was nearly crushed by a Suburban while parked in the driveway of a student from church. This is the conversation that ensued between me and his father, the driver of the Suburban, who interrupted me with a look of shame-filled trepidation in his eyes.
"Steve, can you come here? I need to tell you something."
Oh no. Who died?
"I accidentally backed into your car."
"In the driveway"
"I crushed the driver's side door."
Anyway, he paid for the repair and the Matrix was back on the road in no time. For the next decade it took on more roles than Nicholas Cage. It was a sporting goods store, a mobile youth ministry, a limo, a dining room, a dump truck, an office, and a taxi. One night it was my hotel room. It wore grooves in the roads between Walkersville and Urbana. It staved off attacks from clueless cars at intersections, and from spastic deer on dark nights. It drove more PA turnpike miles than a Sheetz truck and killed more late-night insects than a bug zapper. The kids loved that car. I told them it had had a secret compartment that only I knew about and dared them to find it. For years they looked for it.
All the while, the Matrix continued to chug along, keeping our family of five moving like well-oiled pistons. Nobody could count the number of trips to games or school events, or the hours spent chatting while driving to and from youth group. Five years ago, Jon and I traveled to eight cities in ten days to watch baseball games--from Pittsburgh to Kansas City. The Matrix was our ticket.
And yes, Jon learned to drive in it. So did Tim. So did Tom. Each took their driver's test in it. Each was driven to college in the backseat.
A few years ago, alone and driving east on the PA Turnpike between Somerset and Bedford, I pulled off the road and celebrated the turning of its 200,000th mile.
The Matrix is now 14 years old. They say they don't make things like they used to, and it's true. Toyota stopped production of the Matrix in 2015. But mine is still alive and well at 235,000 miles. Sure, it's not as young as it used to be. Its headlights are covered with cataracts. Its grill is covered with bugs. Its paint is faded. The bumper is held on with chicken wire. The moon-roof leaks a little and there is rust forming on the doors. That amazing 6-CD changer I thought was the height of technological genius? It hardly ever gets used because of Bluetooth. But The Car continues to serve me well as I drive it into its twilight years. The Matrix and I are like an old couple planning that last trip to Alaska. I'm shooting for 300,000 miles before one of us dies. I'm pretty sure that old gray Ford was crunched into a cube a decade ago. The Car and I are still going strong.
And guess what? Last month, we drove to Jon's wedding in it, just like Karen promised. Our kids are 24, 23 and 19 now. What a ride!
The Car has been pretty good, too.