The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

August 22, 2013

Aisha Sultan: Leaving a loved one behind

By Aisha Sultan
Globe Columnist

JOPLIN, Mo. — I took one last look in the empty backseat and saw a vision of double car seats.

It's been years since those strapped-down seats left indentations in the leather. The backseat, now spotless, never looked so clean during the car seat years. Even when our daughter outgrew the front-facing seat and graduated to a booster, and when her brother caught up with a booster of his own, it was never a clean car.

Once, I offered a ride to a couple of colleagues when we were headed to lunch. I tossed aside one of the boosters to make space, and was so personally disgusted by the crumbs, spills and stashes of whatever the children were collecting at the moment that I had to lay something down for my co-worker to sit on.

It was that kind of car -- covered in the filth of babyhood, then childhood.

The "classic silver metallic" Prius was pristine, of course, when I fell for her nearly seven years ago. I knew she was the one before I laid eyes on her. I was already sold on the gas mileage, and my last car had been totaled in an accident. Back then, she was still a bit of an oddity in the heart of the Midwest, and people would stop to ask me questions about her in parking lots.

I bragged about the 50 miles per gallon whenever I had the chance. I had been warned of the dangers of "smug pollution" that came with driving this hybrid, but I didn't care if I fell victim.

My children were on the cusp of those busiest chauffeuring years when we got her. Soon enough, she was carting them to preschools and piano lessons and Sunday school and practices. Parents of children of a certain age spend many of their waking hours in a vehicle.

Pri was a reliable companion. We criss-crossed half the country with her. Despite the ever-present evidence of small children inside, I took care of Pri like she took care of us.

When I crossed the 100,000 mile mark, I took a picture of her odometer the same way I documented the children's kindergarten graduations. Even before this milestone, my husband had started suggesting perhaps her time had come. I bristled at the idea.

I didn't need a new car. I preferred to drive this one. Maybe not forever, but certainly for many more years. For the better part of a year, I resisted, and the car became a standoff.

Humans can form attachments to objects, and we are especially susceptible to vehicles that symbolize our freedom, express our identities and transport our precious cargo.

I remember the black Caprice Classic of my childhood, a boat of a car with a rear window space large enough for a small child to lie down in, pressed against the glass. (It was an era of lax child seat safety, I suppose.)

It wasn't just Pri that I loved. Her history was inextricably tangled with the story of my kids' childhoods. For more than 107,000 miles we inhabited this compact space together.

Maybe I wasn't ready to let that go.

But rationality bested sentimentality, as it rightfully ought to in matters of safety.

Earlier this month, I took Pri to a Toyota dealership. Like a man with a midlife crisis, I was literally trading in my steady, faithful companion for a newer, fancier model.

The heated seats and HD radio felt more like a betrayal than a bonus.

I told the salesman and finance guy to make sure she went to a good family. They humored me as they closed the deal.

I filled a couple of Ziploc bags with the loose clips, pens and papers I forgot to take out of the dash.

I took two pictures of her before I walked away. Then I drove off the lot in another Prius.

If she lasts as long as her predecessor, she'll be the one that sees my girl move from the back seat to the front -- and the day soon after, when she takes the wheel.

Aisha Sultan is a St. Louis-based journalist who studies parenting in the digital age while trying to keep up with her tech-savvy children. Find her on Twitter: @AishaS.