Marianne Ayala

In March 1993, hands shaking and sweat on his brow, my father withdrew $3,850 — nearly all of his hard-earned savings — from the bank. A few hours later, he became the owner of a light blue metallic 1986 Toyota Camry. The Storm of the Century buried the car the very next day, and Dad and Mom (only dating at the time) spent a greater part of the next afternoon digging it out of over three feet of snow. That was not the last struggle my parents faced with the ’86 Camry. Months later, the timing belt broke during a trip to D.C., and a gruff mechanic named Marvin fixed it up while Dad got to know his visiting father-in-law for the first time. The car later hydroplaned to its doom off an exit ramp on the way to Lancaster County, but Mom and Dad still managed to drive the rest of the way to meet the people who I would later come to know as my third set of grandparents.

A few months before I was born, Mom and Dad purchased a brand new black Nissan Maxima and drove it up and down the east coast on the weekends. Mom navigated using AAA maps and MapQuest printouts; Dad played classic Chinese songs and classical music on the stereo; and the three of us — well, really, the two of them — saw all the prettiest places they could manage to find. Later on, they sold the ’86 Camry to a Jewish family looking for a graduation gift for their daughter and replaced it with a forest green 1998 Ford Taurus. It was around this time that the black Maxima collided with a car that ran a stop sign right outside of a hospital. Luckily, all members of the family came out unscathed, but the Maxima was traded in for a Toyota Sienna soon after. William — or Billy, as my family calls him — was born less than one year later.

The tan Sienna and the green Taurus are the first two cars in my memory. All through my early years, Mom drove the minivan to the hospital, and Dad drove the sedan to the office. Both cars made the move with us to a new home in 2004, when Billy was still so small that he could stand up straight beneath the new kitchen counters. Mom hated driving the minivan up I-95 in the winter; it was huge and took ages to warm up, leaving her cold and lonely on her long drives into downtown Philly. Meanwhile, the Taurus puttered along until my parents could no longer put up with its constant breakdowns — they sold it right back to the dealer at the first opportunity. In its place, we acquired a silver 2008 Toyota Camry. Despite those issues, my memories of the Sienna and the Taurus are fond. I can still recall the smell of stale Capri Sun on the minivan seats and the image of baby Billy drooling onto his seat belt on long drives.

The minivan was totalled the day before Mom was scheduled to fly out to China. “No rain, no traffic — some lady who could barely drive hit me from behind,” she sighed. While Mom visited her parents in China, Dad settled the insurance deals and purchased a new Camry — a bright red one. Mom didn’t forgive him for weeks. Dad claims that Mom got mad because he didn’t ask her before making the decision; Mom claims it was because bright red cars are the first to get flagged down by the police for speeding. Thus began the relatively short era during which our family owned two Camry’s at once. The red Camry, which Mom grew to accept and love, was totalled in a serious accident just two years later: A car driving at 65 mph hit Mom from behind on I-95, causing her to slam into the car in front of her. Four more cars were caught in the pileup. Fortunately — unlike the red Camry, which was crushed from the front and the back — Mom came out of the accident unharmed.

After much trial and tribulation, only the silver 2008 Toyota Camry remained. Alongside a brand new white Toyota Rav4, the silver Camry made the move with us to Minnesota in 2012. I learned to drive in it, and Billy has been practicing in it since I left for college. At the end of our long conversation about our family’s car history, Mom could only laugh. “I was wondering where all the money went,” she said. Looking over my notes from our chat, I found myself realizing for the first time that my parents had indeed lived a life apart from parenthood — I only had to look as far as the garage to see it.