Odometers turn like the years of our lives.
Odometers, as with life, are designed to spin numbers like the Showcase Showdown wheel on The Price is Right. Someone will come out a winner and someone else will lose.
When I slid into the driver’s seat of my 2009 Sunset Bronze Toyota Venza, I alluded to this fact, saying to my husband, Mark, “I’m not driving lots of miles right now because I want to be somewhere special when the car turns.” Confusion spread across his tanned face. My car, nicknamed The Avenza due to its longevity and making use of the feminine suffix -a, approached the historic benchmark of 200,000 miles.
Driving to our lakehouse and back twice in one week, the miles had accumulated quickly. My anxiety piled on. I reiterated wanting to be somewhere consequential to honor the only vehicle I had pushed equal in miles to eight times around the Earth.
When the odometer finally flipped, I had won, and someone dear to me was lost.
In 2009, I was visiting my parents in northern Ohio. Mark called after a outing to the Kings Auto Mall. The sprawling campus wasn’t as glamorous as the Kenwood Towne Center once was, but it’s where guys went to shop. We were finished driving SUVs. The kids were older, driving without us, wrecking their own cars, or living out of state. We had hauled our share of treasures and trash with an old Honda Pilot. It was time for new.
I’m a closeted car person. My high school friends and I developed an uncanny habit of memorizing every car the boys we liked drove. We knew a Buick from a Cutlass, and how many gallons our cars might guzzle in a night of zooming to Cleveland and back, or cruising around our small town and along Lake Erie. In cramped two-doors, we crawled past parties to note the muscle cars of guys we once dated, the rusting van of a brother’s friend, or slick vehicles of people we didn’t like. One stud drove a Trans Am, was it gold? Another popular guy occasionally borrowed his father’s yellow Triumph convertible.
We dreamed of cars we’d someday helm. A forest green Jaguar oozed cool and class. We were devoted to car colors like young people nowadays to nail polish hues. And was there a better name than champagne, the color of our family’s Chevy Citation my siblings and I fought over, until one of us hit a mailbox, the next one shaved the garage door, and finally, one sister clipped a one-lane bridge?
Once out of college, I inherited my older sister’s Nissan Pulsar, a cherry red color fading fast to brown. The car (and me) boasted of its mechanical moonroof. A year later, a good friend accompanied me to a dealership when I negotiated my first car purchase, a 1980 silver Toyota Corolla with manual transmission. Did I mention I didn’t know how to drive stick? Did I mention I learned on the job, meaning, to work the next day?
Possibly bored, Mark took it upon himself to visit dealers and check out new cars. The Venza was a newer model for Toyota. I was intrigued by its roominess. But Mark had me at metallic Sunset Bronze.
Back in Cincinnati, I whipped the Venza around the tight parking lot and tested my comfort level on highway. Could I raise the seat a little higher? Lift the lever. Could I sit just a little higher? Upgrade to a 21-inch wheelbase.
The purchase was made more enviable by a free oil-change-for-life deal. Should I move, as I eventually did so twenty miles away, I’d begrudgingly proceed north on I-71 and inch along Fields-Ertel Road, where one was always on a collision course with tardiness, and secure my spot in the freebie line.
Over twelve years’ time, the car transported kids to colleges in the Carolinas and Indiana, my parents from their forever family home in Amherst to their never-felt-like home in Loveland, Ohio, my little nieces to the blue ice cream stand at the Beach Waterpark, stacked groceries to long lake weekends with family. There were Cleveland road trips, when the car drove itself and the radio stations were already tuned to Michael Stanley Band songs. Finally, the Venza showed up at numerous vet appointments for Enzo, our King Charles Cavalier.
My Venza had endured countless little scrapes, sort of like my knees after skimming hurdles in track, and a dent in the hatchback when I reared into the neighbor’s sturdy fence that we called a shipping container. There were obvious brushes with Fate along the side panels. Parked in the city, the car was “entered” several times, without anyone stealing my Cleveland Browns blanket, but someone did plunder my secret stash of Combos. Two years ago, Mark discovered the passenger front window had been smashed. Remnants of glass shimmy like ice in a cocktail shaker when someone slams that door shut.
The car was charged with early morning emergency runs for my mother, midnight pickups at the airport, and one late night run to the vet for Enzo, who died as I cradled him in the front passenger seat. His presence is one reason I cannot rid myself of this car.
Often, Mark will ask if I want a new car. I work from home. We walk to baseball games, theatre performances, and cross the river for Goettafests. In the suburbs, where one wants a comfortable ride for a commute, it might make sense to drive a more well-appointed car. With its nicks and sticky remnants of U of O and College of Charleston decals, I’d rather let the Venza age gracefully.
That’s how I found myself driving north on I-75 toward Dayton, grappling with grace.
Dayton was home to the Wright brothers, and for me, a second home. My first husband’s family, the Wicks, had roots in Dayton: Centerville, Beavercreek, and Bellbrook. We spent Sundays driving to Vandalia for Grandma Virginia’s German noodles. Devin had an affinity for his youngest uncle, Dennis, and his wife. Alice. He had lived with them when he was a student teacher. One evening, they babysat our son, Davis, and we showed up without Davis’ (necessary) stuffed Mickey Mouse. Not a problem. Alice bought him a facsimile. Grandpa Howard died in 1999. Devin died the following year. Rootless, Davis and I made countless trips to Dayton to be with our adopted family. Blended into a new family, we trekked north once more.
Eventually, the Venza learned the route to Dennis and Alice’s home on Thursday nights for Marion’s Pizza (deluxe only). Alice died of cancer seven years ago. Somehow, Dennis, an avid tennis player and cyclist, went on.
Whenever we gathered, Dennis’ wore his emotions on his sleeves, even if words were nowhere to be found. I didn’t need his words. Like a dependable car, I only needed to know he was there. We talked art, writing, hostas, and sports. He never failed to ask about the kids. And he never failed to ask about my sister, Laura, who suffered brain damage, and her daughter who now lived a few states away. Tears always marked our departure. I never wanted to leave.
Four years ago, Dennis had a stroke, then a series of strokes. Arm and leg movements were limited. And he ate like shit. Before the stroke — and after. Reese’s cups? Bags of them. Marion’s pizza was the healthiest he might eat in a week. Dennis chose his path to ride. The rest of us were just along for the ride.
After hiking the Clifton Gorge back in June, Mark and I stopped to see Dennis. Hostas that once proliferated his backyard were shriveled or disappeared. He was thin, feeble, but his mind never wondered or wavered. He always knew where the Reds stood in the standings.
I didn’t know how much longer Dennis would be with us. I didn’t know how much longer the Venza would hold up during voyages to see him, especially after a terrifying moment this past May.
Two nights before our daughter’s wedding, we were on the last run to the airport (after two runs earlier in the day) to pick up our adult children. I bragged how my car neared 200K and how mightily the Venza had performed, while wrangling my way through a highway ramp back up. Davis didn’t call his mom Two-lane Netti for nothing. At the airport, I circled around the arrivals area. A loud scraping noise startled me. “That’s just construction,” I said, waving down our son. Davis skid into his seat and said, “God, Mom, what’s that noise?” I answered the same. A mile later, my temples ached from the clanging. In crisis mode, I called Avis for a rental and Mark waited for the tow. Later, a technician informed me I was a lucky gal. An oil line leak and replacement parts would cost $300 in repairs on the car.
The Avenza drove another day. Certainly, Dennis would too.
By the end of August, his health deteriorated. His children struggled to maintain the home, raise their kids, and care for their father. Dennis had lived a rich and full life and lacked the desire to overcome what he didn’t see necessary. He was moved to a care home, a blow for everyone, justified as it was. A few weeks later, he experienced another stroke. The time had come for hospice care.
The time had also come for me to encounter Dennis on my terms and his.
While merging onto I-75, my phone rang. Steve, my attorney friend, had settled the insurance claims after I was struck by a car and incurred serious leg injuries. Longtime friends, we joked about eating a steak dinner to celebrate closing out the claim, ending that leg (pun intended) of the journey. I didn’t have to be a victim anymore or play it safely to confirm to the insurance companies my ills. My knees were free to do as they pleased.
A car sped past. Its velocity knocked me out of my bliss. I glanced down at the odometer. Wait, what? 199,990?
Before leaving Cincinnati, I hadn’t checked the mileage, consumed by my memories of Dennis. Ten miles left to go and I was driving in the middle lane of a hot concrete paradise on a blue-sky day, when I should have been…maybe cruising some rural route, pretending to be in high school looking for boys and beer. When I should have been…somewhere else? Where was I was supposed to be?
Though not recommended in the Venza owner’s manual, I recorded the moments leading to the odometer passed into the 200s like counting the seconds while a glittering ball dropped on New Year’s Eve.
The odometer spun with urgency now. 200,201, 2, 3…10…30. The miles melted away as I signaled a turn into the parking lot of Dennis’ care home, welcomed by the signs “Come on in” and “We’re vaccinated.”
I let in a breeze to freshen up the car’s insides. Arms whisked open, I gathered up sun stores to gift to Dennis.
Some say Toyotas are built to last. Some say Man is not. When my mother died, a hospice nurse counseled how we are where we’re supposed to be when a loved one dies. It’s the same for cars when they, and their drivers, achieve a life milestone. Despite my disappointment in the locale, The Avenza and I found ourselves where we were supposed to be.
I whispered goodbye to Dennis, my words as gummed up as his. I removed his glasses so I could see into his lake blue eyes and acknowledge his love for me and my family, and my unquantifiable love for an uncle only related by marriage, a love that had far surpassed the Venza in its countless miles logged on Earth.