'Oh What Fun It Is to Ride"

I don't know about you, but for me, car trips are the quintessential family holiday. Loading up the roof rack, throwing the kids in the back seat, and hitting the road for grandma's has always been the high point of our winter holiday season. Okay, so my sons are 6 feet tall now, my daughter in graduate school, and instead of throwing them in the back seat with a baggie full of Cheerios, we have to bargain with them about who's riding "shotgun' and who's driving first, but our road trips are still sweet holiday traditions.

This year, there's a whole new look for 2005 "family" cars just waiting to make some memories. They're already out there on the lots: lined up like the next best thing since Sara Lee came up with crustless bread for picky toddlers. They're calling 2005 the year of the cross-over sport van. Featuring satellite navigation systems, DVD based entertainment with overhead LCD monitors and wireless headsets, the 2005 family cars are being touted as more "family-friendly" than ever. Depends what you mean by "friendly"-and by "family."

When our standard model station wagon died a few years back, I knew I needed another family car. Instead of hauling cranky little kids, I had cranky big kids, sometimes an entire soccer team's worth with eight take-out cheese pizzas, and two acoustic guitars to jam into the back on any given day. Of course, when I stepped into the local dealership I was overcome with a 40- something urge to chuck it all and buy the first racy BMW roadster with ragtop that I could get my hands on. As luck would have it, the dealer approached my husband first who told him we were in the market again for a five-passenger family car.

"SUV this time?"

In the years that our friends had moved on from their station wagons to fancy vans and then sport-utility vehicles, I had held onto our wagon, racking up the mileage commuting into my Manhattan office with a carload of Gatorade bottles and sneakers under the back seats. For maneuvering in the parking lot of Nordstrom, I didn't need tires with enough tread to climb Mount Washington.

"We've really enjoyed our wagon."

"Well, just keep in mind, that wagon is a dinosaur," he snipped. "Now this new SUV van here, on the other hand, makes family driving a whole other experience."

"How so?" I asked.

"Well, just look at it," he beamed, sliding a gleaming door silently open, and pausing to let me inhale the fresh new car smell. There was so much of it. More headroom, more legroom, more cargo space, safety features and airbags everywhere.

"Now this is a family car," he said. "It's designed to meet everyone's needs - give everyone their own space. Take this seven-passenger seat configuration. Two separate seats with airbags up front, pair of captain's chairs in the middle, and a third row bench seat that can hold three if need be, but also rolls right out for extra space. Check out the aisle in the middle. Easy to move kids around if they do get rowdy but with the separate seats there's not much chance of that happening. None of that "stuff."

"Well, that seems like a good idea."

"And you know how kids always want to listen to their own music. These back seat controls give them the option of flipping the dial themselves. You don't want to hear them or their music, tell them to plug in their headsets. There are two plugs so they don't have to argue; heck, they don't even have to share."

"I'm beginning to understand," I said.

"Front and rear climate control. You're hot, they're cold, everybody's happy. See what I mean?" Yes, I could see what he was getting at. Everybody has his own space. Everybody does his own thing. The perfect family car.

I don't know why I glanced outside again at our station wagon parked in the lot. But I did, and my mind crowded with memories. Three children sleeping on the middle seat, their heads resting on each other's shoulders. My husband sitting next to me in the front seat within whispering distance. How many times did I adjust the rear view mirror to watch my children? In that one mirror I could see them all. As they grew and needed more space during our journeys, one would climb into the back and make a bed for himself between the suitcases. We'd throw over a pillow. Sure they argued. Sometimes I would be forced to turn around, divide and conquer. Most of the time I would glance up at the mirror, catch someone's eye and give them that MOM look that meant, "resolve your differences, NOW!"

Over the years, our station wagon pounded the highways from north to south to east to west. We sang our way up Interstate 95 from New Jersey to Boston in Thanksgiving Day bumper-to-bumper traffic. We used each other as human pillows on the 10-hour stretch moving from South Carolina to the Garden State. In the wagon we were close. We could give each other neck rubs and share the Skittles without unbuckling our seat belts.

We learned to read maps and make group decisions; like when was it time to switch radio stations? When the static obliterated the lyrics, or when the person who requested the station fell asleep? We learned to respect each other's tastes in music. Questions of whether majority rules in car trips or whether seniority has special privileges came up every time we popped in a CD. But we came up with a system. Two-lane divided highways in cow country always meant country music. Cruising through Easy Pass toll lanes on fast track Interstates was always rock and roll, and entering New Jersey we tried to remain true to prodigal sons Springsteen, or Sinatra depending upon who was awake in the car. Somehow, without intention, our station wagon drove our family together.

So I couldn't help thinking as my husband talked trade-in value that the latest "family cars" were all taking us for a ride. We signed the papers on the van. "Three college kids coming home for the holidays," said the salesman, shaking his head. "I guarantee you this baby will help you get through them without blowing a gasket."

I smiled weakly. If there had been a one-horse sleigh anywhere on the lot, I would have paid full manufacturer's retail price for it.


What event in the Annapolis area are you most looking forward to in 2006?

Powerboat Show
Sailboat Show
Renaissance Festival
Seafood Festival
County Fair

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