June 20, 2018
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Car shopping with the Smileys

Sarah Smiley
By Sarah Smiley

We were in the market for a new car, and it had been awhile. In fact, now that our youngest child is 7, this would be the first new car in 14 years that we’d buy without the thought of car seats. Cars have changed a lot. If you haven’t shopped for one lately, I can summarize the market for you with this: everything works with the touch of a button. Yes, even the ignition.

I thought my minivan, which we had for five years, was state-of-the art because it had flip-down movie screens in the back for the kids. But apparently movie screens are so 2009. Now the driver needs to have a screen, too. Everything is run through the screen. Touchscreen this. Touchscreen that.

When my minivan was in the shop for four days, I rented several cars. (Thank you Enterprise for staying open late for me.) One of them, a Jeep Grand Cherokee, was so loaded with features, I had to pull off the side of the road just to figure out how to stop the air-conditioned seats. Yes, the seats were vented. If you’ve never felt freezing cold air blown through the seat of your pants, well, you’re not missing much. It was kind of like landing bottom first in a snowbank.

The Jeep had a screen for operating the climate, the navigation, the stereo (the finest I’ve ever heard, by the way), and even my phone. When the screen asked me, “Is that Sarah Smiley’s iPhone,” I screamed — in my head. But still!

The point is, in just five years cars have advanced far beyond my minivan’s snazzy, but seriously dated, movie screens.

Dustin didn’t think we needed a new car. After all, while he’s in D.C. during the workweek, he doesn’t have any car. This discrepancy between Dustin’s big-city relationship with his (non) automobile and my haul-the-kids-to-and-from relationship with my minivan would make the task of buying a car even more difficult that it usually is for us.

Dustin doesn’t like to spend money. Ever. The van would have to lose a wheel before he’d agree to a new car. (Spoiler: two days after Dustin said “let’s wait a while longer before we get a new car,” the van did lose a tire.) Dustin’s fondness for never giving a few grand to a dealership is why the Smiley car rotation usually goes like this: Sarah gets a new car, and Dustin takes the old one.

The first time we shopped for a car together 15 years ago, I told Dustin, in front of the salesman, to be nicer to said salesman by refraining from asking him to go any lower on the price. Ever since, I’ve been banned from big-purchase negotiations.

I usually get the car I want in the end, however, but only after Dustin makes me test drive five others that I know I won’t like. This is why I say I’m the heart of the operation, and he is the brains. I fall in love with a car (house, dress, sofa), and he balks at first (He once asked me, “Why do you need a new pair of shoes if you already have one pair?”), but in the end, we usually end up with my love-at-first-sight choice at his won’t-break-the-bank price. This is a roundabout way of saying that without Dustin, I’d be broke, and without me, he’d get by with sneakers from 1985.

Our week of car rentals and car shopping got the boys thinking about all of this, too. Lindell has only ever really known our minivan. The idea that someone goes to a dealership and buys a car was foreign to him. Don’t cars just show up? And now all three of them were witnessing firsthand how decisions happen in our family.

In the back of our (rented) car one night, their conversation went like this:

Owen: When I get older I’m going to buy a Ford. Probably a truck, but maybe an Explorer.

Lindell: Why?

Owen: Because I like those cars, so I will get them.

Lindell: You can’t just say that, Owen. Especially if you’re going to have a wife.

Owen: Well, I’ll make sure I make my own money so I can choose the car I get.

Ford: I don’t think it works that way, either, Owen. I mean, look at Mom and Dad.

After laughing until I cried, I took the moment to tell the boys how lucky we are that Dustin can provide cars (and a house, clothes and furniture) for us. We’re even more fortunate that Dustin often goes without in order to give us the things we need or want. Sure, some of his “selflessness” comes from a desire not to spend money, but mostly it comes from wanting us to be safe, happy and healthy. Fortunate indeed.

And someday, I hope to repay Dustin by gifting him whichever car we end up buying after I am done with it and want a new one.

Maine author and columnist Sarah Smiley’s writing is syndicated weekly to publications across the country. She and her husband, Dustin, live with their three sons in Bangor. She may be reached at Facebook.com/Sarah.is.Smiley.


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