Kids, Cars, and the Unpredictability of Life

I was a car-deprived, stay-at-home mom. My husband Ed, on the other hand, had a Chevy and used it to drive to and from work; his car was not at my disposal. Yet I needed to take care of the household errands, do the marketing, and, at the same time, look after our two young daughters, Stacy and Valerie. Pushing the baby carriage along our suburban street was fine for chatting with neighbors. Piling a few bags of groceries next to my two little kids in the carriage was not.

The car issue became central after my last food shopping trip. My girls and I had just finished marketing. Val was an infant at the time and lying inside the baby carriage. Stacy, her big sister, sat facing me in a little seat attached to the carriage’s front handle. Without thinking, I placed a large, heavy bag of groceries on the carriage bed near Val’s feet just behind Stacy. In less than a nanosecond, the overloaded carriage lost its balance, and I found myself reaching out with one arm for Stacy who was falling head-first toward the floor, and with the other arm grabbing for Val, whose tiny body was sliding rapidly toward the grocery bag which was also heading for the floor.

While I calmed my crying girls, the cashier took care of the rolling cans of vegetables, a bouncing carton of milk, a smashed package of lamb chops, and some hamburger patties. Everybody else in the grocery store stood motionless and stared.

That scary moment was on our minds when Ed and I heard from a friend that her friend had a Dodge for sale. We looked at it, liked it, and bought it. The Dodge, a dull gray hunk of a car, seemed like a terrific bargain, and with modest fanfare, the papers were signed, and the Dodge was ours.

But just before the Dodge’s first birthday, the car refused to go into reverse. If I overshot the house I had to drive around the block, and once on our asphalt driveway, had to make a tight turn so that the car’s front end would face the street ready for the next day’s excursion. Some bargain, huh? Words cannot describe my frustration. Or maybe they can, but not with the children around.

Time passed, we got rid of the Dodge, and bought another car, this one brand new. The kids were still little: Stacy at four and Valerie just two years younger. The new car was a sky blue 1969 two-door Mustang and cost us the grand sum of $2,368. It had Cruise-O-Matic transmission, bucket seats, a radio, power steering, a heater, and a 6-cylinder engine. No air conditioning but who cared. That car was mine and I loved it.

My Mustang lived for six trouble-free years when it suddenly, and conveniently, died at the local gas station as we waited to fill up. The owner of the station kindly drove my girls and me home, and before dropping us off, offered to buy the now-defunct car for $175.00. He would put in a new motor.

The following weekend, Ed, Stacy, Valerie, and I went car shopping. At one car dealership, I spied a striking 1975 red two-door Mustang sitting flamboyantly off in a corner of the showroom. I wanted it. “Ed,” I said, “that’s it; that’s the car for me!” Ed looked it over and talked to the salesman who proudly called it an executive’s car. We were assured that it was not often driven, and was sold to us as such. It was our second bargain car out of three.

My red Mustang was bigger and flashier than the blue one, but though it had pizzazz, it did not act the part. The car doors were long, opened awkwardly, and were very heavy. Grunts issued from the mouths of all who tried to open or close one of the doors with merely a thrust of a hand.  

Adding to that, the Mustang’s engine had a hard time turning over on cold days.

Valerie, who was diagnosed with bone cancer in 1970 when she was three, had her right leg amputated above the knee in 1973 in an attempt to prevent metastatic disease. Shortly after we bought the red Mustang, however, Val, nearing her ninth birthday, had a bone biopsy on the tibia of her left leg, her good leg. The biopsy confirmed what the doctors already understood, that the cancer had spread.

At that point in her illness, Valerie could no longer walk on her own, and our bedroom became hers. She’d lay like a little princess on our king-size bed where she could watch TV and order everyone around.

Because Val was, by then, quite fragile, I had problems getting her comfortably settled onto the Mustang’s passenger seat. It was a twisting, turning process that ultimately failed unless I did some initial work in very speedy fashion.

It was late December and cold. Val had doctors’ appointments, many of them. I had to prepare the car for her by opening wide the passenger-side door, reclining the seat as far back as it would go, and layering a few pillows on it to soften the hard leather. I’d then run back into the house, carefully pick up my little girl — Val was lying on the couch bundled in her winter clothes — rush out to the car with her in my arms, and lay her down as gently as possible on the seat. My reward for all that work was to cover her with a blanket, hug her tight, and give her a sloppy kiss or two on the nose. This frequent ritual demanded an exaggerated wipe-off of that tiny nose mixed with giggles and a big shout, “Stop it, Mommy.”

Once we were both safely in the car, I’d turn the key, press my foot to the gas peddle, and start the engine. Or try to. My beautiful bright red car, a car that only an executive had driven, would refuse to turn over. We usually had no time to spare, but that damn engine was obstinate. 

One day, no longer able to bear it, I got out of the Mustang, slammed the door shut, and walked around the car searching for . . . what? I had no idea, but I soon found a tire that raised my ire, and kicked it. I stopped, finally, when I noticed my daughter grinning at me through the car window. I felt foolish about kicking the tire, or maybe chagrined because I was caught in the act. In any event, I got back into the car. After a bit of fast mumbling, such as, “Come on, come on, come on, car,” the Mustang started and off we drove.

I swear, I only kicked one of the tires once.

Nonetheless, it was simply too hard to get Val in and out of the car without hurting her. And so we traded in the red Mustang for a car with four doors: a boxy black Plymouth, the front passenger door and seat looking as if it would work wonderfully for Val. And it did.

But what to do with my zippy red Mustang? Put it up for sale, of course. Ed placed ads in the local papers and spoke to some friends who spread the word: the Goldsteins had a beauty of a car to sell.

Before long, one couple called and wanted to see the Mustang. They might be interested in buying it and would come to the house that afternoon to look it over. I had marketing to do but I’d be home in plenty of time to show them all the features of what I had begun to call Mommy’s Wildly Wretched Red Mustang.

In spite of my name-calling, that car, sitting in our garage, looked showy, shiny, and super. I’d miss it but the prospective buyers would test drive it, fall in love with it, and I’d tell them about the small problem of starting up in the mornings. 

I was still out marketing, however, when they arrived. Erin, our housekeeper, always friendly and chipper, invited the couple in and brought them back to our bedroom to meet Valerie. The four of them chatted for a bit, I was told, and then Val, with a smirk on her face, explained that in order to start the Mustang in the morning, “Mommy had to kick the tires.”

I saw their car as I pulled into the garage and unaware of the tire-kicking tale already told, hurried into the house to greet them. Racing toward our bedroom, I was bombarded by noisy laughter.  Everyone – all four of them anyway – seemed to be talking and laughing at once. At first, when I was told what Val had said, I was dismayed that my tire-kicking behavior had become public. Next, I realized that the car sale was probably doomed. My priorities may not have been in order, but in considering the situation, I began to laugh, and thought, oh well, someone else will want it. I hope.

Most important, though, my daughter had found a way to bring laughter to others and, at the same time, have some fun herself, no matter the circumstances. Although I was not there to see any of their faces, I can still envision Val’s as she drew a clear, verbal picture of my quirky behavior. I’m sorry I didn’t use trashy words during the tire-kicking episode, words that Val would have repeated with glee. She really would have  loved that.

Valerie’s new friends had a sense of humor, too, and demonstrated it by eventually taking the car out for a test drive, and phoning us the next day. I believe they wanted to buy Mommy’s Wildly Wretched Red Mustang because they couldn’t resist Valerie, her impish smiles, and her joie de vivre despite the severity of her illness.

And with that, I recognized, once more, how the unpredictability of life, of kids and cars and strangers, produce in-between moments of joy that forever touch the heart. Those moments become jewels that maintain their sparkle in the telling, over and over again.


Suzann B. Goldstein lives with her husband Ed and a tree named Buster. She is co-founder of The Valerie Fund, has her Master of Arts degree in medical sociology from Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, is a freelance writer and a poet, and has just recently completed her memoir, Unexpected Lives.


Editor: Edwin C. Goldstein