I Believe in Messy Vans

I Believe in Messy Vans

Photograph by Colleen Trouwborst

I believe in messy vans. 

I was around five when I noticed that my mom wouldn’t let adults in our van without apologizing for what they were about to encounter. That’s when I wondered if maybe other families had minivans that looked different from ours? My suspicions were confirmed when we gave my friend Rachel a ride home from Bible study. She told me disdainfully that her family didn’t keep orange peels in their cup holders. 

Back then, we lived in a charming colonial house in upstate New Jersey, just a little ways from the old Giants Stadium (replaced later by MetLife Stadium) — me, my parents, my brother Luke (23 months older than me), and my brother Caleb (21 months younger). On the oak floorboards and tapestry rugs you could find bent-up, gold-edged business cards embossed with the title “Trouwborst & Trouwborst.”My parents ran the accounting firm together. We stamped and trampled their business cards until they were indistinguishable from escaped Monopoly cards. Then Abigail and Seth were born, and my mom repositioned herself as a homeschool mom, cooking big batches of granola on the weekends. 

Mercy arrived in 2000, making us a family of eight. Our minivan held seven passengers. Thus began a time of squeezing in. I doubt that my parents were comfortable with the arrangement. We were over the moon at finding an acceptable form of law-breaking, and were especially thrilled at the idea that we might get caught. Lookouts were appointed on busy streets. “Duck!” we’d shriek at the sight of any black and white vehicle. 

My mother would just pass us back clementines and tell one of us to “get your butt back in the seat.”

Upgrading vans took several months because we’d begun to live frugally. A significant change was coming, hinted at by the towers of medicinal pink cards that had started showing up around the house. Hebrew flashcards: my father was getting his Master of Divinity (M.Div) degree. He hadn’t made the decision hastily. 

It was during the next stage of this process — the “candidating,”or interviewing stage — that we met the Matsons. Mr. Matson served as a deacon at a church in Kingston, New York. As we spilled out of our minivan into the church parking lot, his wife tactfully mentioned that they’d been trying to get rid of an old 12-passenger. They invited us to Sunday lunch. In their driveway was a vehicle that appeared, from a short distance away, to be a fire truck. I will never know the circumstances that placed this vehicle in the driveway of a family of four. Inside, the seats were that soft, clean gray of a pair of sweatpants just out of the dryer. It was huge. I loved it. When we took the van, it seemed to lift a great weight from that family’s driveway, and equilibrium was restored in the peaceful suburban scene: just a coiled sprinkler, a Subaru, and a tricycle.  

Kingston Alliance Church, however, did not call my father to the pulpit. He accepted a call from a congregation in upstate New York. They were Presbyterian. A beautifully restored police station in upstate New York was their church. For four months we made three-hour drives up a slate gray Thruway. There was a 10:00 a.m. morning service and a 6:00 p.m. evening service. 

Before we headed south, my father would take us to McDonald’s. Those of us who were old enough to chew would select one illicit item off the dollar menu. I say “illicit”because Sundays were strictly defined as days of rest: no buying, no selling, and no watching movies.

So when we asked my dad why the Sunday ban on “going to restaurants”(yes, McDonald’s) had suddenly been lifted, we did so a bit tentatively. “Because I love you,”he said, and then — realizing that we were old enough to want a theological explanation — “because God gives us general rules for the Sabbath, but allows for exceptions in extenuating circumstances. ”Our delight at this irregularity in the rules of heaven differed in size, but not in kind, from the greedy amazement of the Israelites when manna rained down from heaven. 

* * *

By 2008, the remainder of the family had entered the world, with Sarah, Christiana, and baby Hannah bringing up the rear. My Dutch father and my Irish mother produced an unbroken string of blond children with eyes on the blue-green spectrum. When all 11 of us went to a restaurant, keeping a low profile was out of the question. There would always be a neighboring table wanting to know who we were — meaning, really, why we were the way we were.

My father, who is good at charming strangers, would lean back in his chair. An Orthodox Presbyterian minister! What an exotic bird, I could see them thinking. 

* * *

“It is impossible to keep this van clean!”

An exclamation of my mother’s during one of her rare moments of frustration. Knees pink. A black trash bag in hand, standing on the porch, seriously ticked that none of her kids would admit to leaving a hot dog in the back seat cupholder. 

We were no angels.“It might’ve been me. I honestly can’t remember,”someone would say. 

And she’d press you for details: Last Sunday, at the barbeque, did you finish your food? Are you sure? Were you in the van later that night? Did you drive to the Krewsons’?

She was closer to the angels than we were, particularly in the category of forgiveness, in which her speed was unparalleled. How many times did we wait until she’d cleaned the car before bringing her a badly brewed cup of coffee? 

“Thank you, honey,”she’d say. She’d lean against the shingles of the house, tired. Soon she’d be telling you about the website she’d found where you could download Mark Twain audiobooks for free. 

There were many strata to the debris on the car floor, but the base level was dirt. This dirt originated from various locations — from the Little League diamond (my brothers), soccer fields (whole family, at the boys’insistence), and hiking trails (the whole family, at my father’s insistence). Even though soccer felt like a chore to me, there was something I appreciated about the relational politics of the game. Like new seating arrangements, new teams aligned our loyalties in random configurations. There would be at least one athletic kid on both sides, one “delicate flower” — a third of the way into the game, she’d need comforting — and one parent. 

* * *

Neither of my parents grew up in a zealously religious home. Actually, they followed similar trajectories up through their twenties. Each surprised their families by attending church with firm regularity in college. They then found themselves drawn to small churches in the Reformed tradition, wanting more than anything to tease out the secrets of the Bible, to live as it taught. They’d been attending weekly Bible studies separately when my father went for an interview at my mother’s accounting firm. 

After they were married, my parents enjoyed a sharp discount on their health insurance by simply giving their word that they wouldn’t drink or smoke. They wrote for special permission to (a) take Communion on Sundays, a touch of red wine to the tongue, and (b) drink one flute of champagne each at the Riskins’wedding — they’d been entrusted with toasting duties. 

How to say this: these lifestyle choices were not the main structural components of my parents’shared theology. It’s more important to consider the reasons why they didn’t stop after having three kids — the size of each of their families — or at six, or at eight. It’s inconceivable to me that they first discussed having “a big family”when their lives were sleek. They were cool. Weekly lunches in Manhattan with big clients, cab fare on the corporate card. 

This is when they decided they wanted a big red van with chicken nuggets on the floor. Or they wanted us, anyway. 

I have seen the other type of Christian homeschooling family. Not that clean car is a type, but it coincides with a type. After all, girls who couldn’t wear makeup would not have left mascara stains on the back left corner of their van, right between the window and the wall attachment of the seat belt. 

When we were both 13, a friend had me over after youth group so we could make ginger ale popsicles. Her mom — whose long, frizzy, cinnamon-colored hair looked so soft I wanted to touch it, and who had a matching cinnamon-colored mustache above her upper lip — stopped my friend as she opened the freezer. “You know we don’t partake of sugar in this house without permission.”

We went outside. 

My parents hammered out the family rules on Monday nights. They’d drive out to get decaf coffee at Starbucks or draft beers at the Van Dyke bar — these were their two drinks of choice. When I was ten, I found a notebook full my dad’s cramped handwriting. Inside were lists. Entries included “Leah pierced ears,”“Mercy’s recent temper tantrums,”“Luke summer camp — in budget?”I know they talked about both sides of every decision, holding it up to the light, playing devil’s advocate, ever the Trouwborst & Trouwborst team. 

* * *

“We’ve never been on a road trip,”my mom said one Tuesday morning when Luke was a senior in high school. 

The timing was perfect, she said. We could split the driving three ways, now that Luke had his license, and Hannah wasn’t shrieking as much in her car seat these days, probably thanks to cross-training in church services. When else would we all be together again? 

By this time, the “fire truck”van had been replaced with a more “autumnal red” vehicle.

That summer, we made a rectangle: New York, Utah, New Mexico, Florida. The trip took twenty-one days and used up all my parents’Hilton Honors points. Many road trip stories are variations on a base narrative: how my charming plan turned into anabsolute nightmare. What saved us was the van. It was big enough that anyone could move two rows away from anyone else. With our L. L. Bean luggage piled as high as the seats, we could stretch out like we were on Cleopatra’s couches, like a litter was carrying us through the streets. 

The days started at 6:00 a.m. We ate sausage biscuits wrapped in yellow paper. By the early afternoons, the fast readers — Mercy and Seth — traded books, or just dug around on the floor for another Harry Potter book. 

The floor of the van was a bottomless gulf. 

* * *

We were supposed to be the kids whose ears were freshly scrubbed. The pastor’s kids. 

It’s the first thing some people want talk about when they meet me. Oh, you’re a PK? Their eyebrows waggle suggestively, as if to say, got any stories for me? How many years behind schedule was your first taste of alcohol? How mind-numbingly boring was it to be on your best behavior every second of every day?

I don’t want to say, “My parents loved me more than that.” Nor even, “My parents understood me better than that.” 

They let me be messier than that.

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