The Gift of the Honda Civic and the Importance of Civic-Mindedness

A couple of years ago, my husband and I donated the Cyclone blue colored 1996 Honda Civic that he drove from Omaha, Nebraska to Laguna, California the year we were married. The car was a gift from his parents to replace the Nissan he drove in college that may or may not have made the trip from Nebraska to California at the time given its age. For me that Civic replaced the used Toyota Corolla my parents had given to me as a gift after college. I remember standing at the window of my tiny apartment above the Pacific Coast Highway watching that “shell”-colored Corolla with a black stripe down the side being towed away after its death and I’m sure I grieved its loss for what it represented to me, the gift from my parents.

The gifts of those two cars mattered to my husband and I in our life. We were lucky for them and thankful. As I grow older, I think more about the the gifts I have received over the years from those close to me. Beyond friendship and love it is hard to note all of them, but gifts large and small have mattered in significant ways to our lives.

I recently heard an interview with Richard Reeves, who has written a book entitled “Dream Hoarders: How the Upper Middle Class is Leaving Everyone Else in the Dust, Why That Is a Problem and What to Do about It.” In the book, he puts forth the argument that those in the upper income brackets of our society are passing on their wealth in oftentimes invisible ways, giving those of us in the upper middle class, oftentimes unseeable benefits. He argued that it matters that we notice this, so that it is taken into account as we develop social policies. I understand what Dr. Reeves is saying, as I consider my own life, and the gifts that I have received and in particular, that Honda Civic.

The privileges in my life became particularly evident to me when I had a chance encounter with a Burmese immigrant family one evening the year we donated our Civic.

That year, our Church put out a call for new church directory photos. I signed our family up for a photo session. When we arrived for our session we stood in line for a long time, before a Burmese immigrant family that had been sponsored by the church. They were also waiting for directory photos. We listened as a translator worked to describe the process to them as they made choices about their own family photos. Like us they were there to document a moment in time, but I thought about how much further they had come. I could see that by the way they were dressed, that this photo session mattered to them. As we stood in line, I thought about our own iphones, and how we had an almost minute by minute documents of our lives, but I wondered if, for some of these families, this photo may be the only one they had to document their life.

That photo session happened at about the same time we decided to donate our Civic. I wasn’t there when Catholic Charities came for the Civic, but I must say I was wistful about it, as I was about my Toyota Corolla years earlier. That Civic and my husband met me in California days before we were married, drove countless miles up and down the coast of Southern California, drove us from California with our cat Oscar in the back seat through the Joshua Tree desert, Utah and into Colorado where an excursion that we had planned in Vail was upended by Oscar (that cat) hyperventilating in the mountain air.

From there the Civic took us through Colorado into Western Nebraska and with a mad cat in the backseat rather than opt for a hotel, we slept in the car. We stopped on that trip in Norfolk, NE, where my husband’s parents lived and where Oscar decided to stay. We made our way across the rest of the country and into Pennsylvania, the longest state of all, where we hit rush hour just before arriving in New Jersey. We drove that Civic to Lambertville and Frenchtown, New Jersey and into New York, New York. We drove it home from Princeton hospital, just barely creeping forward under the shady lanes of Princeton to our little cottage at 17 Carter Road with our new baby girl in the back seat. And that car stayed with us for 13 more years.

As I think about Dr. Reeve’s book “Dream Hoarders,” in an economic way, that car represented years of savings to us, as without a car payment, we allocated the resources that may have been used for that to other benefits in our lives. In addition to our cross country adventures, that car also transported us back and forth to work and was our transportation for innumerable menial tasks that were a part of our everyday lives for years. The same could be said of that Toyota Corolla too, in the early years of our marriage. These are not the only 2 gifts, that we have received from our family, but they are meaningful examples of how we have benefitted from our upper-middle class lives.

Meanwhile, the Burmese family we had encountered faced incredible challenges. What I know, is that many of those families experienced horrors that I cannot likely imagine.

The year we donated our Civic, my husband and I had known each other for 24 years and had been married for 20. We had 3 kids, a dog, a cat and even so, that year we chose to lead a one-car life, walking as needed and master arranging around our kids activity schedules. We chose to do this, and it forced us to see the work and time that it entailed to lead a life with three children in a mid-western city with one car. We were forced to experience the extra time it required (walking to activities such as ballet and soccer practice) and the patience that was needed when the weather changed unexpectedly, for example. Ultimately it reinforced how lucky we were to have that choice in understanding that there are many others, who may struggle to afford even one car in their family.

When we said farewell to that Civic, in my dreams I imagined that once it was fixed up a little it would become a gift for another family. And that despite its age, it may yet be capable to provide some of the benefits it had for us. And perhaps it would find its way to a family, like the Burmese family, we had encountered while taking those pictures. A family who was new to the country and in need of a gift.

I still keep in mind that perhaps one day, I will see that Burmese family, driving around our town in that now faded Cyclone blue Civic.

At the same time, I am supremely grateful and aware of the invisible benefits that have been made available to me through the gifts that have been shared with me, and am also aware, that those gifts are unique to me, and there are others, who have not received such gifts. In some way, that gift of the Civic, was also a gift to me of the importance of civic-mindedness.

(Author’s Note: Portions of this essay were originally shared as my Christmas Letter to friends and family in 2016. — Shannon Mullen O’Keefe.)