The Volvo

The day we purchased the Volvo station wagon in 2006 was a happy day. I felt it launched me into a more exotic life. It showed I was an invested carpool mom, had an appreciation for Swedish culture, and was apt to stop at thrift stores or farmers markets with my reusable, eco-friendly shopping bag.  

Although pre-owned, our Volvo was still newer than I wanted. I had admired the 1970s wagons, but Husband talked me out of the idea; those could be a nightmare, he said. What we purchased was luxurious. Heated leather seats, a sun roof, and a gauge that kept us informed of the temperature on the road’s surface, topped off with an utterly superfluous feature: those little wipers on the headlights.

Our ownership of the Volvo started out innocently enough with the car only needing oil changes. But then things took a turn. The O rings and heater core needed to be replaced. After that, we went to a picnic, and to our disappointment, a man alerted us to fluid pooled under our parked vehicle. We had the fuel leak repaired, and then moved on to replacing the front brake pads, the rear pads, and the rear rotors. The radiator hose betrayed us a few months later, spraying fluid everywhere—including inside the car. The tie rods failed at the same time, so at least our mechanic, Joe, could take care of several items of business in one visit. Then the tail lights and the motor blower became inoperable a few short months later.

With all my frequent visits to Joe’s, we had time to visit. I learned about his family and his dogs. Maybe I wouldn’t see him again until the next oil change, I thought. But shortly after, the car wouldn’t start. Joe gave us a tow, and we learned the starter needed to be replaced. Later, the brakes went out again—this time while I was driving—and I feared for our lives. Miraculously, I steered the car home from the western suburbs without hitting anyone. Another flatbed truck tow was sprinkled in. I now considered Joe a friend. We had been through it together.

The ball joints were swapped out next and then the transmission mount. Over four years of ownership, my hope was battered, and I began to see the Volvo for what she had become: a fickle, backstabbing friend.

“This car might just break us,” I told Husband one day.

“Let’s just repair it again and see what happens.”

Next, the propeller shaft double-crossed us. Now we were getting into parts we had never heard of before. When it was fixed, I drove the car to an event. I saw a friend in the parking lot, rolled down my window to talk to her in February temperatures, and when we were done chatting, we parted ways. But the window wouldn’t roll up. It was a frigid drive home.

After the window repair came the new headlamp assembly. Because of owning a foreign vehicle, none of the work was in a normal, affordable price range. Joe and his employees did what they could to search out the best deals for parts, but the exorbitant prices were unavoidable. And what had first attracted me to a foreign car now turned my stomach bitter.

After one of our summer meetings of “The Rosebuddies and Trent,” the Volvo wouldn’t start. I hopped out and walked back to my friend Robin’s door.

“Do you have a hammer handy?” I said.

I raised the hood of the car, tapped on the starter, and the Volvo fired to life.

“Thanks,” I said, handing the tool back to her. “See you next time.”


Joe’s service station was in our neighborhood—just five blocks away. We had first learned about him in 2002 from the Isenbergs next door. They raved about his service, his reasonable prices, his generosity. He had even sold them a vehicle, letting them make payments to him as they could over many months. What they said was true: he was a man of integrity. He had even towed us a couple of times at no charge.

While I’m one to seize almost any opportunity to make a new friend, developing a friendship with Joe, the mechanic—to the tune of $500 almost every other week toward the end—wasn’t my idea of a grand time. I preferred my relationship with him to run me the cost of an oil change every 3,000 miles.

I imagine Joe saw the dollar signs as distinctly as we did. And he was kind.

“You can just write a check, and I’ll hold it until whenever you say,” he said.

“That’s nice of you, but we can swing it,” I said, propping up my pride.


In early 2011, I was driving on Highway 100 when the thumping and grinding began. I exited and careened onto a residential street just in time. The car died. I quelled the urge to vomit and instead called for a tow.

While the Volvo was in the shop for the third time that month, the unthinkable happened: Husband’s F150, Blanche, wouldn’t start. I burst into tears, and Husband looked like he had something in his eye too.

“Are we ridiculous for keeping this up?” I said. “Now it’s Blanche. When is it enough?”

“Just one more repair on the Volvo and then we’ll see,” said Husband. “The truck’ll be fine.”

Finally one day, Joe had the talk with me—the talk I feared and dreaded, but desired too.

“You might want to look at getting a different vehicle,” he said.

“I’ll admit,” I said, “this has been tough for us.”

“It’s been hard on all of us.”

Because of my denial, I had thrown away the service receipts. Later, out of curiosity, I asked one of Joe’s employees for a printout of all the Volvo’s repairs.

“Sure. I’ll just load a ream of paper into the printer first,” he said.


The day we put down the Volvo station wagon in 2011 was a happy day. But I held tightly to the golden lessons. I had learned I could be stretched further than my limits, character can be built on a couple of radiator hose jobs, and failing brakes are directly proportional to a stronger faith and prayer life.

And I learned I could live through discomfort and drive out on the other side—in a Honda Pilot.


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*Names in this blog have been changed to protect my family, neighbors, and friends in the neighborhood, and in a nod of appreciation to the beloved Swedish author Maj Lindman, I’ve renamed my three blondies Flicka, Ricka, and Dicka.