My sister, the Navigator & little me. (via Brianna Pham)

My family car: A lost friend

My first childhood friend was a 2004 Lincoln Navigator.

A year after I was born, my parents realized that they’d need an SUV to sustain our four-person family. With that, the champagne gold machine rolled up ceremoniously to our driveway. The gaudy red bow on its hood was a stark contrast to its sturdy body, its wheels as tall as the tales I once loved to read. Curious, my toddler figure leaned against its looming one. In that moment, our funky duo was fantastic and otherworldly in the soft California sun. 

Despite its beastly build, I saw the Navigator as a gentle giant. My parents would open the trunk for me to play in for hours. Free from preschool and the monster under my bed, I’d stick my tiny palms into its cupholders and giggle. Sometimes I’d pretend I could hear the car laughing with me, a deep-bellied chuckle that transcended mechanical technicalities.

As the years passed, the SUV carried myself and my actual childhood friend, Ava, wherever our hearts desired. On a breezy summer’s day, we lugged our towels into the backseat and hit the beach. The AC blasted our foreheads as we drank Capri Sun and played with our toys. Of course, the Navigator was included in the fun — I’d hide little knickknacks in its side pockets for it to enjoy while I was gone.

A grandparent-granddaughter moment in the Navigator, Easter 2011. (via Brianna Pham)

Nonetheless, as my dad’s business grew, flashier cars took their place in the driveway. The Lexus LS 460 L soon became our preferred mode of transportation. Soon, with my sister’s sky blue Volvo S60 and my dad’s Acura TL parked in our garage, the Navigator was moved outside near the curb. It was only used if the weather was bad or if a road trip was on the agenda.

Life went on, rain or shine. I stopped playing in the trunk. Ava marveled at the Lexus’s lush interior. The Navigator’s front window dirtied with the passing of the seasons.

The car had lost its glory days, but I still liked it. I could fit my tennis bag perfectly in its trunk, and on road trips, I’d use its back seat pocket to store my Rainbow Loom bands. It was my dad’s backup ride to work and my mom’s go-to Costco companion. 

The Navigator was like your aunt that you only see every Christmas or so. Warm, non-judgemental, comforting. There if you needed some unconditional love, even if you haven’t spoken in years.

Then came the time for me to get my license. I begged my parents to let me drive the massive golden thing: it was the most cost-efficient, despite its lack of a proper phone charger or Bluetooth system. I loved the Navigator exactly how it was.

Alas, due to its doubtful long-term stamina, my wish wasn’t granted. Instead, it was a silver Lexus IS 300 F-Sport — elegant, new and reeking of Orange County privilege — that was leased and thrown onto the insurance plan. I sincerely loved driving it in all its luxury, but a small part of me felt empty.

In my junior year of high school, I’d be careful not to hit the Navigator whenever I backed out of the garage. Although my mom does a very fair job, I could almost hear it reminding me to drive carefully every time. It was the last thing I saw whenever I left home.

Honestly, I never figured out what most of its buttons do and I have no idea what the word “horsepower” means. But, I still felt like the Navigator and I knew each other well.

That’s why I had a bad feeling about our road trip to Mammoth this 2020 Labor Day weekend. The car had barely survived San Francisco several years back, and I had my doubts on if it’d be a safe endeavor. I had elected to not say anything to avoid “ruining the mood.” Nonetheless, as I stood watching the steam rise from its hood on the 395 freeway, I felt as if a part of me had died.

I used to joke all the time that the Navigator was worth two pennies and should have been sold long ago. These are not false statements, but something in the heart aches when they are proven true.

My family dragged out Arrowhead water bottles from the trunk and periodically poured them into the radiator. We were only 24 miles out from our Airbnb and we didn’t want anyone stranded out on the cold freeway at night. With our hazard lights blinking, we inched closer to Mammoth mile by mile.

Even when I was making light of the situation, I had felt my stomach sinking by the minute. As he inched on the gas, my dad whispered, “Come on, trâu già,” into the steering wheel — come on, old water buffalo. Keep going, you poor, dying thing, take care of our family one more time.

After forty minutes of struggle, the Navigator sputtered to a final stop on the driveway of our Airbnb. The evergreen mountain view was shrouded in the night, and the air was crisp. I patted the hood that once donned a red bow.

“Get some rest. I’ll miss you.”

Though I was only walking a few feet indoors, I was taking a saddening departure into a new stage of my life. My fondest childhood memory had died underneath my own palms, the same ones that once felt a heartbeat underneath the steel.