Bracing my hand on the tan velour upholstered back seat, I leaned around the driver’s seat in front of me to get a better look at the instrument panel. A green arrow blinked there, and as soon as I noticed it Mom began to turn the car that direction. “What’s that green blinking arrow mean?” I asked her.
“It tells people that I need to turn soon,” she replied.
I sat back, amazed. At five years old I took this to mean the car knew where mom was going before she or anyone else did. It told her where to go. This magic remodeled my perception of the possible, and a year or two went by before this misconception was corrected and I realized that cars didn’t run on magic, not even mom’s Honda.
Dad interrupted our Saturday morning breakfast with a sheepish grin on his face, a twinkle in his eye. “I bought you a car, Marie.”
“You didn’t, Bill!” Mom said in the high-pitched sigh she used when taken by surprise—although she very well knew he had. Buying cars on a whim was one of dad’s more endearing qualities. “What is it?”
“A Cadillac,” he said, relishing the word as if he’d just bought her a Ferrari.
We all piled out of the kitchen to appraise Dad’s new purchase. My first impression was that it was an old person’s car. In fact, I thought my grandma drove one just like it, only black. The spotless grey faux-velvet interior seemed too pristine for a family like ours, accustomed to dirt, grease, and bare feet engendered by our small farm. Upon test-driving the vehicle, my mom declared it was the smoothest ride she had ever experienced and dad grinned with now-relieved wrinkles at the corners of his eyes. I could tell he enjoyed pleasing her.
Several months later, while driving the Cadillac, Mom bumped a minivan in front of her in a turning lane, cracking its license-plate casing and rear bumper. I watched from the passenger seat after the fender bender as a trembling heavy-set woman teetered from the van’s passenger door looking hysterical, tears streaming down her face at her near-death experience. A year of insurance company negotiations and legal litigation ensued from that day resulting in tens of thousands of dollars remunerated for emotional damage to the poor quaking woman. I found myself thinking of her often; I finally understood what exactly it was that lawyers did.
’64 Chevy Dump Truck
Mom painted the interior and reupholstered the old bench seat in teal faux leather. When the local high school put new basketball court flooring down, Dad acquired the discarded old flooring and used it to build new sides for the bed of the dump truck.
I learned to drive a stick shift in that truck at fifteen because I was often employed with the task of driving it through hay fields where we spent our summers picking up hay to store and sell during the winter. I came to enjoy the challenge of the difficult first gear while maneuvering the lumbering beast between rows of freshly spewed rectangles in the hay field. The trick was to go just the right speed. If you moved too fast, the people loading the bales onto the truck and trailer could not keep up. If you moved too slow, the truck would limp forward with a jerking motion that could endanger the people balancing on the back where the hay was being piled twenty feet in the air. Dad complimented me once on my skill with the manual transmission, and I realized I was good at something.
Dad brought home a blue and white El Camino when I was sixteen. Apparently he’d always wanted one and he spoke about it like it was a rare sports car. Before I got a car of my own, I was relegated to driving the El Camino, which I hated. I wished it had tinted windows so no one would see me behind the wheel. I had to baby the gearshift, and it had no air conditioning. Quite often it refused second gear, and I would yell at it, “You stupid, ugly piece of crap! Go into gear!” That never worked, but eventually I figured out that the less I hated driving it, the easier the shift to second.
I totalled my mom’s beloved Chevy van not long after I received my license. The empty horse trailer my mom and dad spent weeks restoring and refurbishing was a loss as well, but my friend and I emerged unscathed.
While I waited on the side of the road for my parents to arrive, I was both terrified and relieved. Relieved that they could come make sense of the tangled situation and consequently rescue me from the fruits of my fallibility. Terrified because of heavy shame. We weren’t wealthy. One erroneous moment equaled thousands that I would never be able to repay them. Afterward the van rested at one end of our expansive yard for at least a year, completely unusable, a constant reminder of momentary carelessness.
Given my dad’s history, I wasn’t surprised when dad told me he had something to show me outside, and I spotted my first car parked on our gravel driveway. Thinking perhaps I’d scored something sporty like the time my dad surprised my older sister with a cute little red Geo coup, I was dismayed to find a rusted tan Mazda truck which was more like the time he surprised my older brother with an old orange Volkswagen Beetle—we still laughed about the maiden voyage of that car in which the battery fell out in the middle of the road.
The battery stayed in-tact, but the small worn four-cylinder balked at colder temperatures, often idling out at every stop on the way to school. Furthermore, when I got out of school at the end of the day, it coughed opaque clouds of black smoke I was told resulted from the slow oil leak Dad could never find. My parking spot was second-closest to the entrance to the school, so hordes of teens inhaled carcinogens while I inhaled a hefty dose of embarrassment.
Even though I worried constantly on my way home from work or school that the truck would break down in the middle of the highway, it never did. Its tired persistence took me over any terrain; it wasn’t nice enough to ever need washing; the gas mileage was exceptional; multiple people could fit in the bed; and the clutch and gearshift were a dream so I taught two of my friends how to drive a stick in that truck.
After a year of working during high school, I shopped for, picked out, and signed papers for a five-thousand dollar loan on my first real car: a sporty-looking, teal, Chevy Cavalier coup which I was never embarrassed to park two spots away from the school entrance. Since I made the car payments, it gave me a measure of independence because it was truly mine.
I fit all of my belongings in it when I went to college two years later, and I cried in it as I watched my mom drive away, realizing that I was all alone.
“Oh. My. Gosh,” my roommate said. I knew she was talking about the silver Buick that just drove by us on our way back to our dorm. It was covered from bumper to bumper with yellow decals, and the exhaust was loud enough to be considered noise pollution. Heavy bass rattled the exterior and tinted windows kept the driver a mystery.
“Ok, what kind of person actually thinks that’s cool?” I replied. “Really, what would possess you to do such a thing, let alone to such an ugly car? People are so stupid.”
I met my future husband a few months later and learned that the car belonged to him. A few months after we were married, my husband gave the Buick away to his car-less and bike-less friend who we often saw walking five miles from school into town for his grocery shopping.
Dodge & Mercury
We were a dual-income household with no children so I bought a 2000 Mercury Cougar sports car, and my husband bought a silver Dodge Ram on which he installed huge mud tires and a sound system. We moved to California for grad school, and I got pregnant; a sports car was silly and impractical. My husband adored his truck, but he declared one day, “It makes me sick to see all these people driving giant SUVs with nobody in them. But then I realize I’m being hypocritical driving around a V8 pickup with four-wheel drive.”
So we sold both to make way for responsibility.
El Camino Super Sport
A visit to my parents revealed that Dad had decided to expand his El Camino collection by purchasing an additional one with a bit more under the hood. I sniggered when I saw it. “How are you going to buy an El Camino with a bigger engine and have it be an automatic, dad?” I joked. “That’s no fun.” I never drove it, and I only recall seeing Dad behind the wheel once or twice. It came to rest in the now-empty hay barn along with the rest of dad’s car and farm equipment collection.
The El Camino Super Sport suffered neglect after Dad was diagnosed with cancer. The interior began to mildew and the exterior had caked layers of dirt and dust. Knowing how much dad loved that car, my brother came home and spent several hours washing the interior and exterior and placed it back under the barn where it sat, untouched, until dad passed away.
After his passing, all three of my brothers wanted it, but nobody had a place to keep it. I wanted the powder blue El Camino. Mom truly needed the money however, so the six of us kids agreed she should sell them both. Dad was gone.
My mom bought a white Toyota Rav4 after most of us kids left home. She liked the idea of a mini-SUV: utilitarian but economical. I guess Dad must have liked her thinking because shortly before he died, he bought a burgundy one like hers only it was a manual with a stubborn first gear. When I stayed with Mom for a month after Dad’s death, I used his Rav4 for my errands. I learned to coax the gas pedal for a couple minutes after starting it because it had idling problems. I learned what the gearshift felt like under my skilled hand when it was properly aligned to put in first gear. It reminded me of a lifetime of manual transmissions and finicky fuel lines. I never got a chance to see dad drive it much before his death, but it reminded me of him most of all.
The new Toyota hybrid replaced my husband’s Dodge Ram in 2005. It was the first new car we ever bought. It was my first encounter with GPS. I rode to the hospital in it through driving rain to deliver my first child and brought him home in it. Another driver nearly totaled it while our whole family was in it and I was pregnant with our third child. It drove back and forth from California to North Carolina twice and countless places in between. My husband slept in it while he was looking for a job in North Dakota because we were trying to save money.
My husband told me recently, after we moved to oil-patch country, he’d like to put a bumper sticker on it that says, “Drill Baby, Drill.” I told him I was okay with that because people need their perceptions shifted once in a while, and furthermore, cars don’t last forever, so we ought to let it speak now.