When we sold my mother’s car, she posed in front of it for a last picture. She looks so sad. She has her eyes closed, and the beginnings of tears which are not visible in the photograph but which I know were there, evidence of her anguish at losing this valuable part of her life. She herself described the loss of her wheels as a nail in her coffin, dooming her to a short future without the freedom to travel independently. In my heart I resonated with this loss, feeling my own dependence on my car and the freedom it gives me. It is true that we need the car as we need our limbs. Her life will be unbearably limited without it.
My mother’s generation had a special relationship with the car. They developed the car culture, the car world. Hers was the first generation to identify so strongly with the car. In the suburbs, the car became the sole transportation in her generation, the ubiquitous, irreplaceable mode of travel. Her car, her wheels, her busy life. So many images of the car are twined like a braid in my mother’s life.
My mother’s car was a mirror of her personality, from the huge station wagon we had when she drove her five children around, to the sporty Saab sports hatchback, chic when she purchased it in her seventies, but a pathetic ruin gathering dust by the day we sold it. On that day, she could not even start it as the battery had run out, and it had sat unused for six months. Yet we felt like we were cutting off one of her limbs to sell it. A swift decision occasioned by a surprise offer from a mechanic willing to take it off our hands and sell it for scrap metal. She felt like she was being sent to the junkyard along with the car.
When I was very small, the golden station wagon carted us everywhere. I sat in the “way back”, which along with its own seat, and no seatbelts, had inexplicably, its own power window control. Lucky kids could operate their own electric window, introducing puffs of air from the exhaust pipe, and possibly risking falling or jumping out while at high speeds. We, however, were not allowed to operate the window. My mother had it turned off by the mechanic, for safety’s sake. She promised me that when I turned six, she would turn on the electric window. But by then my brothers were four and one, and the promise did not come true.
So many stories revolve around the family car. The gold station wagon was the car that my brother Bruce actually did fall out of, when they headed around a corner, in the midst of a backseat tussle with his brother. Luckily he landed in the bushes, with no harm done. In those days, kids perched on the front of the wide bench seat, turning their own pretend steering wheel or toy that was hooked over the front bench seat. How many times did I hear “Sit down, boys, don’t stand up on the seat!” while we were driving down the road.
This was the same car that I used to learn to drive; in effect it was my first car. I remember careening down the impossibly dangerous Jamaica Way into Boston. It was on those trips that I learned to take care of the front half of the car, and let the other cars look out for the back half, a habit that I overcame only when I moved out of Boston.
One day on a visit to the doctor, my mother left my brother Chris, then a preschooler, in the parking lot, and apparently was so busy with the rest of us that she left the keys in the car. Chris quickly discovered how to lock the doors from the inside, and was only persuaded to unlock them when the scary pediatrician came out to the parking lot and ordered him to with his meanest demeanor.
The gold station wagon was also the same car that killed our family’s dog. He followed us as we headed out the driveway and was clipped as we turned onto the street. I remember the police carting him towards the house, holding the dog’s front and back paws in his two hands, the head lolling back. For a long time, I held that last gruesome image of my dog in my heart, my first experience of personal tragedy.
Dangerous cars, fast cars, cars bringing an incredible freedom to a new generation of post-WWII Americans. Families going places fast, nuclear families taking care of their own. Highways crisscrossing the landscape, replacing trains. Carbon levels increasing inexorably, but unexamined in those early days when metal and chrome were king. The car: a rusting hulk that must be carted away, a family member that must be ripped from the arms of its family, dying before we learn how to create a life without it. December is death and old habits that die hard. Maybe with the spring we’ll learn new ways to live that do not destroy our earth.