3/18/21

And so this week’s moment of happiness despite the news.

I think, whether we’re willing to admit it or not, we all have emotional connections with inanimate objects. Sometimes, we’re made to feel shame about this – “It’s just a material thing!” – but ultimately, I think it’s a human thing. Or, maybe it’s something that makes us human.

The objects that I actually talk to, connect with, claim as family…are my cars. Queen’s song “I’m In Love With My Car” was written for me, I think.

From the very first car I owned to now, everyone has been given a name. Everyone has a personality. My first car was a 1969 Chrysler Newport 4-door sedan that I bought from my father for a dollar in 1980. His name was Tank. He is featured very strongly in my novel, In Grace’s Time, that car such a presence that he became a silent character. When the publisher asked me for ideas for the cover, I said, “It has to have a tan 1969 Chrysler Newport, four-door sedan.” I sent a photo. And so the car is immortalized on the cover.

Since then, there’s been a Dodge Neon, a Chrysler LeBaron, a Ford Windstar (the only vehicle I’ve ever owned that I hated and did not cry when I traded it in), a Nissan Frontier Crewcab Pick-up, a Chrysler Sebring, a Chrysler 300C Hemi, and a Chrysler 200 convertible. Neon (not the most imaginative name, but pronounced with about five E’s), LeB, Windy, Fronty, SeB, Hemi, and Semi.

Last July, I tried and failed to replace Hemi and Semi with a new car, a Beemer convertible. Even before I drove it off the lot, I knew I hated it. How? I didn’t know its name. It was a gorgeous car, but it was so full of technological bibbledy-bobs that I couldn’t even take joy in driving because I was constantly trying to figure out why the car was blipping at me. I returned it in 24 hours and got both my cars back.

But Hemi. Hemi was a 2006. A few years ago, he ran over a deer that was hit by a car three in front of us. He survived, but he was never quite the same. Different things began to go wrong, including his headlights and his interior lights suddenly shutting off with no warning and not coming back on until I could stop the car, shut it down, wait a while, and then restart. Three mechanics couldn’t figure it out. I began to feel unsafe in the car that I called my bodyguard.

Hemi’s incredible engine growled at everyone. He was my get-the-hell-out-of-my-way car. His memory seats moved back so I could get out comfortably, and when I got back in, he restored me to prime driving position. Heated seats, amazing sound system. When I was dealing with cancer, I often slipped out of bed in the middle of the night, unable to sleep. I got into Hemi and just drove. I always said he took care of me. My bodyguard.

And now I felt unsafe.

Still stinging from my failure this past July, I began tentatively looking for a new car. At the same dealer where I bought my last several cars, I found a 2018 Chrysler 300S. Low miles. Clean Carfax. A deep, deep burgundy – not show-offy bright red, but classy, strong, assertive. Panoramic sunroof. Lots of bells and whistles…but no memory seats. No Hemi engine. I asked to see it anyway.

In my head, a name popped in. Barry. For berry red, but also because if this car could talk, he would have the deep resonating voice of Barry White.

As I drove to the dealer, I said over and over to Hemi, “You’ve been so great. I can’t believe I’m feeling grateful for a car, but I am. Thank you.” I heard about a million voices mocking me and saying, “It’s just a car! It’s a material thing! That’s all it is!”

No. My cars wrap me in comfort. In strength. When I’m feeling scared or lonely or worthless, I drive. And every car I’ve had, except for the stupid minivan, lifted me up. Whether it’s the power of the engine and the car around me, or the music coming from the speakers, or the car doing my every bidding, turn here, stop there, speed up, slow down…I come back into myself and return home feeling better.

And Hemi was the king of them all. But even cars and kings get old.

I test-drove Barry and I brought him home. By the time I was done with the paperwork, Hemi was no longer in the parking lot. “Hello, Barry,” I said as we left the dealership. “I think you’re going to be my new best friend.” But I wept all the way home.

There are new bells and whistles to learn. There are some losses – no memory seats, no CD player. Our relationship was unsteady until today.

I was driving home from a doctor’s appointment. My heated seat was on, my interior temperature set at 78 degrees. There was music – I found a portable CD player developed just for cars. It plugs into the speakers, and while I can’t control the music from the screen or the steering wheel, it will do.

And then I heard a blip.

I looked around, wondering what went off. And then I saw, on the car’s screen (which I’m still adjusting to – I’ve never had a car with a screen before) – a weather warning. My car was informing me that my county was under a high wind warning.

Barry was telling me the weather. And keeping me safe.

I laughed out loud and then I patted the dashboard. “Thank you, Barry,” I said. “I appreciate it.”

Feeling safe. Feeling cared for. Even when it comes from a car – an inanimate object – it’s oh so welcome.

And yes, that helps. Despite. Anyway.

This was Hemi. What an amazing car.
And this is Barry!
And in the meantime, Semi waits impatiently in the garage, wondering why it was spring last week, and now we’re back to winter.

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