In the summer of 1992 my eight-year marriage was falling apart. Neither my husband nor I wanted to admit that, so we bought a 1985 Oldsmobile station wagon with a third seat instead.
The third seat was extremely important. When my husband began to insist that I have a more dependable car I immediately said, "OK, let's just make sure we get something that can comfortably seat five kids." We had one four-year-old son at the time, but we were planning to have four more. Neither of us mentioned the fact that our third attempt at marital therapy had just been terminated by our therapist with his solemn, "I'm sorry but until your husband admits that there is a problem, I can't help you."
The plan was to find a wagon that was old enough to be affordable but new enough to last the seven or eight years it would take to bring those remaining kids into the world. By that time, we reasoned, we would be able to afford a mini-van. (Not very sound reasoning -- but we were young.) Remarkably, we found not one Olds with a 3rd seat -- but two! Convinced they were meant for us, we bought them both -- a maroon one and a blue one -- Oldsmobile twins
Sadly, the purchase didn't solve our marital problems. Six months later I left my husband and took our four year old son and the maroon Olds with me. As I pulled away, he stood in the drive way warning me - suddenly certain that the car wouldn't last. After all, it already had 75,000 miles on it. I couldn't count on it, he insisted. I kept driving, trying to ignore the gnawing in the pit of my stomach - how would I afford another car making $5.00 an hour?
The car, my son, and I all survived for a year on $5.00 an hour. As if on cue, however, the second day in to my new, better paying job the Olds threw a rod and had to have a new motor to the tune of $1,400.00. I charged it, and began to convince myself that the car was now like new. I ignored the fact that all its other parts were 82,000 miles and nine years old. I just couldn't live with the fear anymore, so I opted for the bliss of denial. The Olds followed suit and continued to function dependably.
In time, I became involved with a man who lived 3 hours away. It wasn't long until the Olds and I made the trip every other weekend. I never ever worried about the miles or wear and tear it was enduring. I was in love, and the Olds was going to run on my determination and hope. I was going to make this one work!
The Olds and the relationship both worked - more or less. Yet from time to time, the Olds would show the strain. It started to break down -- little things: an alternator here, a starter there, a thrown belt, squeaky brakes, etc. And with each problem, I would realize that my $7.50 an hour job wasn't supplying enough for car repair. What could I do? I'd call the ex. He hated that, and I hated it more. Why was I still reaching out to this man in my time of need? Why was I allowing this car to continue bringing us together? Why were we re-playing the frustration of our failed union? Why did he keep fixing the car, when he/we couldn't/wouldn't fix the marriage? Why had I moved 1200 miles away from my family so that I had no one else to call? Why was my boyfriend 3 hours away? I didn't know, and I was too desperate to question. I'd stand there looking at him blankly. "Fix it," I'd say. "It's broken again - Fix it." Today I know I was punishing him for allowing the marriage to break down. It's as if I really meant, "Alright buddy - you wouldn't fix yourself and make the marriage last - but you damn sure WILL FIX THIS CAR."
After a while, my boyfriend moved in with me. Within two weeks of his arrival his car caught on fire. I'm not kidding. He was driving down the highway when flames began to leap from under the hood. He pulled to the shoulder, got out his fire extinguisher, (he was prepared) and put out the fire. Then he had it towed to the house. Unfortunately, not a mechanic in the city was willing to even try to fix it. There's something about an engine that catches on fire. It makes everyone nervous.
Given this unfortunate event, my boyfriend had no choice but to find a car he could purchase in spite of his lousy credit rating and no cash in his pocket. After being turned down by twelve different used car lots, he came home with a brand new Ford Escort. His payments were so high we had to re-figure the household budget. Although he was earning three times my current salary, I had to make up the difference in the rent. It didn't feel right, but what could I do? I was in love, and we needed at least ONE dependable car. After all, the Oldsmobile station wagon with the third seat was getting old.
My tolerance lasted until other stresses on the relationship started to build. Finally, one day, I blew up. Just exactly why was I carrying 50% of the household expenses when I was only earning 25% of the income? And why, by the way, was he driving around in the new car? And as long as we were on the subject, since I was helping him pay for his new car -- was he going to, in turn, help me to purchase a new one once his was paid off? He looked me in the eyes and said, "Well, do you want me to tell you what you want to hear, or do you want me to tell you the truth?" That pretty much decided that. When I helped him pack his bags months later, he drove away in the Escort and I kept my Olds.
Remarkably, years passed and the Olds kept running. I continued to call the ex for the small repairs. He would do them, then remind me later that I owed him. I would give in on things that mattered to me - what school my son would attend, who would go to a parent-teacher conference - whatever he felt was best. In the back of my mind, I knew he had me over a barrel. After one particularly painful compromise I shared my story with a friend. He looked at me calmly and said, "Sylvia, why don't you just buy a new car?" I guess it had been a while since he'd earned $8.60 an hour and tried to pay rent and utilities and feed and clothe himself and an eight year old.
I kept working and going to college classes at night, and finally doors opened in my company. I bought a small home - humble and basic - but it was mine. I had always intended to buy a nice car before I ever tried to afford a home, but this one sort of fell into my lap; it actually saved me $50.00 a month on rent, and the Olds - now ten years old with 132,000 miles - was still running. Oh, I'll admit it had its problems. At that point neither the heat nor the air conditioning had worked for the last few years. (In Michigan, no heat is a chilly proposition!) The door hinge had rusted and broken in two, so my ex had replaced it with a welded bolt which he assured me was "only temporary." The interior lights hadn't worked in several years - just the dashboard lights - the most important ones. Still, finding an item on the seat after nightfall was no easy proposition. The body was covered with rust spots, and as if all that wasn't bad enough, I'd taken to filling the thing with countless items and then never cleaning it out. The back was literally overrun with lawn chairs, beach paraphernalia, coats, books, notebooks, rusted out parts that my ex had insisted I save (Huh? What's a core charge anyway?) - not to mention fast food cartons, tin cans, and about a thousand ball point pens. I stubbornly refused to clean it out. Every now and then I'd clear a spot here and there - but the bulk of the debris stayed put. One day, a colleague stared into the back of the wagon wide-eyed and inquired, "Sylvia, your desk is so neat and you are so organized - what in the world happened inside your car?" I mumbled something about my bag lady phase and walked off. How could I explain to her? How could I explain to anyone? The car had become a sort of psychic dump and carrier of lost hope. I tried to fill up my emptiness with the garbage that crowded those empty back seats. There were no children, but there was lots of useless stuff.
I don't fully understand what it was about the Olds that made it so absorbent. Year after year it patiently carried my emotional struggles, my poverty, the disappointments, the grief, and the anger. Year after year, the Olds and I kept plodding along, going to school, going to work, refusing to give up. Each little break down seemed to mirror something larger in my life. I especially remember the Fall of the Oldsmobile's eleventh year.
I had come home late that night only to wonder why my 14 year old Terrier did not meet me at the door. I immediately feared the worst, since old dogs tend to be completely dependable. I went in search, and found him in the basement, apparently sleeping. I called his name and stroked his fur and he rose to follow me upstairs. However, we didn't reach the staircase before he began to turn in circles, urinate, and collapse. My dog was having a seizure; the first of many which occurred over the next week.
Unwilling to accept the inevitability of old age, I fought this. I took my dog to the vet several times a day over the next six days. I gave him blood pressure medicine, I fed him by hand, I dripped water onto his tongue with an eyedropper, and I took him to a specialist in hopes of curing his sudden blindness. I did all I could, but on the seventh day, after being up with him off and on all night trying to hold him while his body wracked with horrible spasms, I stood helplessly in my kitchen and watched his beloved graying body slam into the floor "exorcist" style. Defeated, I called the vet in tears, made the appointment, then wrapped him lovingly in a blanket and placed him gently in the passenger's seat of the Olds.
Still fighting back sobs I went to the driver's side, slipped in, and turned the key. Nothing happened. The engine wouldn't even turn over. My dog was dying, I needed to take him to the vet - but the Olds refused to budge. After several more attempts and a few choice words, I carried my dog back inside, called my best friend, and together we took my dog to the vet and bid him farewell. When it was all over I called a tow truck, and one hour later I was sitting on a cement stoop outside of "Pep Boys Service & Repair" crying my eyes out over my dog. Another hour later I drove the Olds home, wishing to God that canine parts were as available and replaceable as Oldsmobile parts. Then next day, I carefully vacuumed an accumulation of gray dog hair from the maroon interior. It was clear that the Olds had outlasted my dog, but I didn't need the constant reminder.
Five more years passed, and the Olds was up to 189,000 miles. Unexpectedly, my ex husband lost his job, and he called me to request that I begin paying for our son's health insurance. I agreed, provided he would continue to help me with the car. He insisted that he always had, and I explained that now it would be in exchange for the monthly payment I'd make to Blue Cross. I think I was starting to feel guilty.
As it turned out, the added pressure of the arrangement - on top of a new job that was less than what my ex had hoped for - proved to be too much. Within six months the Olds had broken down three times in a row, and I found myself standing in the same Pep Boys parking lot being cursed. In his attempt to tow the Olds with his van, the towrope had become tangled because I had done it all wrong. He was right. I had. But I didn't know any better and he hadn't bothered to instruct me before putting me behind the wheel. I stood there listening to his ranting, the obscenities, the rigidity, his unwillingness to accept my suggested solution (cut the tow rope and I'll buy you a new one), and I knew something had to change.
For nine years I had let this thing drag out, this impossible union, this attempt to make something continue to work - albeit in a limited way - that was too old, too worn out, too unworkable, never right to begin with. For most of those years it had been out of sheer desperation and poverty, but the truth was things had gotten a lot better for me by then. I still didn't trust mechanics and still didn't like paying their cutthroat prices for repair of a car that wasn't worth anything to anyone but me. However, the emotional price that I had been and was paying was too high, and I had to start standing on my own two feet. This was the conclusion I came to as I started to cry. Aware of how ridiculous it was to stand in a parking lot and let the ranting of someone I'd divorced eight years earlier make me cry - I simply turned on my two feet and walked away. I walked and I cried for the first quarter mile, but after that I dried my tears and thanked God for my strong feet and legs, my much better job, my bigger pay check, and my ability to finally walk away. I walked the two more miles home with my head held high. I didn't have enough money saved to buy a car, but I knew I could do it. And the time for depending on him was over.
I called him the next day and let him scream into the phone until he was hoarse. When he finished, I told him that the deal was over and that from that day forward I would take care of my own car problems. He got quiet when I explained further that we no longer needed to talk so often. After all, our son was 12 now and he could let me know what I needed to know about school etc. When I hung up, I knew something had finally changed.
Months passed, and he totally ignored me. I continued to drive the Olds, and started saving every penny I could get. I set my replacement date for October of that year, and I felt certain the Olds could make the five months we had left. This time however, the Olds had other ideas. Two thousand dollars away from my goal, the brakes experienced a near catastrophic failure. When I limped it over to the garage (what on earth was I thinking) and they told me it would cost $500.00 to repair I knew the time had come. I drove it back home and parked it in the driveway, then reluctantly began my search for a new car on foot. Three hours later I limped back home and collapsed. I suddenly wished I'd car shopped BEFORE the Olds gave up the ghost.
Three days later, with the help of a dear friend, I found the car of my dreams. It is a 1995 Buick Skylark Grand Sport Coupe with a black leather interior, power windows and locks, keyless entry, an air conditioner that produces immediate frigid air, and a CD player. It has two doors with a gear shift on the floor and a small back seat. There is no room for any more children in this car. It doesn't even look like it would hold a car seat. My 13 year old son thinks it's cool - and he's correct!
I had to have it. A few days later, with a generous loan from my Aunt, it was mine. I drove it home with pride and parked it in the drive way. The Olds Station Wagon with the third seat was moved inside my garage.
I'm not even going to try to explain why it sat in the garage for another three months. Maybe it's because I was still paying the loan amount back to my Aunt and the Buick didn't feel like it was MINE until I was done. Of course, it's not like the Olds could have replaced the Buick - it was undriveable and unsellable, but still, it sat there. I asked around at work and to friends - what do you do with a car that's ready for the junk yard that you can't take to the junk yard? They looked at me like I had lost my mind. "Sylvia," they all insisted, "it's junk. Let it go already."
I guess I was testing out a hypothesis. If you let something sit long enough, sheer inertia will move it. I wasn't even surprised when I told my neighbor my dilemma and she explained that her 17 year old son was getting his mechanic's certificate. She wondered if he could have it to practice on, an exercise which might get it on the road again and possibly relieve her of being his chauffeur. Needless to say, I was thrilled. It was only moving one door down, and if I wanted to, at least for some unknown period of time, I could still look at it. I told her I'd clean out the glove box and the equivalent of it's trunk and bring it over with the title and the description of needed repairs right away.
That was six weeks ago. Last night, after writing out the last check to my Aunt, I went outside and sat in the Olds. Very slowly, I shuffled through its contents and separated each item. Fast food bags, cans, to do lists long since caked in mud - the garbage pile. A coat, a sweater, a blanket, a pair of gloves - the laundry basket. A pair of old socks, beach toys that my son has outgrown, rusted car parts - the garbage pile. (I probably lost a core charge on that.) A sketch pad less than half used, a book unread, a pillow - these I carried inside the house to be put away neatly. Several beverage glasses that were remarkably unbroken - into the kitchen sink. Methodically and almost trancelike, I carried each item to its new place. Finally, I put the snow brush and the jumper cables in the trunk of the Skylark, and it was done. Well, almost.
I still need to take the title over to my neighbor and watch her son drive it the three feet over to their house. I still need to accept the fact that I kept the bond between the ex and I going all those years out of some neurotic need to either exact revenge or simply beat that horse until it was absolutely dead. I still need to forgive him, forgive myself, and let go of everyone and everything that holds me back. But old habits die hard, old unhealthy behavior patterns die hard, old marriages die hard, old dogs die hard, and old cars don't have to be rushed out of one's life. Still, it's over - it's time to let it go. Goodbye Raspberry Rose - my maroon Oldsmobile station wagon with the third seat who was always ready and willing to cart children, lost dreams, or anything else around. Good bye old Girl who refused to give completely up until I was emotionally and financially ready. I release you to the neighbors with a blessing of gratitude. May you run another sixteen years!
Bio: Sylvia is a self proclaimed writer, adventurer, thinker, and spiritual seeker who lives in Western Michigan. She shares her journey with her 13 year old son and her 9 month old Rat Terrier; as well as a strong and varied group of wise and supportive friends. She seeks ever-expanding community and invites dialogue with others who are creating their own unique visions of life through outward expressions of their inner self.
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