By Rebecca Rikleen, a member of Get Your WordsWorth
One day, when I was about ten, my cousin called up the stairs to come down, right away, hurry. Mother, my young brother and I scrambled down the two flights to the street. There at the curb in front of our tenement stood my father proudly smiling, showing us our first car. I had heard nothing about it, no discussion, no anticipation. Father and the car appeared. It was a surprise, characteristic of family events in my growing up. Everything was a surprise and a puzzlement.
Having a car had never crossed my mind. It wasn’t as if I coveted one. I saw cars only as part of the landscape. My neighbors did not have any. They now stood about and looked it over. It was old, with 100,000 miles. My brother and I marveled at its neat black box shape. As my family resumed our normal lives, mysterious forces beyond my knowledge fed the car fuel and parked it somehow, somewhere.
Father drove us around the local streets, and then, on weekends, out of our neighborhood, to see relatives nearby, or to the city park. The most memorable trips were the six hour drives to my uncle’s farm. Those trips always had their tedium and made me nauseous, or put me to sleep with the bumpy monotonous juggling. When we came to a steep hill everyone got out and walked up, except my father in the driver’s seat, who coaxed the tired old car to the top, as we, from the side of the road, willed it up. Its steaming radiator needed water. All the effort, the cramped discomfort, the long hours on the slow ride, were forgotten as
soon as we reached the farm.
That farm took us off the face of my world, into the Catskill Mountains. My world was crowded South Philadelphia, on the third floor above a cousin’s hardware store. My world had Simon-says, and red-light-green-light on the sidewalk, jacks on the marble stoops, and pushcarts a block away.
Our car took me to new worlds: to green mountains, sunlight in patches through the trees crowding the red dirt roads, to a remote hill, to warm milk squirting in a froth from the cow’s udder, to collecting warm smooth eggs from the hen house.
Twenty-five years after my father’s first car, another first car came to the next generation. My husband called up on the intercom to come see. This time the elevator of our Riverside Drive apartment in New York rushed me down with three children, one in my arms, one tugging at my skirt, the oldest running along. My husband beamed as we admired the snappy old car parked at the curb. He had bought it from a colleague at work. It was a Chevy, pink with gray roof and sloping gray fenders, and 130,000 miles.
Again no discussion, no anticipation. But a real car. Now we didn’t have to drag three small children, unpredictable, messy and heavy, on the slow buses and noisy subways. That old car allowed us to pack ourselves in warm and close, and drive to new exciting places: To Newport, to Mystic Seaport, to Jamestown, Virginia, stretching my world into history, together with husband and children.
We also could visit the Catskill Mountains again. Uncle Jack had moved off the farm, but my mother now lived in the small town of Liberty. There a family legend was born. The children and I were visiting my mother, now “Grandma,” for a few weeks. My husband said good-bye and drove off to his job in New York, two and a half hours away. The tired old junker of a car had somehow gotten us to Grandma’s and we just took that for granted.
He reappeared a half hour later, shaken and pale. He told us the brakes had failed going down the steep hill from Grandma’s house. It was a long way down, through two intersections, with a red light at the bottom on busy Main Street. He told us how he gripped the wheel and pumped the useless brakes as the car hurtled toward the red light. At the last second the red turned to green and he flew across, turned this way and that, till the crazy vehicle decided to stop.
We all listened shuddering with fear, marveling at Daddy’s escape. From that day when she was four my daughter Annie believed she was in that car. She told and retold the story of how she and her father had been in danger and nearly died. Her brothers scoffed at her imagination.
We had a succession of cars after that, bought from strangers, most of which did not work, in fact failed us and died while we were blithely on the road. The one virtue they all had was that we could afford to buy them.
Years later still another old car gave me a protected small space I needed to shut off the outside. By now our three children had become adults. The oldest and youngest lived hours away. The child in the middle, Daniel, lived briefly at home while he marked time after college. And there was our latecomer, eight-year old Ethan who was in the third grade. Grandma had died, and we no longer drove to the Catskill Mountains. The car now carried groceries, and moved to alternate sides of the street. Daddy was in charge of moving it, and of waiting patiently for a parking space.
On Daddy’s birthday in 1977, Daniel and I met Ethan gravely as he stepped down from the school bus on Broadway. He usually came home from the bus by himself. We didn’t talk walking up the hill to Riverside Drive. Our car was parked in front of our building, and on impulse I said, “Get in.” In that tight space that had held so much family adventure, we told Ethan his father had died that morning. Ethan said only, “I didn’t know he was sick.” Then the three of us sat close together, distractions shut out, holding one another, looking at the unbearable future from our small fortress.