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Jill McKenna

© 2004

Jill readingInheritance

“Nobody respects a yellow car.”  This well-known and often-repeated phrase in my family was originally spoken by my grandfather, Irv Paster, as yet another driver honked, signaled, or cut him off.  Grandpa was, by then, a scary and embarrassing driver.  Regally peering through the steering wheel, looking neither right nor left even while making a turn, he didn’t give other drivers a passing thought.  Stopped at a red light, he would floor it when it turned green, throwing his passengers back against their seats only to take his foot off the accelerator when reaching about twenty miles per hour.  This is when he would tell us again of his drag racing days.  That was the exciting part of the ride.  Coasting proudly and defiantly along at minimal speed, he remained mostly oblivious to the train of cars building up behind him.  My sister and I, mortified, would slink down in the black vinyl seats so no one would see us.

The car was a 1975 Pontiac Astre Safari station wagon.  I have never seen another one on the road. Grandma bought it on the sly when Grandpa refused to get their old Pontiac fixed.  My grandparents had a persistent belief in Pontiacs.  Grandpa was going through a period of depression after the City of Robbinsdale tore down his hardware store – his home and his identity – to widen a road and build a parking lot.  Grandma stored the car at my uncle’s house for six months before she eased it into his life.

Grandpa took fastidious care of the car.  He checked the oil and the “hydromatic” daily.  He and Grandma came over quite often to visit.  First, we’d hear the familiar honk of the horn.  Then came Grandpa’s shout, “Kelly!  Come out here and get this spot for me!”  My sister would calmly sigh and go out to meet him.  He’d be standing at the curb with a paint-spattered piece of plywood, a can of yellow paint, and a paintbrush. He wanted to make absolutely sure rust would never have a comfortable home on his car.   He directed every stroke and then went to wax the hood, the only truly shiny part of the car.  He had a light installed to warn wayward and unwary children that he was about to back up.  He had wanted the car to beep like a construction vehicle but settled for the light.

Grandpa would often tell us, “Mother and I are going for a ride around the bend.”  This meant that he and Grandma were going to drive a loop around our cities that would eventually take them back to their senior high-rise.  I could just picture my grandparents, their eyes barely visible above the dashboard, leading a hostile parade of angrily waving drivers around town.  Grandpa kept very busy directing all aspects of the life of that car.

I inherited the car a few years after Grandpa died in 1987.  I was in college and broke.  My grandmother had finally stored it at a friend’s house when she was no longer able to drive.  She sold it to me for a dollar, so I wouldn’t have to pay a gift tax.  When my mom, uncle, and I went to get it, we doubted whether it would even start.  For better or worse, it did.  It was covered with three years’ worth of leaves, sticks, and dirt that flew off like confetti as we drove it away.  At one point, my mom had to roll down the window to hang on to the door stripping that was flapping in the breeze and threatening to surprise another driver.  We were laughing hysterically by the time we got to the car wash.  Humility seemed to be a family theme.  As we sprayed it, the force of the water blew chunks of dirt and Bondo on to the walls of the stall.  We were making a huge mess.

The car had more than its share of problems.  Our mechanic wisely told me to “turn up the music” when I described the noises it was making.  Unfortunately, this was a bit of a challenge since it was equipped with only an A.M. radio.  The shocks were worn, making driving it feel like maneuvering a boat through a channel after someone has just water-skied through it.  It wouldn’t start in cold weather unless I propped an ice scraper or some other likely tool in the choke.  The gas gauge was broken, and I never did get the hang of keeping track of the fuel level myself.  I found myself stranded with an empty tank a number of times.  I suspect the odometer was inaccurate, as well. There were holes in the floor, which weren’t really noticeable unless the road was wet. The car could barely reach fifty-five miles per hour.  This led me to discover the upside of driving such a lemon.  People will drive a long way around you when have a rusty bomb of a car.  No one will dare to ride your butt.  Some, I figure, don’t want their lovely cars contaminated by the sight of such a moving violation, much as mothers will distract their children to shield their innocent eyes from life’s hardships.  I’d see them wrinkling their noses in disdain as they drove by.  Some just may not like the unpredictability of the situation.  You never know when a time bomb is going to explode.

One time, my roommate drove her pristine, white Nissan Sentra into her parking spot and, mostly likely, just barely tapped my car.  She came running into our apartment calling breathlessly, “Jill!  I bumped your car and a huge chunk came off!  I’m so sorry.”  I still respect her for not laughing – which is what I did.  When I arrived at the scene, there was indeed a chunk of yellow-painted Bondo, chicken wire, scraps of Grandpa’s old, blue plaid pants, and undershirts.  Although it was a very large chunk, you couldn’t really tell that anything was missing from the car.  It certainly didn’t destroy the aesthetics of it.  I should have kept that chunk as a trophy, but I just carried it over to the dumpster, heaved it in, and assured my friend that there were no hard feelings.

I drove Grandpa’s car until one day; I was backing out of my mom’s driveway and couldn’t get it into any gear. The transmission was gone.  Just then, the garbage collectors turned into the alley.  Since I was in their way, they figured they might as well rescue me.  They pushed the car back into the driveway.  Fixing it was out of the question since a new transmission would cost almost as much as the monetary value of the car.  No amount could be placed on its sentimental value.  We ended up giving the car to our mechanic who was able to salvage some parts.  Maybe it still lives on in other cars.  It was the end of my tangible connection with Grandpa, because in spite of my frustration with the unpredictable behavior of the car, I couldn’t help connecting it with the colorful character that was Grandpa.  Now, when I take out the blue-plaid cloth to wipe the dipstick of my green 1996 Saturn SL1, I think of Grandpa who would be proud that I was doing something so integral in the life of a car.