Having been a child of my mother and her particular lineage meant there was a bottom line to the contract that bound us as a family. I must love cars. I must love them more than life. Mom’s heroes were the fabulous ones that died tragically in beautiful machines at too young an age: James Dean, Jayne Mansfield, and my mother’s Uncle Sam. Her idea of perfume was petrol and the gas station was an aphrodisiac.
She was a fantastic driver, unafraid of speed. Every trip, even to the store for milk, involved screeching, swerving, and near misses. Her vocabulary was sophisticated, potent, and brutal enough to cause slow pokes to pull over to the shoulder in shame. Or so she thought it was shame. It might have been self preservation. It never occurred to her that she might be interpreted as a dangerous maniac.
Our family bought tons of cars to replace the totaled ones and owned the biggest gas-guzzlers ever to be spit out of Detroit’s foul factories. My mother claimed that she would not be be caught dead in a foreign made car. Not sensing that she was a dying breed, she laughed at the sissy idea of seat belts. And if I had the nerve to disagree with all this, like in the name of safety, I learned to keep it to myself.
Dad was born and raised in New York City and was an outsider because he viewed cars as mere transportation. Mother taught my dad to drive in his twenties and she never let him have a moment’s peace about that fact. She believed that if one was not behind the wheel of a car by the age of twelve, there was a devastating hole in their education. Luckily my dad was gorgeous because according to Mother, good looks and fast cars made life worth living.
But having been around for a reasonably long time at this point, I have come to believe that it wasn’t really the automobile that was Mother’s passion. It was the escape from her emotions that cars could provide, and the convoluted ability to illustrate her volcanic internal workings with as many risks, and as much speed required to make the point. Had she not had this mobile outlet, she might have exploded from the pressure of never speaking the truth.
I imagined myself to be above it all; more civilized, emotionally aware, and certainly safer. But in writing down these stories, it’s clear that I have carried an allegiance, albeit subdued, to my mother’s legacy. When I moved to to New York where owning a car is a liability and living without one is common, I was forced to reassess the family’s ways. Until that point, the fact that I had fallen out of three cars in my life, and my sister, Gretchen, fell out once, was normal and with it came a certain amount of pride. Crazy as it sounds now, those tumbles elevated us in the family hall of fame, which, with my mother’s passing in 1991, has all but disappeared.