Some Unexpected Tears for a Glorious, Green Gal

My mom's old '55 Chevy.
My mom’s old ’55 Chevy.

My mother. The car.

No, it’s not the fragmented name of a situation comedy from the 1960s starring Jerry Van Dyke.

I’m referring to my own mother and her 1955 Chevy.

For years, the two were inseparable. Everyone who knew my mother knew her car – a classic green two-door Chevy with a white hardtop.

“Your mom still driving that green Chevy?” was always the No. 2 question people would ask me, right after the No. 1 question: “Is that your natural hair color?”

Sadly, the next time someone asks about that car, my answer – for the very first time since I was born a natural blonde – will be “no.”

The old green Chevy has been sold and is, as of last Thursday, parked someplace other than my parents’ Levittown driveway.

I’d heard Mom talk about selling the car before.  Usually after someone expressed interest in buying it – which was often.  In fact, my mother figured she’s had upwards of 50 – maybe closer to 75 – people leave notes, come up to her house or approach her in public with an offer for the old ’55.

So when I got the news last week that she’d sent Dad to the safe deposit box at the bank to dig out the title, something stirred in me.  I actually had an emotional response to the big old green hunk of steel.

I spent most of the 1970s being embarrassed by that car.  If I had to go someplace with my mom, I’d always keep an eye out for pedestrians who might recognize me.  And if I spotted one, I’d practically kiss the floorboard in my rush to get my head below the passenger side window and out of plain view.  My normal routine was to untie and then tie my shoes. Both of them.

My bonding years with that car occurred before I grew too cool to be seen in it.

For example, I was prone to earaches, so I spent a lot of time getting excused by the school nurse and picked up by Mom.  She’d drive me to the doctor’s office and the pharmacy – and then to the Acme for Mister Salty pretzels and a Tastykake. I have a lot of horizontal memories of that expansive backseat, my sore ear pressed to the green-and-white vinyl.

I know no one needs to justify the sale of a classic old car. But it had become temperamental.  Mom stopped driving it at least a year ago, after her daily trips to the supermarket were spoiled one too many times by a car that refused to take her home again.  The car had aged beyond functionality.  It had become just another old automobile – minus the mobile.

It was time.

But not before I took the opportunity last Wednesday to climb inside and pay my respects to the glorious green gal.

First thing I noticed was the exterior.  She had lost her shine. I climbed in the backseat and started playing with the ashtray cover, just like always. It still sounded the same, lifting the shiny, spring-action metal edge of the cover and – flip – letting it snap down again.  I cranked the window handle down and watched the familiar curve of window glass appear at the top.

Then I climbed up to the front seat.

I touched every single knob, turned the radio on and off a few times. When it worked, the radio always registered a faint hum first that grew louder until the static gave way to music.

I reached up and touched the ceiling.  Soft yellow dust fell, leaving a hint of my fingertip on the faded fabric.

This particular model car had a small vent window in the front – an escape hatch for cigarette smoke, I guess – with a fascinating little locking mechanism that I had forgotten about, but spent many hours of my life fiddling with.

So I sat there for one more minute, and fiddled.

I pressed the gas pedal.  I tried the clutch.  And before I got out of the car, I reached over and grabbed onto the little strap that hung off to the side near the backseat window.  My sister Jean and I never did figure out the reason for those straps.  Primitive safety belts, maybe.

We just knew there was one for each of us.  We could slip our hands inside and hang, just for fun.

Or for dear life, in the middle of a hairpin turn whenever Dad was driving.

For some reason, I was surprised by how frayed and rotted the fabric of a 40-year-old car strap could be.

But I held onto it, lingering for another second or two.  It felt like a secret handshake with a childhood friend who had grown too old too fast.

Through all of this, my youngest kids were waiting, asleep, in my car parked in my mom’s driveway.  So I slammed the heavy green door in a hurry and made a run for it. I noticed the wind was kicking up at that same moment.

And I’m glad.  Because otherwise my hair wouldn’t have flown across my face just as Mom leaned out the front door to wave goodbye, and she probably would have seen my unexpected tears, the ones that lasted the whole ride home.

Originally published in the Bucks County Courier Times, spring 1995.

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