Car Folk

When I first started renting cars to drive back home, my parents and my brothers would scoff at the foreign ones. I quickly became the car rental agent’s worst nightmare because I would only rent during holidays—read in: the busiest times— and I would have to refuse the Jettas and Bugs they offered me. “I’m sorry, sir,” I’d say, “but could you please yank that nice family out of the Buick? You would not believe the amount of grief I will get if I drive this Camry into my parents’ driveway.” It was a pain, but it saved me from a lot of grief.

My parents and brothers are car folk, and judging by the recurrent theme in these old family photos, they weren’t the only ones in my family. Car folk are pretty common where I’m from. Flint, Michigan, is, after all, the birthplace of General Motors. Every adult I knew growing up was either a “shop rat” or had a job related to the auto industry. Shouting obscenities to the obvious outsiders driving Volkswagens and Subarus was an everyday occurrence. While watching TV once, I remember asking my mom why there wasn’t a cake of Lava soap and a stiff bristled brush next to Roseanne’s kitchen sink. Where did the Connors scrub the oil from their fingernails?

Looking back, it’s obvious that the auto industry was inherent to the economy, the culture, hell, even the religion of Flint, but I didn’t get it when I lived there. To me, cars were like washcloths— just things, identical but for color, that I used when I needed and then immediately forgot.

But I get it now— my ancestors’ desire to be photographed with their cars, my hometown’s fierce loyalty to an industry that took as much as it gave. These pictures of my grandfather, my grandmother, and my great-granduncle were taken at a time when cars were the newest things under the Sun. My family was still basking in the afterglow of the conveniences their automobiles afforded them. No more isolated farm lives for them. New possibilities were springing up like tulips as far as they could see.

Not only that, my relatives knew the people who made their sleek and shiny status symbols. They were family, friends, and neighbors. Cars weren’t just machines; they were products of the community.

My relatives were proud of their beautiful machines and what owning them meant. You can see it in my grandfather’s straight-backed posture as he sits on the hood, in my great-granduncle’s reach toward a fender as if it were his son’s shoulder, and in my grandmother’s cocked hip and tilted gaze.

Being carless in the city these past thirteen years has helped me appreciate them as my relatives did. I love the novelty of driving now. I appreciate having a trunk to put my groceries in when I have one, and the added bonus of being able to drive them home, too. I appreciate being able to have a conversation while traveling without worrying about the thirty sets of strangers’ ears that are listening. Carrying keys in my hand connects me to my family, my past. And now when I walk into the rental agency, I request the American car up front knowing the tremendous role my family and my hometown played in history.

Sandwiches Cut Diagonally: Memories of My Grandfather

The only grandfather I knew passed away in 1978 when I wasn’t quite 4-years-old. As with most people’s childhood memories, I have doubt as to whether what I remember of him is true or whether I fabricated him from the family stories I’ve heard.

I am confident I attended his funeral. I was too young to understand what was happening, but I remember my mother sobbing next to me; I’d never seen her so upset. I grabbed a tissue from my tiny suit jacket and offered it to her. She smiled sadly as she took it. That smile told me what I needed to know to feel safe again.

Memories of Grandpa that I’m not sure about:

  • Grandpa sitting in his recliner near the living room window reading a newspaper. Lawrence Welk waved his baton on the tv, his trademark bubbles falling diagonally across the screen. Grandma was shouting accusations at him about not cleaning up after himself. She did not see him roll his eyes, turn down his hearing aid, smirk at me, and go back to reading.
  • I was spinning around on a merry-go-round in the park near their little house with the car port in town. My brother was eating an enormous scoop of ice cream that was seconds from falling into the dirt. Years later, my brother confirmed that Grandpa took us to the park after church most Sundays as an excuse to buy us ice cream cones without my mother knowing. Mom didn’t like us to have sweets.
  • Grandpa and Grandma in their kitchen arguing over whether my brothers and I wanted pickles with our peanut butter sandwiches: Grandpa for, Grandma against. He cut our sandwiches on the diagonal and used a brand of peanut butter that had a logo of a boy with a pompadour and freckles. I still cut my sandwiches diagonally in his honor.

These memories probably make Grandpa sound more mischievous than he was. Grandpa was a quiet, humble man most of the time. His parents owned a farm just outside my hometown in Michigan where they grew flowers for florist shops. Before the 12 of them immigrated across the St. Clair River in 1919 my great-grandfather owned another flower farm near Hensall, Ontario. Flowers were the family business until auto factories in the area started hiring in droves.

Mom loved visiting her grandparents’ (my great-grandparents’) farm. She remembers watching the fish in the man-made pond at the side of the house. She loved the sight of the differently colored flowers in the fields.

Every fall, Grandpa dug up his dahlias— his favorite flowers— in the small garden at the back of the house in town and stored them for winter, and every spring he’d bring them back out and replant them. Grandma would see mud tracks leading through the house and out the back door and she’d be livid, yelling that he wouldn’t rest that night until every speck of fertilizer was scrubbed out of her carpet.

James Nelson Harburn left us at the ripe age of 77, but, being his youngest grandchild, I only got 3 years and some odd months with him: not enough time for me to know him well or vice versa. His 114th birthday just passed. Happy birthday, Grandpa! You are remembered and loved.

One Tree, One Month

I snapped a picture of this tree on my way to work almost every day to show its slow preparations for winter.