Friday, April 1, 2011

My other sibling was a car

I've been doing a lot of cleaning up around the house this past week. It's part therapeutic, part prep for the task I'll be undertaking next week: Cleaning up my dad's place. I'm dreading it. I'll be with my sister and mom, though, so I'm hoping it won't be as tough as I'm imagining. Not just emotionally, but because of the sheer volume of stuff.

Dad was a renowned pack rat. He liked to buy in bulk—way before there was a Costco—and keep it on hand. He also like to hold onto things for as long as he could, including cars. As I was going through some papers the other day, I found an essay I'd written about my dad's beloved Volvo that I never published; here it is.

Shortly before my little sister, Judy, was born, my dad purchased another child: A four-door 1969 Volvo 144S with a black exterior, cherry-red vinyl seats and a trunk the size of Texas. We grew up together, that car and me, sibling rivals who occasionally competed for Dad's attention.

My father adored that car as if he'd assembled it himself. Every week, he'd pay a neighborhood handyman ten bucks to do a wash and wax ("Those car wash bristles scratch the paint," Dad would solemnly inform me). In the glove compartment he kept a small spiral-bound notepad in which, with every fill-up, he'd meticulously log the car's mileage and amount of fuel purchased—to keep track of how many miles the car got to the gallon. My sister and I fought for the honor of doing the recording.

I typically rode in the front, my sister and mother in the rear. Maybe because I was the more fearless of the three of us; riding shotgun had its stresses. By the time the car was in its teens, it would overheat in the summer, especially when we were in stop-and-go traffic. As we sat there sweating, windows open wide, I'd stare anxiously at the needle on the temperature gauge, silently begging it to say put as it inched it toward the ominous red "H." My father would shift into neutral and rev the engine to release heat; eager to do my part, I'd duck my head to the floor and blow as hard as I could. Lots of times, we had to pull over and wait for the car to cool off as my mother, sister, and I fumed at the injustice of it all.

Sometimes, it seemed glaringly obvious that Dad played favorites. On the day I turned 9, we drove to pick up groceries and he double-parked, leaving my sister and I alone. Suddenly, I was seized by fear that the car might roll away. So I grabbed Judy, dutifully locked all the doors, then zoomed into the store. "Don't worry, Daddy, I closed the car up!" I announced when we found him. He started at me, bug-eyed. "THE KEYS ARE IN THE IGNITION!" he roared. That birthday afternoon, I walked the long mile home.

As the Volvo aged, it grew more vocal. "Find The Strange Noise" become our favorite family car game. Whenever a new sound cropped up, Dad asked that we all stop talking and figure out where the rattle, click or sputter was coming from. I can still picture him now, one hand on the wheel as he leaned out his window, an ear extended toward the front tire. When I figured out the source of the sound I felt damn proud, even if the offender turned out to be a wayward pen jiggling on the dashboard.

One summer, during a road trip, the car began to emit alarming new noises—loud pop!-pop!-pops! that grew stronger every time we drove up an incline. "Everything's OK, don't worry," Dad said. Then the front hood began to spew smoke. Dad pulled over, teasing me and my sister that our collection of comic books packed in the trunk might burn to a crisp.

When he opened the hood, little licks of flame leapt up. He slammed it shut and as I watched in fascination as a sizzling circle of paint bubbled up in the center of the hood and spread out, slowly and malignantly. My father tied one of my sister's white t-shirts around the antenna. Almost immediately, a driver stopped and approached us bearing a fire extinguisher. A "Good Samaritan," mom called him. Dad was grateful to the guy (miraculously, the Volvo started right up again) and unrepentant to us. "The car just needs some adjustments," he said.

On occasion, I was glad for the Volvo. It was wonderfully wide, roomy enough to transport me and bunches of friends to ice-skating rinks or parties, and sturdy enough to stand its ground on icy streets. During the summer, when we were at a bungalow in the country, it brought my dad to us on weekends. I'd await his arrival on a grassy knoll by the roadside; he always honked twice when he was nearing, a decisive "BEEP! BEEP!" that told me he'd soon be rounding the corner.

By the time the Volvo and I were teens, though, my affection for it had dwindled. I'd roll my eyes when strangers inquired about the car, and plot with my sister to leave the locks open so maybe someone would steal it. I almost failed my driver's test because it was so difficult to turn the steering wheel when I was backing into a parking spot. "Awww, they don't make them like that anymore," Dad would say in defense when I'd complain about his difficult child.

By 23 (the car's age, not mine), it was on its last wheel. It sputtered. It went up hills at 10 mph, max. It took forever for the heat to come up. The fatal blow was not an engine attack but a minor failure: The windshield wiper motor wore out and the mechanic told my father he'd have to write to Detroit for a replacement. WIth surprisingly muted resignation, Dad went out and bought a six-year-old gray Volvo 240.

We all worried about adjustment issues, but New Car delighted him with its air-conditioning, sun roof and pickup power. Still, he kept the old Volvo and used it when there was no chance of rain until one day the engine wouldn't start. He tried jumping it via New Car, but the stress made it conk out, too. Clearly, one car had to be sacrificed for the other to live.

Getting rid of a Volvo with 126,372 miles wasn't easy. Dad would have loved the automotive equivalent of a nursing home, where he could pay the Volvo regular visits; instead, he settled for a used-car dealership. One made the insulting offer of a hundred dollars. Dad finally settled for three hundred.

My mother considered writing the folks at Volvo to tell them about the car's outstanding durability.

I sent my father a sympathy card.


  1. Thanks for sharing this sweet story. I especially liked the part about keeping the notebook in the glove compartment and meticulously writing down the mileage with every fill-up; my grandfather and my father did that for years with their own cars.

    My car is 11 years old and has about 118,000 on it already; I hope it lasts as long as your dad's Volvo!

  2. I loved this story - in part because it took me back to my childhood. It was poignant and humorous...until the last line.

    That's when I laughed so hard that tears were streaming down my face!

  3. Volvo owners are a special breed. My first 3 were 1970s models - the last finally conked out with over 260k on the odometer. [I have a newish one too but not as much affection for it. Stranded mom with kids is not nearly as fun as being stranded as a teen, open for adventure].

    As flippant as this may sound, the Volvo(s) are prima facie evidence of your dad's good character. :)

    I'm sorry for your loss.

  4. I have a 2005 Volve bought brand new with 50 miles on it and I have 114,345 on it now. I love that car and I think I might be buried in it. Or my grandkids will be driving it over my grave, one or the other. Although I just paid $900!!!! for some pressure thingmiajigger to be fixed it has always been really good to me. Be good to your cars they will be good to me. Philosophy extends to children, too. LOL!

  5. Oh my goodness - you have described everything perfectly. I had forgotten about some of this - like how Daddy would make us figure out where the latest strange sound was coming from. All in all, the Volvo was a very good car and I think it enjoyed having us as its owners. In a way, I was happy when it was time to get rid of it, but also sad. Every time I see a Volvo, I always smile because of the memories it brings back.

  6. What wonderful memories. Automobiles stand out in my memory from my childhood, too. My father loved cars, as your father did, and he always tried to upgrade with the little money that we had. The most memorable one was a Bug - he loved that car, but there wasn't enough room for a family of five. As I got bigger, it got harder and harder to sit between my two sisters on long road trips to Florida. But he loved that car, so I endured the pain under my bottom! I hope that cleaning out your father's belongings is not too painful.

  7. Volvos do something magical to their owners. I had a friend with an ancient Volvo who drove it an entire Utah winter with wipers that didn't work, because, in her opinion, she could always see through the windshield because Volvos' design was so superior that visibility was always preserved. I am certain she only had the wiper motor replaced so she could pass inspection, but not because she felt it needed to be done. I don't know how the car convinced her of this point of view, but it did.

  8. My parents are Volvo addicts. They are on Volvo No. 5 or 6. The first Volvo sealed the deal. On a windy road during fog my mother was in a car accident. Her boxy 1980 Volvo was hit by a truck on a bridge. The car was totaled but she walked away unscathed.

  9. Please excuse the very late comment, but as a child who also grew up in Volvos I had to comment. My dad bought the same car in the Netherlands in 1969, when I was 1, and it served our family of 6 very well for 5 years until we moved back to Canada. I spent the rest of my childhood growing up in the back of two Volvo station wagons until my dad bought a 240 (a grey one, as it happens!) in 1984. He drove that car for years, and had a slight non-Volvo blip with a Golf before buying his current V40 11 years ago. I love, love driving that car when I visit my dad. Volvo drivers and the kids who grew up in them are indeed a breed apart. If I could afford one I'd buy one in a second.

  10. Seconded about Volvo drivers and their attachment to their fine Swedish built works of engineering art. I drive a 1997 Volvo 960 with 234,000 miles and counting. And it won't be my last one either. My wife also drives Volvos, she is Norwegian.


Thanks for sharing!