When I was 16, my mom bought me my first car. It was not the "big red bow across a shiny new BMW" moment that you see on commercials. Far from it. In fact, when I look back on it, that thing was barely a car. It was more like a tank.
My first car was a 1972 Dodge Coronet. It was 1992. I'll let you do the math.
My mom bought it from a family friend, Margaret Pettit, whose granddaughter, Larinda had driven it through high school. My mom paid $150 for the car, and she paid it out in hairdos. At $15 a pop for a shampoo and set, my dear mom paid off my Sweet Sixteen gift in just 10 weeks.
The Dodge was hunter green, in most places at least, and it was as big and solid as a rhinoceros. It had no grill, a back door that would not open, and quilts stapled to the front seat instead of upholstery. It was perpetually summer in that car as the heater was always on. In fact, the controls had somehow melted so that even if you wanted to turn the heat off (in warm weather) or up high (in the winter), you couldn't. Crank windows served as the only temperature control available.
It was scratched and dinged and rusted in spots. On the passenger side, the floorboard was so thin that it showed road as you drove along. Or it might allow in a little lake water if one were to accidentally drive it in partway off of the beach. Not that I'd know anything about that.
That car had lived, and it had the scars to prove it.
When my mom and dad gave me The Dodge, I tried to be happy. It should've been freedom from the school bus and less dependence on my parents. But all I saw were those scars. I drove it some, back and forth to school mainly, but I did not hide my embarrassment and disappointment well. Feeling guilty, there were more mornings than not, where my mom would drive the Dodge to work while I drove her car to school. Looking back, it was probably the most snot-nosed, spoiled brat move I ever made. Yet what good is being sixteen if you can't be a brat about it?
It wasn't until a couple of the boys at school drove it and realized how fast it would go and how unbreakable it felt that I began to see past its shell. That I could appreciate it as more than a car but as a legacy. I drove it for another year or so -- until I got a different Dodge at 17 -- through fields, down country dirt roads, and, perhaps, into a lake for just a few moments. There was nothing you could do to that car that it could not take.
I don't truly know what number owner I was for the Dodge. I knew that Larinda had driven the Hell out of it, but I can't be sure of the owner(s) in the 7 or 8 years between us. I can remember her cruising past us at the City Pool or making the drag. The engine was loud and the radio louder. But always, loudest of all, was Larinda. She had a laugh as big as Texas and a hug so tight that it would make your eyes pop out. She was strong and powerful with a spirit that could bring a storm as quickly as it brought sunshine.
Last week, I heard the news that Larinda had passed away. Not even 50 years old. Although I had not seen her in almost 20 years, there was a moment I could still hear her laugh. I thought instantly of that old Dodge, by far our biggest connection. And I smiled as I remembered it.
My dad kept that big ol' Dodge for several years after I went off to college. I was on my 3rd or even 4th car by the time he sold it to someone else. But he confessed that there were often times when his truck or my mom's car would not start, and one of them would go grab the keys to Mean Green and give it a roll. He said it was the only car we'd owned that never once failed him.
I hadn't appreciated that car for what it was worth. I did not, or could not, see its value to my life. I knew not of its history, or its troubles. I saw only its scratches, its scars, its dings. I never stopped to marvel at all it had endured to survive. I worried more about the outside than I cared for what was inside -- that which was steady, strong, and unfailing. I could not like it until others gave me permission -- encouragement, even -- to love it.
And I have wondered often in the past few days how like that car is to me. Or to Larinda. Or to all of the other people moving in and out of our lives. How do we view our own scratches and dings -- with shame or with pride at our survival? Do we give up when the upholstery rips and tears, or do we find a way to mend? Are we built for the showroom or the open road?
Wherever you are, Larinda, I hope you're singing along with those windows down. Thanks for the ride.