June 4, 2008
Take most people, they’re crazy about cars. They worry if they get a little scratch on them, and they’re always talking about how many miles they get to a gallon, and if they get a brand-new car already they start thinking about trading it in for one that’s even newer.
— J.D. Salinger, b.1919, American fiction writer
writing in the voice of Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye
The minimum age for driving in most states is 16. Although Lynn would see that birthday in September of her tenth grade year, I told her, nearly from birth, that getting your driver’s license was something you did in eleventh grade. Being able to drive when you were barely out of junior high seemed unnecessary, and I did not want her to be the first one in her group to be driving. I was still holding to that idea the summer before she turned fifteen, when I wrote that “. . . she talks constantly about getting her driver’s license (at least two years away, the summer after tenth grade, when she’ll be just shy of 17). She’s already picked out her dream car – a silver Jetta with a sun roof, black leather seats, and a six-CD changer. (Dream on, child.)”
But when that sixteenth birthday came around, I relented. In Pennsylvania you can get your learner’s permit on your birthday but you can’t take the licensing test nor drive without an adult in the car for at least six months. That would be March, close enough to “the summer after tenth grade.”
The day after her birthday in 2001 Lynn’s school was closed because of Yom Kippur. I took her to the Bureau of Motor Vehicles where she filled out the forms and passed the required written test of basic road rules and driving laws. After lunch at Friendly’s I let her drive home by wending through the quiet neighborhoods where there wasn’t much traffic A black cat crossed our path on Ash Street. I remember that. She signed up for behind-the-wheel instruction at school and kept careful records to show she’d had at least 50 adult-supervised practice hours.
Of course, Lynn wanted her own car. Although the families in our township cover the full range of economic circumstances, we have some very affluent and downright wealthy neighbors. Some of Lynn’s friends were gifted with brand new Honda Civics or sporty 4-by-4s as soon as they got their permits. Others acquired more modest rides, while still others continued to take the bus to school and drive the family car only on special occasions. It was not beyond our means to provide something for her, but I was able to put her off over the winter because, I told her, I didn’t want to insure, maintain, and back out around every single time I left the house a car she couldn’t really use and had no nowhere, really, to go in.
The day before the six-month mark, the day before she was scheduled to take the licensing exam from her driver ed teacher, we received a letter from a member of our church congregation. He was starting a new career selling cars, and he pledged to give $50 to the church building fund for every member who bought a car from him.
He’d be selling Toyotas at the dealership where we had bought our last five cars.
It was, Lynn said, a sign from God.
We called our friend, and within twelve hours he’d found exactly the kind of car I had in mind for Lynn — a dark green 1995 Camry with 92,000 miles on it.
A widow’s car, sturdy, serviceable, staid.
Lynn drove that car without complaint (at least out loud to us) for six years. The passenger door rattled like dry bones every time you went over a bump, the radio antenna sounded like a helicopter as it extended or retracted, and the hood sustained some interesting scratches the time Lynn and her friends decided to clear the snow from it by using a shovel. She lost her “I’m off to see the wizard!” front license plate the evening she rear-ended a Volvo at low speed while idling at a traffic light, and her “The only good clown is a dead clown” sticker became unreadable when someone backed into her, although the rear bumper withstood the event.
Last fall after a hockey game Lynn and I were sitting in Jack’s waiting to be served. Ron had gone to the bathroom.
“When is a good time to buy a new car?” she asked. I knew she meant was there a good season, like January for white sales or Labor Day for back-to-school computer discounts.
“Oh, when you have a job,” I said.
When Ron came back to the table I told him Lynn had asked about the best time to buy a new car.
“Oh, when you have a job,” he said.
Well, here we are.
Lynn’s new job will require a forty-five minute commute. The Camry had 142,000 miles on it and was getting low gas mileage for a Toyota. And who knew what mechanical feature might be ready to fail soon, and fail spectacularly as she negotiated Route 1 each day.
Ron visited our favorite Toyota dealer last week, and while he was having a tail light replaced on his car he scouted possibilities for Lynn. (We’re like assistants to a rock star — I’ve spent two not unpleasant afternoons in her new apartment awaiting furniture deliveries while she was at class.) The Toyota Rav4 had replaced the Jetta as her dream car, but we were successful in talking her down from that. They’re cute as all get out but they cost more than a Corolla and get much lower gas mileage.
She wanted at least the color she’d have chosen in a Rav, a metallic gray. She came up on Friday to close the deal. We – Ron, Lynn, and I – sat in the finance manager’s office and shuffled papers. I signed over the title to the Camry so Lynn could retain the license plate, LD926. She put down money she’d gotten three years ago when her grandmother died and that she had put into a certificate of deposit, its maturity date timed to coincide with her graduation. She presented a letter from her new employer attesting to her status there and her projected income.
Then she took one more step into adulthood. She acquired a car payment.
One thing we had to do I wasn’t expecting. In order to remove Lynn and the Camry from our car insurance policy and set up her own policy, she had to change her address both with Allstate and with the Commonwealth.
It is now official. Lynn doesn’t live here anymore.
There were things Lynn needed to retrieve from the Camry before she handed over the keys (including the one that the top broke off of and that is really easier to grasp and turn if you use pliers). There was the Lands’ End tote bag embroidered with her name that I got in 1986 as a baby gear holder when she went to day care. When she got the car I filled it with emergency supplies — first aid items and hand wipes and leftover flatware and napkins from fast food places. Her hockey stick and a winter jacket were still in the trunk, a few rubber ducks (her personal symbol) and a squashed Beanie Baby or two were in the back seat, and she had to peel off her university parking permit because she’s working there through the end of this week.
She held the parking sticker in her hand and dumped everything else into a blue tub that she asked us to take home. She took a few steps away from the old car, looked back, and then reached out to touch it one more time.
So did I.
I think we were saying goodbye to more than a green Camry.
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