Think of a family as a pyramid: I’m on the phone with my oldest relative, Eleanora, 93, who lives in Dover, Delaware. She bought her first car in her late 30s, “after the war,” as the family saying goes. We both know she means the Big War when her husband Dick was killed in the Pacific. After that Big War, she and her youngest sister Sadie found jobs in Washington, D.C., and their mother, the adorable Josephine, came from Pittsburgh to live with them. Eleanora’s car payments cost (am I remembering right?) $100 a month. It was only after prolonged study of their joint budgets and after borrowing on the insurance she’d gotten when Dick was killed that this family of women took the plunge and bought a car. “God will provide,” Josephine had assured them. Josephine’s God, gentle and loving, held them tenderly for years in cupped hands.
Eleanor’s last car, a Toyota Corolla, she sold, reluctantly. Her affection for this machine has always astonished me. Sadie never drove, and certainly not Josephine, so tiny she couldn’t have seen over the wheel. But Eleanor loved to drive, and held onto the Corolla well beyond becoming too bent to sit comfortably and maneuver the wheel. Having a car meant freedom, becoming the head of their family and driving to visit friends up and down the East Coast. It meant starting a mid-life romance with motion, authority, and command–virtually a man’s romance with a car.
On the phone Eleanor and I are talking about where her mother and sister are buried across the road from Arlington National Cemetery and about my parents’ graves in Magnolia Cemetery on the outskirts of Charleston, South Carolina. Suddenly, the pitch of her voice rises and she’s launched into the story of “Leonard Driving the Bridge.” It’s one of our set pieces, rousing the blood, making us laugh and feel joined across half the continent.
My father was a terrible driver–that’s the bedrock reality. He and his three brothers grew up a block from Eleanor and her two sisters in Pittsburgh–the families joined by their mothers, Rose and Josephine. Thus Eleanor and my father Leonard knew each other from childhood and, in their jokey, loving way, kept in touch over the years. Eleanor doesn’t have to convince me that Leonard was a terrible driver. Year after year when we lived across the “Roller Coaster Bridge” in Charleston, he drove my mother, sister and me across the Cooper River to our bungalow in Mount Pleasant.
Charleston is a magical city laved with tidal waters–two rivers, the Ashley and the Cooper, which, so natives like to joke, meet at the tip of Charleston, to form the Atlantic Ocean. When I was a girl and we still lived in The Old Citadel, smack in the middle of the peninsula, I could hear the big ocean freighters boom. The rats that scurried behind our garbage cans came off those huge ships, said my mother. Then when I was starting 8th grade, we moved across the Cooper River to the small community of Mount Pleasant.
The Roller Coaster Bridge, built in the 1930s, rose in dizzying height to one tall span, dipped fast and curved, then rose again over the river’s other arm until with a clunk we reached solid ground again. Even now, as I write this, my insides cramp and my breath comes ragged. “Sadie was sitting in the front seat with your mother and father. Mother and I were in the back,” comes Eleanor’s excited voice, describing a visit long after I left home. “Your father lifted his hands off the wheel and gestured. He looked back at us with that smirk of his. Mother gripped my hand. We could see the water below!”
I’m a girl in the back again, furious at my father’s dangerous behavior, terrified we’d plunge through the flimsy railing into the river. It had happened before: a freighter came loose from its moorings and broke a hole in a span. A family of five in their car fell through and drowned. For years this early terror has sat me rigid in front seats, behind other steering wheels. I’m almost phobic of cars. Intensely resentful of my father’s for his antics.
“On our way back into town,” comes Eleanor’s voice, “Mother whispered to Sadie and me, ‘We’ll all three sit in the back. Then if we go down, we’ll go down together.'” She’s laughing. I’m laughing. They’re doing the only thing possible, offering each other the comfort I never got from my mother who sat stoic and silent in the front, or from my whimpering younger sister beside me in the back. It’s their loving kindness in the midst of terror that redeems my resentment and eases my fear of driving. Having a romance with this kind of fear isn’t possible, but knowing some in my family could find comfort in its midst lights a tiny candle. It’s no wonder Eleanor and I tell each other this story over and over again.