Her '57 Chevy
As a kid, I was won over by the hood ornament. But my mother's car was more than just a way to get around, Milovan Mracevich writes
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My mother's old car is stored in a large, walled-off compound of an underground parking garage. Whenever I enter the compound, the sudden silence, the stagnant air and the dim light immediately put me into a sombre and reflective mood, like the feeling of leaving a touristy, bright street behind and entering a subterranean tomb from antiquity.
Illuminated by a few fluorescent tubes are the covered shapes of dozens of cars from the 1930s to the '60s. My friend Vern, the cheery custodian of this collection, helps me roll back the cloth cover from my mother's car. As we expose the massive chrome bumper and the pretty grill emblem with its blue chevron on a field of red and white, I always have the feeling that the car has been waiting for me. Waiting patiently. Waiting without judgment or reproach regarding my length of absence. Ready to transport me again, both physically and to places of childhood memory.
My mother bought the Chevrolet new after my father's death from cancer in late 1956. My father had been a businessman who had driven Oldsmobiles. My happiest early-childhood memory is of sitting between my parents on the front seat.
The transition from riding with my parents in the Oldsmobile to riding with just my mother in the Chevrolet symbolized our transition from a happy, complete family to a state of loss and grief.
What probably impressed me the most when I first saw my mother's new car as a three-year-old were the rocket-shaped hood ornaments. As I rode beside my mother, I would look out over the hood and pretend that I could fire them at enemy vehicles.
It was legal and common for children to ride in the front seat then, and, like most cars of the time, the Chevrolet had no seat belts. Fortunately, my mother was never in an accident. In fact, I don't remember her making a panic stop that ever sent me flying off the seat into the metal dashboard. The only accident that the Chevrolet was ever in was when I was driving it, carelessly, in my youth.
So many of my childhood memories are connected with the car that simply sitting on the front seat sets the reels running in my head, like a big box of jumbled eight-millimetre home movies: the shopping trips to the three downtown department stores, the vacations on Vancouver Island and in the Okanagan, the visits to friends, the outings to downtown movie theatres and restaurants, the picnics on Sundays in Stanley Park and at Peace Arch, where the two families closest to us also drove 1957 Chevrolets, giving me the impression that it was somehow the official car of Yugoslav immigrants.
By the late 1960s, the Chevrolet had become a quite desirable car for young men. The bag boys at the Woodward's Department Store Parkade would look at my mother's car covetously as they loaded groceries into the huge trunk and would ask her, "Ma'am, do you want to sell your car?" She would always just smile and say no.
How could she ever sell her baby? She had clear plastic seat covers put on to protect the upholstery when her car was new and kept them on as long as she drove it. They were always cold in winter and frequently painfully hot in summer but she never complained. My mother was so careful about her car not getting scratched that she always parked as far as possible from any other car. Any parking-lot dents resulted in a prompt visit to Dueck's body shop for repair. She only ever put Chevron Supreme in the tank because she thought that it was the best gas.
The fact that my mother drove a car never had any particular significance to me as I was growing up. I took it for granted that my mother drove, just as I took my mother for granted as she drove me to various lessons, entertainments, parks, friend's houses and places where I could buy things that I wanted. Had I been more reflective – that is, less of a selfish and spoiled brat – I would have thought about how none of my mother's female friends drove, nor anybody else's mother that I knew. They all had husbands to drive them around.
My obliviousness to the significance of my mother's car changed one day in the 1980s. Having gone to visit some old friends of my parents to do an oral history interview, I met their daughter, a physician who knew my parents in the 1950s, when she was a teenager. "I was just so impressed with your mother," she said, "How, after your father died, she took things in hand, learned how to drive and bought that car."
The remark triggered an epiphany for me. Suddenly a quality that I had never associated with my mother infused my understanding of her: courage. I saw her as a young immigrant woman, who, grieving for her husband and, with not a single relative in Canada, pulled herself together and set out on the road of her remaining life with me beside her on the front seat. That's why, despite a few times over the years, when I have mused about selling the Chevrolet, I decided that it was more important to keep it as a driveable memento of her love and courage.
Milovan Mracevich lives in Vancouver and Belgrade.