Things with meaning: the carved car

House 8

I found the picture while I was looking for something else.

It’s a car my father designed and carved sometime in the 1940’s. He won a prize from GM for it. For most of my life, it’s lived in an upstairs bedroom at my grandparent’s house, sitting on a hearth gathering dust except for the summers when I would visit. The faded ribbon from GM taped to the bottom with brown and crackly cellophane tape.

When my grandparents died, my dad took it home and it sat on the shelf above his old oak rolltop desk. Also on the shelves were several ship models I had done as a kid, all of them decrepit, the glue and thread rigging all undone with the years. From the looks of it when I got it after his death, it had not been dusted the whole time it was there.

Now it sits in my living room. You can see it when you come visit, next to the big leather reading chair in the corner. It looks its age, a relic of another time and era. The cut and color both of another time. When I go it might, might mind you, end up with one of my kids. Or it might not. It’s not a big thing. There’s no life changing story to it. It’s certainly not an antique. It’s the kind of curiosity you might find in an antique shop for thirty or forty bucks, a lost piece of someone’s family history.

We keep things for the oddest reasons. My dad was incredibly patient with things and in the work or restoring things. He was not so patient with the people in his life. He could flare up in an instant, long before you had any idea why.

For a long time, that was the image I carried around of my father – always angry at me, always disappointed, often drunk, a man who kept us on eggshells as he veered from kind to cruel at the speed of light.

Time changes our view. He was that hair-trigger man, for sure, but he was also the kid who would spend untold hours with a penknife and a block of wood, somehow “seeing” the design and painstakingly whittling it out like some country-bred Michelangelo. He could bring in a box of what looked like kindling wood and painstakingly reconstruct a striking 18th-century grandfather clock out of it. At his best, he was the great reconstructor, able to seeming breath new life into anything. Old cars, old houses, furniture, mechanical things.

What makes a man able to have such patience with things, and have so little patience with people?

But then. I see that differently now too.

My father could be brutally hard on the boys in the family. I bore that. My son got a good-sized dose of it too. In my father’s later years, I spent more than one holiday in a stand-off with my father after a seemingly out of nowhere barrage on my son. It was uncomfortable for us all. We are a family that stays quiet, polite, calm. Scenes are not our forte. We avoid them like the black plague. But holidays became predictable, that sooner or later he would unload on my son and I would go into the breach defending him, finding an anger in myself that few would believe.

My father was always regretful afterward. Not that he would apologize. But he would skulk around, head down, and not want to talk to anyone about it. Once though, half-drunk after such an episode, he did talk about it.

It turns out he was bullied as a young man. He was a sensitive young man, something hard for me to imagine, but something my mother confirmed later, and a sensitive man in the Southeastern farmland of Virginia was ripe pickings for the rough and tumble bunch he went to school with. His solution was to shut down (understandable to me, I tend the same way), and he wanted more than anything to toughen me up as a kid, and toughen my own son up so we could deal with life.

Of course, we weren’t let in on his strategy. And I don’t think that was the whole story. A lot of him was hidden from us until the end. It just seemed like random harshness to us.

The car is a reminder to me that people are never as simple as they seem. Rarely are their motives what we think they are. There are always damages and wounds we can’t see, and we outsiders often bear the consequences of those wounds. Wounds have ripples, it seems, and they can often sink ships, and lives.

I like the car. I like that it reminds me of my childhood summers at my grandfather’s house. I like that it reminds me of a younger, gentler, more sensitive father that I never knew except in an occasional leak when he was drunk and would share feelings I never would have imagined.

I probably would not have bought it in a random antique store. I might have noted it – I do have a thing for cars of the forties and fifties, but I would not have cared enough for it to part with thirty or forty bucks. As it is, the thing is priceless to me now.

Seeing the picture made me remember how much I miss my parents. It was a melancholy moment, soon passed, but deep while it lasted. I am grateful, not for the pain of growing up, but for having grown, at last, past the pain to see them as whole people, foibles, scars, wounds and all, and finding that love grows in the wounds, when we are lucky enough to spend time there.

I had my parents into my late fifties. I am grateful.

Be well, Travel wisely,


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