I believe that the United States needs to develop alternative energy sources, even if it jeopardizes the one genuine way that I have found to commemorate my mother’s life. No, my mother never worked for ExxonMobil, nor was she particularly fond of her solar powered calculator. One of the basic facts of my mother’s complicated life was that she only purchased one car to ever call her own: a 250-horsepower, custom-made convertible whose gas-guzzling, muscle car nature makes Al Gore lose sleep. A complicated fact of my mundane suburban life is that while I take this car out on the road this summer, Mom lives again, as both of us travel through time and space.
My first solid memory is riding in a bucket seat of this car, with Mom driving beside me, smiling, alive, and free. If you are wondering what a three and a half year old is doing in the front passenger seat, these were the days before New York State mandatory child occupant safety laws, and only a short time before my mother’s autoimmune disease would imprison her in a self-destructive body, slowly and painfully picking itself apart. This memory of riding along with mom in her 1968 Oldsmobile, with the ragtop down on what must have been a gorgeous spring day, is also the only time I recall mom healthy and happy at the same time.
This is probably the reason that, in the couple of years that have just passed since my mother’s death, driving her now forty-year old sports car has become an act of ritual and reverence. There was little room for such sacred considerations a decade ago when I excitedly began resurrecting the “ol’ boat” from the odd arrangement of sports gear, small household appliances, picnic blankets, and old newspapers that over the years had been found a resting place on the car’s front hood. Folks were obviously participating in a less vigorous debate over fuel standards and global warming the day this automotive vestige of a grander era in design eased its way out of the garage. And anyway, in Upstate New York, I would be driving my ultra-fuel efficient Honda most days of the year, which clearly would mitigate my so-called carbon footprint. The whole process was inspiring, since I new how joyful my entire family would be to see Mom’s old Cutlass restored to its muscle-bound splendor, realizing that her son the history teacher had turned back the clock.
Once the car made it out of the body shop—with a sweet red paint job to replace its fading off-white veneer–my mother refused to let me take her for a spin. But I guess I should have known better than to assume that nothing more than boxes of household junk had been piled on that car during the years that Mom traded in her Rocket 350 engine for a wheel chair.
Anyone who has ever lost someone close to them is told that their loved one will live on in their hearts and memories. I find solace in a different sort of time-travel. I imagine a sun-drenched late afternoon setting in the summer of 1968, which features my mom flying down the highway with the ragtop down, unshackled by all the uncertainties of ‘the year that all hell broke loose.’ When I do this, I know that I have become a revisionist historian intent on self-deception. I was encouraged to read recently that rocker Neil Young had commissioned an engineer to convert one of his classic convertibles into an electric car with all the muscle of a bygone age. My own environmental and political concerns, let alone gas prices, dictate that I drive Mom’s convertible a little less this summer, but I hope that as America constructs an energy future, part of it enables me to reunite with Mom and I out on the highway, where we’re both young and free.