Pages

Sunday, February 12, 2012

The Family Car

From the time I was in primary school until I was well into my 20s, my dad owned the same car. He was devoted to its health and well-being. It was unique and irreplaceable (not least because that model's manufacture was very wisely discontinued in the early 80s).

My dad’s precious car was:

A white Holden Kingswood.
Until I was about 10, I saw this vehicle through my Dad’s rose-tinted lens. I enjoyed its enormousness – the back seat that we once proved was big enough for 5, the boot that could hold an implausible number of bikes and scooters, the ridiculously abundant leg-room. I loved that in summer we would wind down all the windows and let the warm breeze rush into our faces and ears. I would nod sagely as Dad raved on about the excellent availability of spare parts. The car was affectionately nicknamed “Bertha”.

Then, one day, sometime in late primary school, I suddenly noticed my friends’ parents’ cars. Mighty Mitsubishi Pajeros. Sleek Nissan Pulsars and Pintaras. The ubiquitous Toyota Corolla, the occasional zippy little Honda, and even a couple of gleaming Mercs. They had a lovely newness and a modern sleekness about them. In one of those painful coming-of-age moments, my young mind realised that (like wearing proper Speedos instead of el-cheapo bathers from Woolworths, and like having Popper juice in a box rather than a daggy drink bottle in my lunchbox) these cars represented Fitting In.

I realised, with faint horror, that like my el-cheapo swimsuit, Bertha was the mark of a family that didn’t have the money for something better.

Things got worse when I was a teenager, and my parents sent me to a private girls’ high school that was known for its high academic standards. Unsurprisingly, it was filled with girls from privileged families. Parental ownership of a luxury car was de rigeur. In hindsight, I was lucky enough to be able to attend this excellent school only because my parents, with humble jobs as a public servant and a teacher, chose to invest in my education, and not in new cars. As a teenager, however, I could not see past my own confused angst and self-pity, and I turned on Bertha with a passion. I would take two different buses to get home rather than be seen in that car. I would cringe when friends came over and saw it parked in the driveway.

In my view, it was the family car from hell. It stood for everything that was wrong with my self-image.

My loathing continued in force for some years, until, at age 17, I was desperate to learn how to drive. My dad, bless him, was actually willing to teach me. Unfortunately, my dad and Bertha were a package deal. Having to be seen in Bertha was an evil I would have to live with if I wanted that coveted driver’s license.

Bertha was like no other car I’ve driven since. Forget automatic transmission and power steering – Bertha had a classic “three on the tree” stick shift, and steering so heavy you could feel it in your triceps as you tried to get her enormous bulk around tight corners. There were only three forward gears, but you could comfortably do 80 kmph in Bertha’s mighty second gear. Engaging the clutch required considerable lower-body strength. While steering required some level of brute force, at the same time you had to be a bit careful – in the wake of a dodgy repair executed by my dad, the steering wheel was strangely wobbly, and in fact, a few years later, it actually came off in my younger brother’s hands while the car was in motion. [When he told me about it, I exclaimed, “But what did you do?” and he said, calmly, “I put it back on again!”] The left indicator didn’t work, or rather, it did, but for reasons Dad was never able to ascertain, turning it on caused the horn to blare loudly. The radio antenna had been snapped off by vandals at some point, so Dad had ingeniously made a new one out of wire that he’d sticky-taped around the inside perimeter of the windscreen.

It truly was a unique vehicle.

I still remember the first time I got behind the wheel. Bunny-hopping and stalling were memorable experiences in a car as big and heavy as Bertha, and hill starts were something I literally dreaded. As for reverse parking… just getting the car into reverse was already a challenge, and actually manoeuvring it into any normal-sized parking space seemed, initially, like an impossible task.

However, I wasn’t about to quit, and my dad wasn’t about to let me. He was determined that I would learn to drive “properly”, and that Bertha was just the car to teach me.

Eventually, I bloody-well did learn, and I passed my driving test on the first try!

After that, when Dad had weekend errands to run, he would ask me to come with him, and handing me the key to his beloved Bertha, would say, “Go on – you drive!”

I like to think this was his way of saying, “I love you, and I’m proud of you.”

And by my 20s, my feelings about Bertha had mellowed. She was like an elderly relative – not without her flaws and her quaint little idiosyncrasies, but a lovable fixture nevertheless. Bertha came to symbolize something important in my life. She represented humility, living within one’s means, and the need to work hard for material gain. She reminded me of my parents’ love, and their determination to send their children to the best schools they could possibly afford, even if that meant living on a tight budget and cheerfully driving the same old car for almost two decades. She taught me not to be ashamed of having fewer and less nice material things than others, because in the end I had all the things that were truly important.

It was around this time that my younger brother, with the ink on his driver’s license barely dry, was driving Bertha when he was involved in a car crash. He walked out of it without a scratch. Bertha was so badly damaged that she was written off.

It was her time to go, I thought. By this stage, my parents were no longer strapped for cash. They could go out and buy a newer, better-quality car. I felt somewhat relieved for them.

But Dad, somewhat devastated at his loss, wasn’t ready to give up on Bertha.

At this point, he did something none of us could ever have predicted. He went out and bought two scrapped Holden Kingswoods, deposited them in the front yard (to my mother’s horror) and started, piece by piece, trying to rebuild Bertha. We tried to dissuade him from this task, convinced it could only end in tears. We were the nurses trying, gently, to lead the doctor away from his dead patient after a prolonged but futile resuscitation attempt (“It’s all over, Dad. You did your best. Let her go now.”)   

But he actually managed to summon a pulse. He succeeded in rebuilding that damn car. The new Bertha was pretty rough around the edges (where Dad had tried his hand at DIY panel-beating) but she was back on the road, and Dad was thrilled.

It was somehow shocking and just plain unfair when, one night not long after that, Bertha was stolen, never to be recovered. Dad suspected joyriders. Even those of us who had driven the joyless Bertha were kind enough not to laugh.

Dad gave in and bought a soulless but reliable Camry. It does the job, but will never replace Bertha.
She was legendary and unforgettable. For better or for worse, she'll be with me always.

16 comments:

  1. This is a lovely piece of writing. If you're into that sort of thing, I think it would make an excellent short story. And on a peripheral note: you're probably a really decent driver after having learned on Bertha!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thanks so much for your kind encouragement! I love to write, and it feels so good to get positive feedback (though I am also very grateful for constructive criticism!) I do think that driving Bertha prepared me for just about anything, driving-wise - these days, I drive an automatic, and somehow it feels like cheating!

    ReplyDelete
  3. Oh no! I can't believe Bertha was stolen. I also can't believe I feel emotional over the story of a car, but it seems like she was part of the family.

    Thanks for linking to blogaholics

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Your blogaholics idea was terrific! I'm enjoying reading the other blogs.
      Yes, Bertha earned her place as a member of our family. I still wonder what happened to her...

      Delete
  4. :) I get that same feeling now as a mum driving a Ford Falcon, wishing it was a red MG......

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. No shame in a good old Ford Falcon. Good for you, Lake House Writer. You will get your red MG someday :)

      Delete
  5. Loved the post. Made me smile. Not least because I now drive a battered old car, and I don't care!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. See, this is why you aced your Bad Weather Driving Course! Battered old cars breed good drivers, I reckon.

      Delete
  6. What a great post -- keep it up kiddo!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Aw, thanks, Mike! You're the best :)

      Delete
  7. Synchronicity! The car of my childhood - that wonderful old Wolsley with its red leather upholstery and walnut dash - the car my brother and I grew up with and christened Woolly...it was stolen and written off one New Years Eve when it was a wonderful 21yrs. It was too old and battered to merit so much as an insurance claim... and my Dad has never since felt quite the same attachment to a vehicle. It was old-fashioned and a bit of a misfit from the minute my Dad acquired it - but a member fo the family by the time of its demise.
    This was such a wonderful post. And you write so well.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Oh my gosh! Synchonicity indeed!
      Thanks for your kind words of encouragement - high praise indeed, coming from someone who writes as beautifully as you do.

      Delete
  8. I loved loved loved this. So beautifully written. And when I saw that car, I laughed with recognition - we had exactly the same car when I was a kid living in the gold fields in Fiji. I think we may have even got six on the back seat, once. I so relate to your experience - I went to a private girls school too, one of NZ's best, and it was likewise packed with girls who could afford to holiday in Hawaii or fly to Sydney to buy their ball dress. I learnt a great deal about myself and my priorities there and even earlier as I wrote in my blog post. Thanks for commenting. I'm going to go back and annotate my post to link to this one.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Vix, I am truly honoured. Thank you so much for dropping by for a read!

      Delete
  9. I perfectly understand your father’s feeling. “Bertha” was his pride and joy. It is obvious that he valued the car so much. He even tried to restore it, and bring it back to its former glory. It is unfortunate that the car was stolen. At times, we might not understand how people loved some things, and spend some effort to keep it. I guess it is when these things became an extension of them, and it serves as a reminder of important memories. I think he will get used to the new Camry, but “Bertha” will be his one and only.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Ernest, yes, my dad did have a very close connection with Bertha. None of us could believe it when she was stolen. It seemed like a cruel joke that Dad really didn't deserve, and I think he still misses Bertha.

      Thanks very much for stopping by for a read!

      Delete