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Always On Sunday
Like so many car-loving families of the ’50s, our family enjoyed taking a drive for the sake of taking a drive. We did not yet suspect that in the coming years, cars would become our enemy: that we’d have to cue up at gas stations on alternate days of the week, depending on whether our license plate ended in an odd or even number, to get gas during the so called “gas crisis.” We didn’t see it coming: the foreign car vs. American car debate that made us choose sides on patriotic and practical grounds. We didn’t know—boy; we were once really credulous—that cars would get to be so expensive. And we had no idea that cars would, quite literally, be the death of us and change the climate to a hothouse. Back in those days we thought that we were in collusion with our cars. We almost watched them being born. Though in the ’50s it would have been astonishing to have fathers in the delivery room, men—as well as women and children—hovered around the TV to watch the new model cars gradually, tantalizingly unveiled week after week, until we finally saw it from nose to tail, and counted the equivalent of all its fingers and toes. I remember gasping with excitement about re-shaped fins. Of course, when I look back, TV was more phantasmagoric then: do you realize how surreal Lawrence Welk was? Men hidden under a blanket draped over them, kicking their legs sideways like some nightmare Broadway musical of a singing Trojan Horse, while a machine poured forth bubbles?
The presentation of the cars, however, was done with the utmost respect, and caused the utmost excitement. It seemed that when a car was redesigned, our destiny might also be redesigned. In a modest way, our family was obsessed with cars. If my father could afford it, he let it be known, he would trade his car in every year. Who would have thought that in future years his daughter would take pride in buying a Volvo, believing that it would still run well after 100,000 miles?
While my father commuted to work and did errands, and did all the driving on trips, he did not come along on Sunday drives because of where those drives ended up. On Sundays my mother was behind the wheel, as I sat in the passenger seat, making the rounds (for many too many years) to see my grandfather at Mt. Alto Veterans’ Hospital, followed by a visit to my father’s mother, the famous Grandma Kitty. My mother had a finely developed sense of duty, and the soundtrack to that sense of duty was, during the week, a radio host named Art Brown, who said inane things that were neither news nor anecdote, while his birds chirped in the background. Mercifully, Art Brown’s show did not air on weekends: only the sludge of Easy Listening serenaded us, emanating from the car radio as we set off on our Sunday drive. Over time I beat her down, as I searched the stations for the Beatles, but for years the ostensibly Easy Listening washed over me like a big musical oil spill. The music was lugubrious, as was my mother’s careful driving. She drove exactly twenty-five miles an hour from our house, across from a tributary to Rock Creek Park in the D.C. section of Chevy Chase, up Oregon Avenue, which in those days looked like a country road (you could still see raccoons, fox, and sometimes deer, as well as assorted turtles, birds, and rabbits), onto Nebraska Avenue, then, eventually, turned left onto Connecticut Avenue. We passed Higgers’ drugstore, where my mother got prescriptions filled for me, and which I therefore associated with feeling sick, and a few gas stations, the Hot Shoppe (a drive-in restaurant that had a sandwich I liked, called a “Teen Twist.” You spoke your order into a metal box. The order was then apparently scrambled so it could not be understood by spies and repeated, fuzzily, over what might have been a recording of planes taking off from National Airport. As for the food, you got what you got.). But those were places we stopped during the week. We didn’t stop on the way to Grandma’s.
Through the years, Grandma Kitty lived in an assortment of pre-war apartment buildings on Connecticut Avenue. They were all rather grand, but a bit down on their luck, and quite distinctive architecturally. I remember a fountain in the lobby of one, and Art Deco buzzards—or whatever they were—in the elevator of another. In those days, Washington was filled with widows. The big apartment buildings were widow repositories, with things widows were supposed to like: doormen, building superintendants, elevator operators. Where have all the widows gone? Now, those buildings are condos filled with Yuppies who walk and jog on Connecticut Avenue in their suits and socks and running shoes, but in those days you barely saw anybody walking, and if they were running, it was because they were being chased; that, of course, was highly unlikely, because Washington moved at a slow, still-Southern crawl. The pace of the city corresponded to my mother’s driving. In the spring, azaleas bloomed by the buildings: some had big green lawns; many had cherry blossom trees, or tulip trees. Those seem to have disappeared with the widows, though I doubt there was a direct connection. They have been replaced by big signs advertising condos for sale.
In those days, amazingly, miraculously, my mother would park right on Connecticut Avenue, within a block of our destination. Then we would walk into one of the grand, fading glory apartment buildings and give our name to the doorman and the man behind the desk, and our floor request to the elevator operator. Then we would finally arrive at Grandma’s door, where, from within, she would invariably ask, in her Winston-cigarette-deepened voice: “Who’s there?” Perhaps no actress could have done that line entirely convincingly, since the routine was that my mother phoned from home fifteen minutes before our arrival to say we were coming, the desk person phoned to say we were there, and the elevator operator hesitated until he heard the knock on the door before pulling his gate closed, as discreet as any priest settling into the confessional. Still, every week Grandma tried the line again, striving to sound simultaneously curious and cautious. And every week, my mother neutrally stated our names, whereupon the door would open.
But that puts us inside Grandma’s apartment, and this is a piece about Sunday drives, so I will continue by saying that once we left—no significant de-briefing required—we began our ride home, often with something unrepairable for my father to repair (a steam iron circa 1909 with a nick in the plating) as well as a gift carton of Chesterfields for my mother, or something Grandma took delight in having taken from the trash room, such as an unopened package of paper napkins, which my mother would immediately throw away when she got home, groaning, making wild gestures with her hands.
I’ve been on many exotic Sunday drives: the Amalfi coast, which is so narrow that the buses have to repeatedly back up and advance by mere inches, folding their side mirrors in to give them the extra quarter inch of room needed to pass one another; drives in my faithful (oh, okay: so the frame finally rotted) 1968 Mustang convertible through back woods in Connecticut and Virginia and Maine, racking up speeding tickets as the accelerator accompanied Dionne Warwick; the drive, in a rented car, up nerve-wracking steep hills to Asolo . . . and most of the time, I enjoy riding in a car. Most of the time, I’m also in the passenger seat. But with me, a little scenery goes a long way. I would have made a lousy Romantic poet.
These days, except for the occasional rental car in Europe, my husband and I don't take many Sunday drives. This is partly because we live in southern Maine during the summer, and it’s overrun with weekend tourists. People are out there driving in order to escape driving; they’re towing boats, transporting bicycles or kayaks on roof racks. Still, we might be out there in traffic if anyone expected our visit, but those days are gone. My husband’s mother and mine, both in their eighties, have no Grandma Kitty-like expectations of a Sunday visit. We don’t live anywhere nearby. Like many Americans and their parents, we’ve drifted this way and that, as if blown by Lawrence Welk’s bizarre bubble machine.
I don’t want to romanticize those Sunday drives of the past; my father disdained the routine, and I never had reason to think it was a highlight of my mother’s week. But the notion of being along for the ride. . . I can't help but think metaphorically, and I guess the metaphor suits me: perhaps those Sunday drives got me started as a writer, giving me time to observe while someone else did the driving. I liked being at my mother’s side, even when she was enacting some boring routine, because I was crazy about my mother; I accepted the notion of duty calls the same way I assumed I’d one day have a job—although I wised up pretty soon about how to avoid that one; I once was part of a family—albeit a small one—in which people kept in regular contact and did what they could for each other. Every time I got in the car and went to see Grandma, somewhere deep inside I hoped something exceptional would happen—something similar to being greeted by the Big Bad Wolf instead, I suppose. Of course, there were always amusing little variations during our visits, but they mostly had to do with Grandma’s ever-evolving eccentricities. Now, what I think is: Poor Grandma. She didn't know how to drive, so we always went to her, and there's every chance she wished Little Red Riding Hood—or, at least, someone a little colorful—would show up, instead of shy, taciturn Ann. Maybe the weekly “Who’s there?” was my grandmother’s way of hoping against hope there would be an exciting answer.
The car I remember best was a black Chevy (though it is not the car most talked about; the car most talked about was my mother’s first car, a used maroon Studebaker that my father bought from a bank account she never knew he had.). It was always impeccably clean. My mother would no more have personalized the car with, say, dice hanging from the rear-view mirror than I would get my nose pierced. A box of Kleenex rode on the seat between us. Things were not thrown all over the back seat. The floor was never dirty. She had a change purse with dimes in it to use in parking meters, but except for that, there was not even a map in the glove compartment (as you may surmise, my mother had routines, and was not about to strike out on an impulsive drive to Glen Burnie). But that was it: a clean car, and a woman with a clean conscience, who dutifully made her Sunday visits, bringing along her daughter who would soon grow up and not drive the speed limit, who would not be as generous or as dutiful—the daughter who would eventually disappear down very different roads, while often remembering what did and did not happen on Sundays, unable to decide which had more importance.