Many years ago, my mother was in love with a soldier who went to war. On his first mission in the South Pacific he was shot down, leaving a huge sadness in our family. In his will, he’d left all his belongings to my mother. Mostly, that amounted to a 1937 Ford, gray with a tan convertible top. My mother’s emotions around that car were perhaps too strong for her to ever drive it. Instead, not knowing what else to do with her grief, she joined the Marines, and while she was gone to war, she lent the car to her sister. Eventually the loan became permanent. We came to call it the Old Gray Ford (later, just OGF), such an integral part of our extended family, so much a part of our present, that we almost forgot its past. We all loved the car as it grew into antiquity, showing bits of rust and enduring frequent breakdowns. Often, my aunt drove us to Singing Beach, with all of us in the back seat. We all knew exactly where to sit on those leather seats to avoid the springs that had popped up from beneath.
When I came of age, my older cousin Mac taught me to drive stick shift on this car and also how to work the choke–a tricky business. Mac used the car all through his college years, used it as the “getaway” car after his wedding, and carried it onward into his life. Eventually, the car went into storage, a polite way of saying that it disintegrated into pieces in a pile in Mac’s barn. The years passed. We all felt heartsick to see such a sad sight. We almost forgot it was there. But somehow Mac’s daughter, Hayden, didn’t forget the OGF, though it’s a mystery to me how she remembered it, since she wasn’t old enough to have ever known it as a living, driving, moving being. Still, she was planning her wedding and said to her father one day, “I’d love to be able to drive away from my wedding in the OGF!”
And so it was last May that I accompanied Mac to a place called RMR Restorations in Hollis, New Hampshire, not far from my home, where men who know about such things indulge in the act of resurrection. Buckets of rusted parts were wheeled in. From their long storage, the chassis and a couple of doors were brought up on a flatbed truck. I entered the operating room with trepidation. In the OGF resided a deep well of emotion I hadn’t visited in many years. Of all the rusty pieces before me, I could identify only the steering wheel and the hubcaps. We told the mechanics the story of the car’s life in our family. Standing in a quiet semicircle, the men listened respectfully. Then we left them to their magic, which they performed over the next five months.
In October, on the beautiful blue-sky day of Hayden’s wedding, a shining OGF sat beside a house by the sea. The gray paint gleamed like polished enamel. A red pinstripe ran the length of the car to the rear fender. The hubcaps were like mirrors. We all hovered around it, feeling a bit as though we were seeing a ghost, touching the imagined. Suddenly, we were afraid of leaving fingerprints on this vehicle that we used to treat like a comfortable old shoe.
I climbed into the passenger seat. The car smelled of leather and hot sun. Mac worked the choke and pumped the accelerator; the engine rumbled to life. He pressed the gearshift into first, and we moved out onto the road. As I thought about a young soldier who’d gone to war and never come back, about my mother, who couldn’t bring herself to drive this car, about the years and the sheer will that had kept the OGF alive–or on life support–that well of emotion overflowed. The wedding was picture-perfect. Of course. The Old Gray Ford was with us.