I am not a car person. I don’t mind if it is brightly colored and has gadgets to make your drive more comfortable or enjoyable,sure, but it’s okay if it’s just a box on wheels with an engine and a few seats that can take you places mostly safely.
My mother was quite proud of the deal she made when she acquired her Twingo Kiss Cool in 2004. It was a tiny car, with only three doors, but had a good engine and, as they claimed in the commercials, storage like the big cars (“Elle a tout d’une grande!”). Ultimately, she was pragmatic as well and sought in her car the affordable tool to going places. It was the “display” model, the one people could test-drive, so at a discount, she got a new vehicle with a few kilometers on it. She’d never bought a new car. She did not know, when she purchased this tiny one in 2004, that it was the last vehicle she would ever own.
When my mother died at the end of June 2016, the little green car was parked as usual in front of her house. Although there were a few signs that her health was declining again, death was certainly a surprise. Her car, like the rest of us, was not ready. When I arrived there, it still held gloves (yes, in June), coins and car wash tokens in the cup holder (which is funny, my mother never washed her car), and a few mints. In the door compartment, two ice-scrapers, an old melted stick of lip balm and a packet of tissues, a few maps of various regions of France. The stickshift was engaged in second gear, as always, and the hand brake pulled up just enough. You’d expect my mother to open the door any minute to go run some errand, except of course, she didn’t.
At first there were fragile moments of connection, nested in the hope that each discovery was a sign of love, of peaceful rest. My relationship with my mother was difficult and shortly before her death, I’d been working on some daughtering skills, wishing to communicate better and to get closer. Now I am left, like so many before me, with no other chances and dozens of unanswered questions, wounds open to dry in the sun or rot in the rain. Or both.
Still I pressed on.
Objects do funny things to humans. We collect them, we use them, we replace them. We give them away, we lose them or forget them. After my mother died, her belongings became the precious treasures we cannot part with. Like the pieces of a very large puzzle, we sort them while trying to recompose the whole picture: there are the pieces for the daily life part, the pieces for the happiness part (we hold on to those very dearly), the pieces for parts we would prefer not to remember. We also find tons of pieces that do not fit the picture at all, but we don’t want to toss them aside, just in case they make sense later. We look carefully at the colors, the shape of each piece, we try to match as many as we can together. Piecing the puzzle of her life while sorting through her home was a huge step into grieving. My sister, my brother and I are still working on it. I bet we will be for a while, too.
When I first took over the little green car, I did not realize which role it would play in my own trek through grief. I drove it from my mother’s empty house to our home in Munich, it was the first time the Twingo was traveling there without her.
The first step was to clean the car. I wanted to enjoy being inside it, and the grime and old smoke smell were in the way (emphasized by the gagging sounds the children made each time they boarded our new ship). I scrubbed the dashboard and the stirring wheel. There was a sense of relief, along with the idea that I was sneaking: when my mother was alive, she wouldn’t let me clean the inside of her car. There have been so many times when I took care of her things while she wasn’t looking. Removing layers of dirt from her car, it was as if I was removing layers of bitterness and guilt from myself. I wanted to focus on the positive, a clean slate would help. I vacuumed the floors, wiped the windows, emptied the door pockets to clean them thoroughly. That’s where her photo was, in black and white. A photo taken for her passport, I think, she couldn’t look more serious and accusing. A mugshot. It startled me. “What are you doing with my car?”, she seemed to say. I threw away a lot of receipts and very old papers, but I left the photo in the car, a reminder that it was not my car. I made sure the photo faced outward though.
The next step was to tackle the ominous noise the back wheel made. She’d told me how she’d driven over a sidewalk somehow and had damaged her wheel. My brother had gone with her to fix it the following day, I never quite understood what had happened. The noise, a rumble following from the right, held the promise of problems. Before driving back to France for a family function, I decided to have the car checked. Ensued the cascading adventure of finding mechanics. There was Philipo, an Italian man who spoke German and some French but no English, who’d set up shop at a gas station in my neighborhood, recommended by a friend of a friend. Philipo checked the oil levels, tire pressure, and brakes. “Pas de problèmes,” he said in a level of French that did not include technical vocabulary. He then managed to communicate, stitching together words from the languages he knew, that the situation with the back wheel was bad. He couldn’t fix it, but recommended a friend who owned a shop just a couple of kilometers down the road, with the proper equipment to replace the broken wheel bearing. Cenk was a Turkish man who also spoke German, no French but some English. From his “office” to the workshop, he drove the Twingo like those capped kids who drive around with loud music: far away from the wheel and slumped over. I imagined the Twingo with a few spoilers and shiny hubcaps for a moment, this made me smile. We ran into Philipo then, and the two had a conversation in German in the middle of the street.
“You must help my friend,” Philipo said.
The ordeal reminded me of the few times my mother had problems with her car, with us three kids in tow. A flat tire at the Canadian Memorial in Vimy (a kind man had come and offered to fix it after she’d been loudly looking for the owner’s manual to figure out how to replace the flat with the spare), a broken pipe in the mountains with a day long wait for towing and fixing in a tiny village where everything was closed due to summer vacations. The loose piece of metal that bounced off a bridge and pierced a hole in the gas tank, on the way home from a visit to an uncle’s house. It took days for the new part to come in. As I navigated the hurdles of finding the mechanics, communicating with them (Cenk turned out to be out of my reach by phone for three days, leading me to imagine having fallen in the claws of an elaborate ring of evil mechanics who preyed on clueless people to steal their cars and disseminate the parts throughout Europe, in a Machiavellian scheme), understanding what the problem was and paying the repair bill, I gained a new respect for my mother. With her car in my care, I was led to think of her in ways I hadn’t before. I forgot all about her stern stare on the black and white photo and started looking for signs that she was, after all, looking over me.
Later, I managed a phone call to another mechanics (my research showed that he didn’t have much of a wait list to switch summer tires to winter ones, a law to heed in Germany, and I could show up without the set of winter tires I needed, a bonus when you drive an old French car outside of France, albeit not too far). I did not panic upon realizing the man didn’t speak English, and I got an appointment, all in German, for the following morning. Was my mother breathing confidence and luck through me?
The very next day, one of the brand new snow tires deflated completely on the school parking lot as I was picking up the kids. The gym teacher showed up by chance, just as I pulled out the manual to figure out which way to put the jack together. The kids already fretted around, bickering about who would be the one to lift the car. The teacher installed the spare tire in just a few minutes. Clearly another sign, yes? When I brought the tire back to the shop the following day, they fixed it immediately, giving me the feeling that I was to be given special and delicate treatment. Yeah, definitely a sign.
I was on a roll, the car had never purred so smoothly, I was ready for snowfalls and the long drive to France for Christmas. I even drove to Eindhoven with the kids, a scouting trip for us, and a symbolic way for me to “show my mom where we would live next”. In a strange way, driving her car and taking care of it brought me closer to her, and I somewhat grew frustrated that it hadn’t been as simple when she was alive.
As if to test that I could still react to a hurdle, we found the battery dead one morning, and scrambled to catch the subway to school. We made it on time. Philipo later came to give me a jump start, and he replaced the battery. I passed the “test” with flying colors, I was ready to move to the Netherlands. I’d proven that I could be responsible for my mother’s car.
Pieces of her home, pieces of my home, luggage and the children, we all stacked ourselves in the car and tackled the 8 hour long drive. Bill had already flown to Eindhoven with four large suitcases (yes, they all fit in the Twingo when I dropped him off at the airport). I was moving closer yet to my family, settling less than three hours away from them. When I was finally going to be able to visit often, possibly on just weekends, even, my mother was not there to enjoy it. It was a painful throb in my chest, this forever inability to finally talk to each other about our real selves. I decided I would visit in France as often as I could, reading another sign that I was meant to do just that. Visit often. If not bonding with my mother, then with the rest of the family. We started off in a hotel in Eindhoven, the kids loved their new school right away, and the car (except for a mysterious flat tire that the kids and I replaced in a jiffy) held on.
It was thus full of renewed hope and confidence and happiness that I placed on the passenger seat a basket full of Dutch cheese and cookies for sixteen people on March 16th, for the nonstop drive to Lille where we would celebrate my grandmother’s 89th birthday. For the first time, I lived close enough that I could participate. It was a week night, the kids were all set with Bill, I was on my own.
At first there was a giddiness of sorts, filling me in waves as I thought of how often I’d be able to visit, how I was going to deepen my relationship with my siblings, my grandmother, maybe even my father. I crossed the Belgian border after fifteen minutes on the ride. It was a straight line from me to them: Eindhoven, Antwerpen, Ghent, Lille. Three neat thirds to cover.
The first warning light came on just before I reached Ghent, followed by the second, blinking, a minute or two later. The owner’s manual, once I managed to pull over at a small rest area where the car covered its last five meters stalling, pointed at an electronic problem, something to do with the reading of the gas going from the tank to the engine.
“It’s happened to Mom before,” my brother said on the phone, “just wait ten minutes and start the car again, you’ll be fine.”
The truck stop I’d rolled in was tiny, packed to the brim with truck drivers who spoke no English, nor French. They were gulping down their plates of sausages and fries with their coffees before heading back out. They looked tired. With hand motions and a mix of French, German, and English, I got the address of the place (it was written on the greasy laminated menu, which also informed me that it was poetically called Lotus Truck Stop) and went back to the car. It looked so tiny next to all the eighteen wheelers. It still felt like an epic adventure and I told myself that if I kept my cool and avoided panic, everything would work out fine. In fact, I told myself further, I’d pretend the problem didn’t exist, and I’d turn the key in the ignition “forgetting” the car had broken down, just to trick it into igniting. That did not work, of course, I prepared to call the insurance company to get the car towed. When fumbling around to dig out the policy number and the 24/7 phone number from amidst the maps in the side of my door, the black and white photo fell into my lap. It was the same as before, that stern stare drilling into my eyes. My mother’s expression had not changed, but this time she seemed to be saying, “\What did I tell you?” I called the insurance company, they organized for a tow truck to pick me up within the next hour or so, and I cried.
There were more hurdles of course. I had to decide where the tow truck would drop off the car. It was too far from France to be covered by the insurance, so the car had to stay in Belgium. Getting the single French-speaking person in the garage to give me an estimate for the reparation took another couple of weeks. He sent me a heartfelt email stating that he understood the emotional value of the car to me, but that merely opening the engine to check that it was, indeed, a cylinder that had broken down would cost about 800 euros, and the repair (if it was the cylinder), would bring the global cost to 1500 euros, which was the approximate value of the car.
As I crumbled down ever so slowly, my siblings rented a truck to pick up the car and bring it to a mechanics in France. That mechanics confirmed the diagnosis, for free, and offered to buy the car from us, for 300 euros.
Upon my next visit to France, this time in a spacious and highly gadgeted rental car, my sister gave me in two crates the things I had left in the Twingo when it was towed: the collection of maps, the two square cushions, the blankets that we used to keep in there, the CDs, and the tiny notebooks we used to play Hangman and take notes on the way. The black and white photo was not there, and I didn’t ask for it.
I’m not a car person, and the green Twingo was not a fancy car at all, but I do miss that little vehicle. It’s only after I could not drive it anymore, and a whole new loss tore my heart, that I realized how much it had been helping me in my grieving journey.
My brother secured the Twingo to the rental truck (photo taken by my sister)