Imagine your house is on fire. All of the people and pets are safely out, and you have time to save only one item from your room. What do you take, and why?
I might have been in grade five or six when we were given this writing assignment. Even at the time I thought it was a weird question to ask. If my house was truly on fire I am not certain I would have the presence of mind to think through which of my possessions was most important to me. Maybe that was the point of the assignment—a sort of mental dress rehearsal so that, in the unfortunate event that my house DID burn down, I would know what to grab.
But because I know people who really have lost everything in house fires, there’s something about the writing prompt that makes me uncomfortable. I tried looking around at my stuff today and asking myself “what would I save?” The only thing that came to mind wasn’t even mine—I thought if I really did have to grab something quickly I might go for my daughter’s Envirothon trophy—in part because of what it represents, and in part because I have been entrusted with keeping it safe while she is away at school.
The truth is, the older I get, the less sentimental I am about things. Sure, I have things that are special because of the people and the memories with which they are associated. But it’s ultimately the people and the memories that are important to me—not so much the thing itself.
I’ve been thinking about my attachments to things this week, because I let go the biggest thing I owned—my car.
I’ve never been one to anthropomorphize my cars by naming them, but this decision did feel in some ways like saying goodbye to an old friend. I bought the car new in 2003, and, over the 14 ½ years I drove it, accumulated a lot of memories.
That car carried me through a divorce and three house moves. It travelled east as far as Toronto, west as far as Lethbridge and south to Minneapolis. It started up reliably even when parked outside through a Winnipeg deep freeze and negotiated a lot of Friday night highway traffic in pursuit of summer weekends. It hauled tons of holiday groceries down the highway and up the gravel road to the boat landing. It ferried kids to many camps and home from many late-night parties. The back-seat upholstery is deeply infused with banana loaf and goldfish cracker crumbs. And the duct tape anchoring the side mirror to the door has withstood several winters.
I taught both kids to drive in that car—one of the single-parenting accomplishments of which I am most proud. The kids, in turn—both excellent drivers—have subsequently had the opportunity to acquire their own set of memories at the wheel of that car.
It is my eldest, in fact, who will have the dubious honor of remembering the smoking engine.
As I cleared out the crumpled roadmaps and dusty window scrapers in preparation for relinquishing my too-broken car, I found myself conjuring specific car memories. The time the tire blew and I was stranded on the Trans-Canada with my daughter and her friend. The time the garage door narrowly missed falling on the hood of the car. All the times I got stuck in the snow, and all the friends and strangers who helped me out. The cherished opportunities to get to know my children’s friends, because I was the mom who would drive.
The time we loaded it up with everything my youngest needed to embark on her first year in residence. How anxious I was about the prospect of driving it 2,000 km back all alone, and how thrilled I was to have done it. So thrilled that the next summer I drove off in the opposite direction on another solo road trip, just because now I knew I could.
But in the end a car is just a thing—and in this case, a thing no longer worth rescuing from the “fire.” Even my solo summer road trip was important more because of the people that were at the end of the journey than because of the car that took me there. On reflection, all of my most cherished car-memories are really about people—the people I was driving with, or away from, or towards.