Things

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.

car
It had more hubcaps when I bought it.

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.

 

 

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Don’t Crack Up

 

“Now listen to me.”

And listen we did. Mom rarely used such a stern tone, and the fierce expression that had suddenly replaced her normally placid demeanor left no question in my thirteen-year-old mind that we were about to be told something of the utmost importance.

“Your father has been awake for thirty-six hours. He has to navigate unfamiliar streets.  And he will be driving on the wrong side of the road. It is absolutely imperative that you not distract him. ” She thrust a box of animal crackers into my hand. “Share those with your sister. And remember, not a peep out of either one of you.”

I scurried into the back seat of the rental car next to my nine-year old sister, making sure to establish a respectable argument-preventing distance between us. Silently, I offered her an animal cracker. Silently, she helped herself to a handful.

Up front, my father was combatting sleep deprivation with a cigarette and meticulously unfolding the road map that would guide our journey away from Heathrow Airport and south to our destination in Dorset.

We set out, my sister and I each with our noses pressed to our respective windows, drinking in the sights of our first overseas adventure and fascinated by the backwards traffic and the unfamiliar roundabouts.

My mother, apparently confident that she had successfully threatened us into being seen-but-not-heard, visibly relaxed. As the only one of our party of four who had set foot on British soil previously, she quickly settled into Tour Guide mode when she spotted the first official Point of Interest.

“Look girls! Out that side. That’s that back gate to Hampton Court!” Since she was apparently exempt from her own Thou-Shalt-Not-Speak edict, she proceeded to regale us with a condensed history of Hampton Court and its significance in the history of British royalty.

Look-- History!
Look– History!

The history lesson was interrupted briefly for a second Point of Interest—“Oh look, there’s the front gate of Hampton Court!”—and on she chattered.

Clearly we were making good progress towards our destination. At least it seemed so until, a little less cheerily, Mom ventured the observation, “Oh look, I think that’s the back gate of Hampton Court again.”

It was all I could do to suppress a giggle. I glanced over at my sister who looked similarly afflicted. Hastily I doled out more animal crackers in self defense.

Dad drove on for another ten or fifteen minutes, now without the backdrop of Mom’s historical commentary. Finally my mom broke the silence, with a catch in her voice that sounded suspiciously like suppressed laughter. “And…there’s the front gate of Hampton Court…again.”

In the back seat I came perilously close to choking to death on a mouthful of animal crackers. My sister wasn’t faring much better, and Mom managed to compose herself enough to glance back and shoot us a warning with her eyes.

I knew if I made eye contact with my sister we would both be doomed, so I firmly looked out the window and thrust the cracker box blindly in her direction.

Dad was not finding the situation quite so amusing, but he did acquiesce to Mom’s gentle suggestion that it might be time to ask for directions. He pulled into a service station, hauled out the map, and asked the young man working the pumps for assistance.

The young man working the pumps enthusiastically advised my father to go “straight down that road”—a directive that was repeated loudly multiple times, accompanied by great showers of spittle and wild hand gestures. There was, to our prairie-trained eyes, nothing “straight” about said road. Truthfully there is nothing “straight” about any road that wends its way about the British countryside. Nevertheless, after determining with some confidence which road our rescuer was indicating, Dad proceeded down it, as straight as the road would allow, only to discover that all we would find “straight down that road” was the local police station where, it was presumed, we would be able to get some real directions.

With the aid of the local constabulary we were finally able to get our journey properly under way. That was a relief to the occupants of the back-seat. We were running way too low on animal crackers to make it through another wrong turn.