Stepping out from the airport terminal in Fort Lauderdale, an unexpected wave of heat hits my face and reminds me I’m no longer in the North where this morning it was cold as winter. Unexpected because I’m a child of five, maybe seven-years-old, and it’s unimaginable to me that the temperature in one place is so different from another. I can see the gleaming white car sitting curbside waiting for me. Grandfather ushers me to the door and I climb in the backseat, feeling the instant icy cool of air conditioning and a smell I never knew before: leather seats. It is clean and bold and wonderful and I feel like a princess arriving in a foreign land. And off we go in Grandfather’s Cadillac.
That trip, maybe another, it’s four in the morning. I’m at the wheel of the Caddy driving in my grandfather’s lap to some place where we will get on a boat with some friends and go fishing. Half-asleep, but I’m excited to be driving. What kid wouldn’t be? People did things like that in those days. I’m glad they did.
Later years, I realize why all those Cadillacs. He was a salesman, a really good one, and he’d never drive another car. He told others in the family who thought of buying a Toyota, “You’ll be standing in the unemployment line in Japan.” I still have to think about what that means, couldn’t quite wrap my head around it then or now, but I reckon it’s something to do with buying American.
I arrive at the house and he hands me the keys. “You get to drive the Cadillac,” he says, and I get that it’s something of an honor. I start the engine and put it in gear, backing out slowly, proceeding down the street like I’ve got something fragile in the cargo. 2005 Cadillac Deville. It is smooth, I have to admit, and quiet, but like a boat compared to what I’m used to driving. Smells like leather, too, but old and used, not as luxurious as my early memory. Still, I drive in pride. It’s the Cadillac after all, and I know how much he loves it, the whole idea of it. So I love it, too.
Pulling into a parking lot he tells me to swing out to the left. I’m wondering if he doesn’t see the oncoming cars coming towards us on the left. I creep forward still in the right lane. “Turn it left, turn it left!” he gets short with me, and finally I realize he’s instructing me to go wide so I can angle myself into a parking spot on the right. By this time I’ve missed the spot and we have to go around again. “I told you to listen to me,” he’s still frustrated. I shoot back, politely explaining that he didn’t tell me what he was thinking so I couldn’t make sense of what he was asking. “I just need you to do what I tell you to do,” he says. And so, we come around again, and I do it just as he says. Turns out you do have to swing out wide to get this thing parked.
“I want you to have the car,” he calls me on the phone, tells me to come down to Florida and drive the car back home. “Okay,” I say. A million thoughts in my head about how I’m gonna do this, and what I’m going to do with the car, and though I don’t need a car—especially a 2005 Cadillac—I’ve somehow got to honor his request and just do it, because it’ll make him happy. “I’ll be down,” I say.
I book my flight. It’s good timing, I’m between jobs and I want to go see him anyway. It’s hard to talk on the phone. He can’t hear very well and sometimes his speech is jumbled. In person, we can be with each other and I can look him in the eye and know what he wants to say. My caller ID shows Grandfather is calling. “I’ve changed my mind,” he says. “Even though I can’t drive it anymore, I gave up my license, I just want to have it here so others can drive me places if I need it.” Between the lines, I understand it’s a psychological thing. At 92 years old, with little means of getting out and about, the car is this one vestige of his autonomy and ability to direct his own life. “Okay,” I say, “I’m coming down anyway.”
While I’m there he shares sweet memories of me coming to visit him as a child. I can see the softness in his face when he remembers things we did together. I wish I could remember everything he remembers about us. For now I’m happy to just be together after so many years in between visits. Now is our time—again. “When I’m gone, you take the car,” he says, as though I’ve forgotten about what I’m to do with the Cadillac. I’ve given up asking questions about transfer of ownership or anything I might need to plan for ahead of time. He is strong-willed, insistent. Just let it be, I tell myself. It’ll all play out eventually.
I’ve got the keys to the car now but the battery is dead and all the car is able to do is serve as a repository for my grandfather’s life. Three boxes of clothing in the backseat. A television. More boxes in the trunk filled with old shoes, papers galore, a couple of photo albums of people I don’t know, and thankfully, the little notebook of names of his brothers and sisters, his mother, father, grandparents, so I can continue to research the family.
I am momentarily sad thinking about how one’s life gets summed up in a bunch of boxes and a couple of paragraphs in the newspaper. So I write this, to add a few more lines to his legacy.
As for the Cadillac, I’ve left it behind. It’s not the same without him in it anyway.