by Sarah Haufrect
The Culver City Car Show rolls into my neighborhood every year. I live off the main drag, Washington Boulevard, which becomes a closed parking lot for the event. Hundreds of vehicles move into predetermined diagonals where they will remain for the day, basking in the sunshine. Most people come to see the classic cars: Mustangs, Thunderbirds, and Studebakers looking as new and shiny as the day they were built. I come to see the car people. There’s no pride like that of a collector showing off a prized possession, a joy of ownership that falls perfectly between the parental and the material.
At last year’s event, I eavesdropped on the owner of a 1953 Buick Skylark.
“This car can reach an extending longevity point,” he said to a family of three admiring the Skylark. “Every car has an expected lifespan, but once a car surpasses it, the car’s lifespan extends rather than decreases.”
Listening to the man’s description, it occurred to me that my grandmother, Nana, could conceivably be part Buick. Creeping closer to the one hundred-year mark, she still climbed the steep staircase in her home and could touch the tips of her fingers down to her toes with unbent knees. Her company wasn’t always enjoyable, Nana being the terse, stubborn, and bulldog-like woman that she was, but I admired how she just kept on living. Much like this car, the longer Nana kept going, the longer I expected her to keep going.
“It’s a beautiful piece of machinery,” the father said, pulling out his cell phone and taking a picture of the Skylark. The mother was only half-listening, too busy prying her toddler daughter off the side of the car to listen. The little girl was trying to scale the wheels, stepping up on the rubber and reaching under the rim.
Having successfully peeled the toddler’s tiny hands off the car’s hubcap, the family moved past the Skylark to the next car on display. The woman held her daughter’s fingers tightly, instinctively protective of the little girl wobbling alongside her. A pang rose up in my chest, thinking of my mom. Grief had a way of turning up unexpectedly like this. I didn’t know what it was like to be this mother in front of me, or a mother who’d lost a child like the ones in the survivors of suicide support groups I attended, or a mother at all. I certainly didn’t know what it was like to suffer the way Nana had, even though we’d both lost the same person.
My mother took her own life in 2015, shortly after she turned sixty, and three months shy of Nana’s ninetieth birthday. Nana cried eventually, grieved, but never without anger. I had been the last family member to see my mother alive, and because of that, Nana’s pain held me accountable. She asked me questions like, “What did I miss?” and “Why did she do it?” and my speculations were never enough. That day at the car show I was reminded Nana would never hold her daughter’s hand again. I would never hold my mother’s hand again.
When I got home, I booked a plane ticket to visit on Nana’s next birthday. She was turning ninety-two.
Nana has lived in the same house on the same quiet cul-de-sac of Silicon Valley since the 1960s. Aside from my sister’s brief summer stay during college and a year housing my mother in the upstairs bedroom after her bankruptcy and second divorce, Nana has lived alone for over thirty-five years, basically my entire life. She retired from a long career in the accounting department of Lockheed Martin before I even had a driver’s license. She always talked about how much she loved to drive, especially down along the coast from Palo Alto to Los Angeles, but my parents never wanted me in the car when she was the one driving. It wasn’t until well into adulthood that I noticed her steady bourbon habit, how it mimicked the way my mother effortlessly emptied a bottle of white wine every evening. They both kept hefty piles of ice cubes in their glasses and, when the liquid was still well above empty, would refill them little by little throughout the night, so it never appeared like much had been drunk, and there never appeared to be an eminent need to refill them.
“Don’t let her pick you up from the airport,” my sister, Maggie, warned. She was trying to prepare me for the trip as best she could. “Nana keeps a blue Sharpie in her car and colors in all the dents she makes driving.”
“I already rented a car,” I reassured her.
Maggie tasked me with a mission for the trip: to figure out if Nana was physically able to travel to Seattle for her wedding. “You can’t die before I get married,” Maggie said.
I was grateful that my sister and I had finally reached a point where death could be mentioned with a certain lightness; that was not the case for some time.
“I’ll be fine,” I said. “It’s only one night.”
I called Nana when I landed safely in San Jose around noon. “I just got back from a free Church dinner,” she said. “There was too much food. I’m going to take a nap. Don’t knock. Just come in, and feel free to sit outside and fix yourself a drink.”
I arrived and parked next to Nana’s blue Prius, her second one. Several years ago she crashed her first Prius into a street lamp and totaled it. I set down my backpack in the downstairs guest room, filled to the brim with unmarked banker boxes. There was a small path to the twin-sized bed, and I could hear Nana snoring in her bedroom across the hall with the door closed. I tiptoed back to the living room, hoping not to wake her. Then I opened the sliding glass door to the backyard and sat outside, as she’d suggested, to enjoy the October sunshine in Nana’s garden. I did not fix myself a drink. Around 4:30 p.m. I heard the familiar shuffle of Nana’s footsteps across the cork floor. She appeared in her dressing gown, carrying her wrinkles and folds in a stately manner, and hugged me hello. We walked back inside and she proceeded to show me all of her progress cleaning the house. I suspected she did this because no progress was visible to the naked eye.
“See,” she said. “I’ve got little notes here for you and Kate so you know who gets what.”
By Kate, she meant my sister, Maggie. I tried to correct her gently.
“This is really helpful, Nana. I know Maggie is excited to see you at the wedding.”
“I don’t understand why they aren’t having a church wedding.” She shook her head sternly. “If her fiancé is from a big Italian family, they must be Catholic.” She stopped shuffling papers abruptly and turned around to look directly at me. I worried she was going to ask me a question I didn’t want to answer like whether my sister was a virgin or why it took me so long to visit my Nana.
“You’re so thin now, except for those eyebrows. You must do something about those eyebrows, Kate, I mean, Sarah.”
I could have told her that honesty isn’t always kindness. I could have asked her if she criticized her daughter for small things the way she criticized her granddaughters. But I kept my mouth shut. Kindness isn’t always honesty either, and I didn’t have the heart to plant any seeds of self-reflection in my ninety-two-year-old grandmother that might lead her to feel blame. That type of candor seemed pointless. It was certainly too late to save her daughter, my mother, from stepping in front of a train.
“Look!” Nana said, pointing toward the sunroom. Next to the lemon tree was a hummingbird, stilled in constant motion, before zipping away. “Hi, humma humma humma.”
We sat outside sipping drinks Nana fixed for us, watching the afternoon sky turn rusty. Sometimes Nana hummed to a birdless yard. There was nothing to do but wait for more hummingbirds. When my cup was half-empty, I topped them both off, hers with bourbon and soda, mine with white wine, returning to find Nana standing in the middle of the garden, looking up at the sky.
“See that one? It’s turning, so it must be heading to S.F.O. They never turn that way towards Oakland.”
I looked up and saw the blinking light, barely visible in the skyline.The white blur of an airplane.
“I think I’d like to go for a walk at Shoreline tomorrow if you brought good shoes,” she said. “I used to go all the time, but all my walking friends are dead now.”
“I brought my running shoes.”
“Well, then you might keep up with me.” Her words slipped out at the edge of a smile. “I’ll drive us,” she said.
After more bourbon and bird watching, a stint in front of the TV watching the news, and when that got too troubling, the Weather Channel, Nana announced her bedtime abruptly around 7:00 p.m. and sloshed her way down the hall. I poured the icy, watery wine in my cup down the sink and poked around her kitchen. Nana’s refrigerator looked as old as she did, and so did the food inside it. I skipped dinner and was grateful I brought snacks in my bag.
With the rest of the evening to myself, I checked emails with my phone because Nana didn’t have Wi-Fi. I typed extending longevity point into my phone’s search engine, but the results yielded nothing. I tried adding extra words like in cars, in old cars, and in people, but came up empty-handed. After that, I evened out the frames hanging crookedly on the hallway walls, encasing photos of our family long before I was a part of it: black and white images of unwrinkled Nana, photos of my mother as a wide-eyed child long before I looked anything like her, or acted anything like her, or worried I might be like her, or consoled myself that most daughters thought about their mothers with this fear from time to time.
Under this roof, where my mom spent her formative years, I thought back on the stories my mom told me about her childhood. I could only think of two. She’d told me that when her parents were asleep downstairs or drinking and fighting late into the evenings, my mom would sneak out through her upstairs bedroom window, climb down the tree in the front yard, and ride her bike to the nearby convenience store to buy Its-It ice cream bars. The other story she told was that she grew up with a tail like a Siamese cat, but that it broke off one cold winter day when she was walking to school. She told that one the most. This was how I remembered my mother, crafting stories about her personal history with the help of imagination or denial or alcohol, knitting together truth and fiction like patchwork.
Even in death, truth and fiction were blurred by my mother. There were so many things I’d never know. I tried reconstructing the facts from receipts I scrounged from her abandoned car. I sought information on her exact whereabouts from people she’d seen or spoken to in her final days. Even then, I could only piece so much together. The end of her life would always be a story based on things I knew, like when the sheriff explained to me that, no, there would be no autopsy performed because there wasn’t enough left of my mother’s body to perform one.
Before I went to sleep, I compared the photos of my mom on the walls in Nana’s house to the last photos I had of her on my phone: the one we took while walking down Olvera Street on Mother’s Day, the one we took sitting outside on my patio a week before her death. My mother had always looked full of life, her vivid blue eyes and her wide, warm smile. People said she died before her time. But I’m not sure if she was built to last.
I texted my sister in the morning: Nana is driving us to Shoreline. Pray for me.
While Nana searched her purse for the car keys, I discreetly snapped pictures with my phone of the various scratches and dents on the front and back bumper drawn over with blue ink, just like Maggie had predicted. When Nana put the car in reverse, I held my breath as she backed out of the driveway, my fingers gripped tightly around the handrest on the passenger-side door. She navigated easily around my rental car, however, pulling out onto the main drag, El Camino Real.
“I’ve been thinking about what to get your sister and her fiancé for their wedding,” she said, driving across the 101 overpass. “Do you think they would appreciate two thousand dollars?”
“Absolutely! That’s incredibly generous.”
“I have a C.D. coming due, and I know they are concerned about money. They’re very responsible, aren’t they?”
“Yes, they’re working hard to pay Maggie’s student loans. Very responsible.”
“Loans? I don’t use credit cards. My house is paid off.”
“It’s so generous of you. They will really appreciate it.”
“I think I’ll give them one thousand dollars.”
Aside from some trouble with a left-hand turn lane, we arrived in twelve minutes without incident. I texted my sister when Nana turned the car off: We survived.
I didn’t tell my sister about the wedding gift conversation.
Nana and I started walking on the trail loop around Shoreline Park. To one side, families in a man-made lake were enjoying paddleboats, and to the other side were the marshlands and the San Francisco Bay that leads out to sea.
“Can I arrange your flights and hotel so you can be at Maggie’s wedding?” I asked as we walked side by side. “We can fly there together.”
Nana was quiet as if I hadn’t said anything. Then she said, “I knew my marriage was going to be a bad marriage.”
“How did you know?” I asked. My own marriage had ended after five years. My sister was about to start her own. Was everything that ended early necessarily bad?
Nana didn’t answer, waddling away toward some tall brush. I wondered if she heard my question, or if the answer had been paved over by too many years living in spite of its ominous repercussions. The wind was picking up and she stood ten feet away, planted firmly, staring out at the water. Maybe answers weren’t all that important. Maybe the ability to keep going without them was what mattered the most.
“I must do this more often,” Nana called out to me, breathing heavily. “I went farther than I thought I could.”
Maybe Nana would make it to my sister’s wedding, and maybe she wouldn’t. Maybe she’d live another five years and maybe not. It didn’t seem to concern her. I tried not to let it concern me. I’d been searching for proof of the extending longevity point on the internet and in cars and in Nana, wishing for proof of my own resilience. But there was meaning to be found in its absence, which is how it works sometimes with people too. We slowly headed back to the car, and Nana drove us home. She didn’t miss a single stop sign.
Published May 26th, 2019
Sarah Haufrect is an MFA Writing candidate at Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles, where she is at work on a novel. She has written for Salon, Psychology Today and Documentary magazine, among others. You can find her on twitter @smartypants_inc and on Instagram @shaufrect. More at www.SarahHaufrect.com.
Ray K. Metzker (10 September 1931 – 9 October 2014) was an American photographer known chiefly for his bold, experimental B&W cityscapes and for his large "composites", assemblages of printed film strips and single frames. His work is held in various major public collections and is the subject of eight monographs. He received awards from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, National Endowment for the Arts and Royal Photographic Society.