We drive slowly through the tree-lined neighborhood and I point out landmarks.
“This is where grandpa grew up. He lived there with his 11 brothers and sisters,” I explain, pausing the car. We take in the large, rambling house with its wide, wraparound porch from another era. I tell some of my favorite stories, often repeated over the years, about pranks and games they played and funny anecdotes, always including the one where they put comic pages in the chicken coop so the hens wouldn’t get bored while laying eggs. My dad squints at the house, tilting his head as if trying to physically force the memory.
We drive down the street and stop in front of a smaller, tidy house. “This is your old house. The second window on the left was your room,” I say. And again I narrate bits of my father’s childhood back to him. We’ve been making these trips to his two hometowns for the past four years. Every year, he remembers less.
Always sentimental, he loved taking me on these outings when I was younger and proudly showing off his past. I rolled my eyes as a teenager when he knocked on the doors of his old houses. Now with Parkinson’s dementia settling in, his school years have remained the most vivid, and so I started driving him through the old neighborhoods. Today these trips not only link us both to our past, but remind me of my dad as he used to be: charming, funny and a natural storyteller.
When I started taking him on these drives, I hoped to connect with my dad on my terms, to finally get his memories of my childhood and who he was back then. But he is rooted in his younger years now and I try to meet him there.
In the passenger seat, my dad clings to every word, as if he’s hearing them for the first time. Which, of course, he is. That’s the thing with his dementia, everything is new and exciting to him. He gazes in amazement at the house he lived in for 15 years and presses me for details. I make him into the hero who started a baseball league. I point out his best friend’s house and talk about his grade-school girlfriend, whose books he used to carry home. And sometimes he surprises me. His memory of the time he fell in the ice after skipping church remains as vivid as if it were yesterday. Except that yesterday isn’t vivid for him at all.
These trips have given me a peek into my grandparents’ lives as well. Like most kids, I didn’t ask enough about their past when they were alive. I have relics of my grandmother’s life—fine linens for bridge parties, tiny salt urns with miniature spoons, a wide assortment of silver serving pieces—and I’ve often wondered what she was like when she was my age, living such a different life.
I ask my dad how they celebrated Christmas or what he wore to school. On good days he’ll tell me about spying on his mother’s cocktail parties or hiding bags of dirt in his closet to even out his baseball fields. On bad days he gets frustrated with his rusty brain. Mostly he is just amazed. “How do you know all this?!” he exclaims when I point out the church where he went every week.
I’ve started taking advantage of his good days. If he mentions a name or a place, I’ll jot it down for next time. “Dad, this is the football field, the very field, where Bob Coates threw three touchdowns in one day. The crowd stood over there and cheered.”
He leans out the window, studying the field, and then, as if his brain were a camera trying to focus, he zooms in on the memory. “Man, what a day! I was standing right there,” he says, pointing. “Nobody had ever seen anything like it.”
He beams and chokes up at the thought of it, so long ago, and yet in his fragile memory, so fresh. I stare out the window as well, seeing my young dad cheer on his buddy while across town my grandmother sets the table for a bridge party. For a brief moment he is happy and healthy again—and I’m reluctant to put the car into drive.
Cars. They’re a microcosm of family life. A four-doored home on wheels. And, as this series of essays reveals, a little magical. Cars provide a window to the past and the future. They can shift gears to make you feel 20 years younger or add a touch of gray. They can wipe away emotional scars, bring us closer together or transport us somewhere else. We asked writers to take a look in their rearview mirror and recall a car ride that impacted the way they look at life, love and the pursuit of happiness.
Amann is an award-winning writer who has written articles for The Chicago Sun-Times, Salon.com and Brain, Child.