--Neil Young, "Long May You Run", 1976
After all, it’s only a car, right? A machine. A ride. Transportation to get from point A to point B. A collection of moving mechanical parts with no personality, no soul, no life. Who would actually fall in love with an automobile, and then when it expires, when it goes to the big salvage yard in the sky and takes one last road trip; who would be sad about the end of a relationship between a vehicle and a person? Me.
Last week my sky blue 2003 Toyota Matrix station wagon died. It kicked the bucket, or actually the oil can, was a victim of this harsh winter and plain old age. One day this coming week a tow truck operator named Chuck will hoist her up, then haul her away, never to be seen again, at least not by my eyes. After 182,436 miles of driving, my companion for these past eleven years and ten months (4,235 days to be exact), my little Matrix…it is finis.
No: she wasn’t a fancy car, a muscle car, a collector’s item, or a sleek ultra luxury import sedan that turned heads or elicited sighs of envy from fellow drivers. One relative called it “the clown car”. It was kind of frumpy in its own singular way, frugal on gas, basic in design, a utilitarian ride that started up almost every single time I put the key in the ignition, the first new car I ever bought. At the end of life it certainly showed its age. There was a missing hub cap lost somewhere in the snows of 2013. A CD player and tape deck long since broken. A cracked rear tail light. A back bumper held in place by grey duct tape. Eighteen peeling bumper stickers plastered to the hatchback. Everybody in my small town knew when John’s car was coming or going.
But man, I loved that car. Even though it was a “thing”, an inanimate object, it somehow helped mark the passage of my life, contained the accumulation of so many days and so many memories. Daily, the car reminded me of where I’d journeyed and how fast time does go by. The sunny April day I picked her up at the dealership in 2003, the Red Sox had yet to win a championship in the modern era. A guy named Bush was in the White House and we’d just invaded Iraq. My now young adult all grown up nieces were then still in grammar school and my Dad was still alive too.
Cleaning out the car one last time was bittersweet. I found an old movie stub from a first date in a darkened movie theater years ago that I had with…well…I can’t remember her name anymore. There was a worn set of Mardi gras beads wrapped around the stick shift. I picked those up in New Orleans right after Hurricane Katrina. I’ll save them. I found a hospital parking pass I’d used in visits to a parishioner, whose hands I held in prayer, who is now gone from the earth. My long lost Leatherman multi-tool was buried under the front seat. So that’s where it went!
Found objects all: each in its own ways telling a story, my story, life’s story.
Stories of late night summer road trips, the windows down, a baseball game on the radio, freedom on an open road in a moonlight kissed landscape. Stories of cross country sabbatical road trips all the way to Minnesota, so excited to go away, then reluctant to come back home. Stories of time with my Goddaughter Chloe, snug and safe in the backseat, singing at the top of her lungs, her blue eyes smiling at me in the rear view mirror on the drive to the Dunkin Donuts for a hot chocolate.
There is something that is so real, so tangible about the objects, the things of this life that we claim as our own and which also claim us, like my car. It’s tempting to think that all of our “stuff” is not that important, is the mere flotsam of living. That things are finally fleeting, disposable, forgettable. But we humans are both spiritual and material. Ethereal and tangible. We live in our heads and thoughts, but we also live in this real world. Real. We touch. We hold. We grasp. Our senses nail us to the earth and all that is within it and so real things do embody for us real and deeper meaning. These objects are like spiritual totems, physical containers of a life, like my ancient automobile. Like Grandpa’s pocket watch, worn down and smooth from so many years of timekeeping. It now tells us the time. Like a favorite childhood book we still cherish, its pages frayed and faded, the scrawl of our childish signature on the inside cover. Like the wedding ring passed down from mother to daughter and then to her daughter too. Maybe things do matter.
So farewell Matrix. You were a good friend: loyal, true and faithful. Within your embrace I lived a lot of life, a lot of a good life. You were metal and plastic and rubber and yet you were also much more than that. You were real.
Long may you run.