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In Conversation, Cars Connect the Past and Present


My husband's father rarely remembers who I am exactly, but he always knows what kind of car I'm driving because he always asks. Whenever he and I find ourselves alone together in his Lakewood home, my father-in-law invariably peers affably at me through his glasses and asks, "So, what kind of car you driving?"

I answer him and Dick nods politely and says, "That's a real good car. I've heard that's a real good car. And you get good mileage?"

Dick was diagnosed with Alzheimer's in 1995. I have only known him as he is--a gentle, friendly man, still unmoored by the loss of his adored wife, Rose, five years ago. He lives, it seems to me, in a timeless state, in which years and decades shift forward and backward or disappear altogether in the space of an hour, a day.


He always knows his children, although sometimes he is clearly talking to earlier incarnations of them. He often thinks my husband still lives in San Francisco, does not remember that Richard moved back to L.A. 20 years ago.

He usually recognizes our son, perhaps because Danny Mac is the spitting image of his father, but Fiona Rose may have come too late. Although her grandfather is happy to hold her, he invariably asks whose child she is, which is hard for Richard to hear. Yet Dick is always gracious, to me, to the children, even when he has no idea who we are.

He has always been like that, my husband says. A bit distracted, but easy with strangers, good with small talk. Especially car talk. All of his life, Dick has loved cars, and in the borderless place he now finds himself, they remain a touchstone, something to chat about with these strangers.

He still looks for his last car, a 1968 Chevy Caprice that his other grandson now drives, mentioning now and again how much he misses being able to drive. "Makes you feel bad," he said to me once, gazing through the screen door to the empty driveway, "knowing you can't just go out, get a newspaper, or a pack of cigarettes if you wanted to."

No matter that the newspaper is delivered, or that he hasn't smoked in decades.

My husband and his father have never been particularly close--they are very different men, baffled for years by those differences. But they could always talk about cars. Now, my husband wishes he could talk to him about Danny and Fiona and what it's like to be a responsible husband, a family man. He wants Dick to see that, in the end, the son is more like the father than either had known.

Occasionally, there is a quiet moment of connection, quickly dissolving, like a reflection in still water shattered by a fallen leaf, a trailing branch.


Yet they can still talk about mileage and handling and how the Chevy station wagon compared to the Nash Rambler, how Richard's Honda compares to the other cars he has had. When we got our station wagon, Richard could hardly wait to show Dick. With Danny Mac sleeping in the back and Fiona still nestled in my belly, we drove Dick around his neighborhood while Richard showed off the sun roof, the stereo, the quick acceleration.

Dick was polite, but distracted; it was a bad day, and several times he said he had to get back to the house because Rose would be wondering where he had got to. So we took him home, Richard's face quietly working against disappointment.

Helping his father into the house, Richard asked, "So, Dad, what do you think?"

Dick paused and turned around. He looked at the car, at Danny still asleep in the back, at me and my swelling stomach standing beside it. Then he turned to Richard and for a moment he was with us, on that day, in that year, and he was smiling at his son, the family man. "That's quite a car," he said proudly. "You're doing pretty good for yourself."


Mary McNamara can be reached at

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