When my grandfather died, I was a very tiny baby. In the last picture ever taken of him, he is pale and thin, sitting in a stuffed armchair, holding the two-week-old me. No one was aware of it at the time, but the vehicle that would one day become my first car was in the garage outside.
When her husband first became ill, my grandmother didn’t know how to drive. My grandfather persuaded her to take lessons so that she could get herself around after he was gone. In the same year that I was born and he died, he bought his soon-to-be widow the biggest, safest car that he could find, the landlubber’s answer to a battlecruiser: the 1970 Plymouth Fury III. It was 18 feet long, with a 10-foot wheelbase, and avocado green inside and out.
The 1970 Plymouth sales brochure shows a man standing alongside this car in a ridiculously tall hat. Forget a 10-gallon hat; this is a 20- or 30-gallon hat. The text underneath the picture says,
Having a big car just to have a big car is ridiculous. But when a big car means more comfort and convenience, then you’ve got something — like Plymouth’s Fury III…Without a doubt, our Fury III is a big car. But more importantly –in the right places, for the right reasons…
In this case, the right reasons were to keep my grandmother from dying on the highway on the three-hour drive between her house and my parents’ place. This automobile was huge and strong. It would have taken a truly massive blow to the Fury’s chassis for any twisted metal to reach my grandmother’s delicate frame. When she was behind the wheel, she had about as much elbow and leg room as she enjoyed in her own sitting room, and that feature made my grandfather feel a whole lot better about having to die and leave her.
So when I was young, the Fury was her car, and I associated it with fun stuff like excursions to the McDonald’s that was in a train boxcar, and the greenhouses where they grew the roses pictured on the ‘Welcome to Richmond!’ signs, and the public park where two mangy captive buffalo lived. I also associated it with visits to our house from my grandmother, who bought us sweetened cereal and fixed us liverwurst sandwiches — she called it ‘Braunschweiger’ — that…