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Fri June 21, 2013
The Battered Old Car That Drove My Father's American Dream
Originally published on Sun June 16, 2013 4:42 pm
Sometime in 1975, in the first few months after my family moved from Athens, Greece, to Rapid City, S.D., my father bought a junky, gigantic gold Oldsmobile that cost $200.
My sister and I called the car Old Goldie, a name meant to evoke a tough old broad with a glamorous past. My father loved her. It was behind her oversized wheel that he learned — at 40 — to drive.
The South Dakotan who taught his adult driver's education class assumed my father rode a donkey back in Greece, and saw Old Goldie as a symbol of the American Dream. Though my father hated donkeys, he agreed with symbolism. The deed to the car and a driver's license signaled his entrance to a club for trainee Americans.
For the next seven years, Old Goldie ferried our family to Piggly Wiggly for groceries, to Kmart for my miniature polyester bell-bottoms, and to a park called Storybook Island, where my sister and I would hug statues of Snow White and the seven dwarfs.
But Old Goldie was hard to love. Her radio played static. She stank like moldy old clothes. She was oven-hot in the summer and blizzard-cold in the winter. She took forever to start.
One cold evening, when it was time for my father to go to work as a night auditor at the Holiday Inn, he put on his puffy blue coat and insulated boots, and trundled out in the knee-length snow. It seemed like he was in the car forever, turning the key again and again.
I watched from our iced-up living room window. I could hear the clock ticking, and I got scared that my dad would get stressed. He had been born with a heart defect, orphaned at three and raised in poverty. When he finally saw a doctor at 18, he was given one year to live. I would hug him, pressing my face against his chest, and hear the uneven beat of that damaged heart on borrowed time. At night, when I should have been sleeping, I would tiptoe into my parents' room and hold my hand above his mouth to make sure he was still breathing.
That mean Old Goldie, I thought as I watched from the window. Making him late for work, making his heart beat too fast.
I put on my silver-and-red moon boots, crunched through the snow and rapped on his window.
"She's a stupid car," I said. "I hate her."
He opened his door and lifted me to the passenger seat.
"She is what we have right now," he said. "Now be nice to her, or she's going to get mad."
My father knew my disdain for Old Goldie was more than skin deep. She was not just a troublesome old car. She symbolized our uncomfortable new life in the United States. When we first got her, I was in kindergarten speaking broken English and being bullied at recess. My mother was so homesick, her hair was falling out.
I tried a few times to walk back to Greece, where I figured Old Goldie and her bad vibes could never find us. My father usually caught me before I got too far, but one day, I slipped out when he was napping after a long night shift.
It was dark when he finally pulled up in Old Goldie. I was walking along a busy street filled with neon signs for fast food and cheap motels, clasping a Wonder Woman lunchbox filled with Ritz crackers.
"Where are you going, little goat?" he said, looking the saddest I'd ever seen him.
"I'm going home," I said sternly, before bursting into tears.
My dad opened Old Goldie's door, and I got in. We drove in silence.
That night, when I got up to check on his breathing, I saw only my mom in their bed. My dad was in the living room, sitting in his favorite recliner, where he liked to watch Hawaii Five-O with my sister and me. He was staring into space, as if he was lost. Was his heart beating too fast? I never ran away or insulted Old Goldie again.
A few years later, our family traded Old Goldie for a giant chocolate-brown station wagon that would take us to our new home in Williston, N.D., My dad had gotten a good job in hotel management at the height of the 1980s oil boom. He sold Old Goldie for $100 to a young couple who had seen the "For Sale" sign taped to her back window. We never saw her again.
I had not thought about Old Goldie for years until I recently found a blurry old photograph of our family standing next to her.
My father died in 1989, just three weeks shy of his 53rd birthday. I realize now how much hope he had invested in those first years in the United States. He wore suits to his job at the Holiday Inn and drove Old Goldie with a quiet confidence that, through work and patience, he would make a good life for us in the American prairie. He washed and waxed that aging, beat-up car, vacuumed her tattered carpets, even hung a Byzantine charm on the rearview mirror. He loved her because he loved us.
I look at that photograph, our young immigrant family next to our aging American car, and I remember that long-ago winter evening when my father was trying to teach me about patience and pride. As my father turned the key, he sang a Greek folk song. I don't remember the words, but I remember how much it calmed me and how Old Goldie soon started, as if she, too, was charmed by his serenade. My dad kissed my forehead, and I hopped out, waving as he drove away. Snowflakes fell from the darkening sky. I imagine that in the last light of the day, Old Goldie might have almost looked beautiful.