A Car Passed Down, A Father Pays it Forward

by Blair Thornburgh

I’d been sitting the waiting area of the Somewhere Upstate, N.Y. Volvo dealership for almost an hour, watching the Weather Channel on repeat and awaiting the diagnosis on my car, when I remembered I should call my dad. Because technically, as far as the actual registration goes, it is his car.

“Nobody is telling me what’s wrong and I still have another five hours to drive and the car is probably toast and I’m never going to get home,” I said as soon as he picked up.

“These things take time to figure out,” my dad said, the kind of reassuring words that only dads can conjure. “They’re gonna have to run through all the codes and see what’s going on. Where are you?”

The HD screen zapped back to Local on the 8s, and I triangulated my position from the compass rose of cartoon suns and dots on the map.

“Albany?” It seemed right. “Far away. And I’m really, really hungry.” This had nothing to do with the car, but a lot to do with my feelings of desperation, and was made worse by the fact that the last screen on my iPhone before I dialed him was a maps search for “Chipotle” and now all I could think about was eating my weight in guacamole.

“Remember what I told you about when I was 23 and driving to Chicago? The water pump blew, I had to stay overnight and spend money I didn’t have.”


“So, you’re fine. We will pay for this. This is not the end of the world.”

My parents gave me a car, but it’s not like that. Really.

A month before my senior year of college, I talked my parents into a bargain: If I applied for and got a scholarship for choral singers, they would let me “spend” the $2,000 on their spare car and take it to Chicago with me.

But “spare car” is actually kind of misleading. My family has never been poor, but we also don’t have things like automobiles just lying around for the taking. With my sister and I both in college and the era of station wagons was finally at an end, the family fleet of vehicles consisted of a second-hand Mini Cooper (midlife-crisis-mobile #1), a Volkswagon Westfalia campervan, complete with pop-up mattress, refrigerator and two-burner stove (midlife-crisis-mobile #2), and a 1992 Volvo 240 sedan. The 240 was intended to be a learner car for my 19-year-old sister to drive in, since the Mini is a stick shift and the Westy is about as easy to handle as the Mystery Machine. But she left for another year at Vassar without a license, and the empty nest was now too full of cars.

The scholarship bargain ended up being a non-issue, since my sightreading sucked and I didn’t get picked for the prize. But my parents, for whatever reason, decided I could still have the car if I paid them $50 a month and covered gas myself. They would still pay for insurance and AAA. It was way cheaper than Zipcar, and a way better deal than I deserved, so I took it. Two weeks later, I was cruising back to Chicago in “my” “new” car.

The thing about car problems is that they always happen when you need to go somewhere, and in the year that followed, I would call AAA five times. The first time, I twisted the key to find the car utterly, totally, stone-dead when I needed to get to the airport to go to a wedding (and also had to drive afriend who needed to get to the airport to get to a funeral). We took a cab, and upon my return two days later, AAA installed a new battery and told me to turn off my lights when I parked. My parents covered it.

The second time I called AAA was from the parking lot of a Medieval Times restaurant in Schaumburg, Ill., almost an hour away from where I lived. It was my twenty-second birthday party, my designated driver snapped off the 240’s key right in the lock, and the castle was closing. I was a little drunk, a little hysterical, and wearing a paper crown in a downpour. Towing was included, and my parents told me not to worry and FedEx-ed me the spare key.

The third time, a damp March morning, the 240 wheezed and sputtered and refused to start when I was already late to volunteer at the Farmers’ Market. Naturally, after my shift had come and gone and the AAA guy finally arrived, the car started just fine for him. When I brought it home, my dad bought it a new alternator so that it would start in the rain again.

The fourth and final time was a week ago, in the parking lot of Supermarché PA in downtown Montreal, where I now live. The car wasn’t starting and the AAA number wasn’t working and the sign on the wall said 45 MINUTE MAX. I bargained with the scrawny attendant and some nice Canadian interrupted my hyperventilation to give my the number for Canadian AAA (AKA CAA). I burned up long-distance minutes to get a tow truck and call my dad, who told me not to worry for maybe the ten millionth time in my life. The tow-truck driver, in violation of what I think is the law in Quebec, did not speak English. And even though I do talk pretty one day and am often mistaken in Francophone countries for a native speaker (though they always think I’m Belgian?), I know all of no car-related vocabulary.

“It’s not lighting up,” I explained. “I use the key and the little fireworks go on inside behind the roll but then the motor, he? she? is dead. I think it’s because there is something that should be dry inside but now is not dry.”

The following week I was going to have to drive the car back to Philadelphia. I imagined a terrible five days of pidgin negotiations over repairs, wondering what the French word for “alternator” was and if the repairs were going to max out the limit on my student credit card and if I could live with myself if I had to beg my parents for more money for this stupid thing that I thought I was adult enough to bring with me to a foreign country and maintain like an actual, post-graduation grownup.

The car started just fine for the CAA guy, of course. I said thank you, in French, and then swore a blue streak, also in French, which earned me two nods of appreciation as he handed me a pen to sign his clipboard.

A week later, I hit the road for home. A week and two hours later, somewhere in the middle of New York state, the “Check Engine” light flared up.

In a world of half-dome Priuses and perky-faced Jettas, the 240’s boxy snout and ginormous trunk make it stick out, literally and figuratively. It’s not sexy. It’s not cool. You’ll never see it topped with a jumbo-sized ribbon and rolling up to a Super Sweet Sixteen. My fellow 22-year-olds who save up their own money for used cars would probably choose something that’s more appreciably younger than we are.

But people love it — I’ve had everyone from customs officials to ambulance drivers to a French-Canadian hippie couple whose yurt I was renting fuss over how groovy it is — and I love it, too, but for different reasons.

A car is freedom and responsibility indivisibly bound into a single, expensive object. The ability to tool around Chicago for a school year’s worth of weekends, the option to take a day trip to go apple-picking out in the sticks, the feeling of self-reliance that comes from driving yourself eight hours into a foreign country to live by yourself: These are invaluable and priceless, and not just because I didn’t have to pay for them. Every AAA call was another lesson in crisis management, another toddling step towards adulthood, another chance to internalize the sound of my dad saying “It will be okay” because one day I will have to pay for my own car, talk myself through every breakdown and fender-bender and miss my parents like crazy.

At my grandfather’s 80th birthday party this summer, my dad read a letter that he wrote home after he got his water pump fixed and made it to Chicago for his first job after college. The letter thanked his mom and dad for the support and the money they’d given him, for the car they had bought him, and told them he wouldn’t forget it.

“One day, I hope to do this for my own kids,” he read.

By the time the cake came out, I was crying.

The repair bill for the engine was $168. The burrito and chips were $14. The tank of gas was $51. I got home 11 hours after I started. My dad said he would cover everything, then gave me a hug and a promise I could sleep in the next day before we got back in the Volvo to drive another three out to meet my mom for her mother’s funeral.

I’ve developed an automatic kind of guilt about the things my parents buy me, whether it’s a food processor for Christmas or 17 straight years of private education. Their governing philosophy has always been that their parents did it for them and I’ll do it for my kids, but I know how much writers (don’t) make and I worry that I’ll never be able to equal them in their generosity.

I still owe them $1250 in installments for the 240, but I will pay it off. They gave me a good deal because they knew I would learn to appreciate not just the car but them; not just as my parents, but as someone else’s children.

Blair Thornburgh lives in The North.

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