How do you bury a car? What is a fitting farewell? As I asked myself these questions this past winter after my trusty little van’s sad breakdown, I remembered having to decide 15 years earlier about the 19-foot caravan we had lived in for a year before we had a house. Get rid of it was the obvious step. In Spanish, the phrase is the reflexive deshacerse de ello, meaning something like free yourself of a burden or get yourself out from under one.
I advertised the caravan, two men came, poked at it, pried into its corners, and made an offer. While we were negotiating, my boys, young then, ran around us, chasing each other with sticks. “Stop that!” I told them. The men laughed. They’re boys, they’re young, was the gist of what they said. As kids in the village they themselves had done the same.
“Chased each other with sticks?” I asked, not surprised that they were sympathetic to the boys, because frowning on boisterous kids isn’t the way here.
“No, we had knives.”
“Goodness!” I said. “And no one got hurt?”
“Oh sure. One of us lost an eye.” The one talking turned to the other. “Remember that?”
The other one nodded and said, “Another lost a finger.”
They were both smiling. “We all survived though.”
It was nearly dusk when they returned to haul the caravan away, and when they plugged it into the electrical hookup on their Jeep, all the running lights came on. I held the gate open and the boys ran over to help. We watched the caravan sway through the gate, off on another journey, looking cheery, floating along. It was old, but it could have been an awkward gamboling colt being led off, light on its feet, and I felt more happy than sad.
It was a different matter when the tow truck came for my stout little van. It started up just fine, but it had a ruined head gasket and water leaking into the oil. More than sick, it was doomed. Poor car, I thought desperately. I still wanted someone to tell me I should fix it, but everyone, friends, the mechanic, and the junkyard dealer who bought it for scrap, all told me the opposite. “Twenty years old? Not worth fixing. Had the same problem before? Don’t even consider it.”
But I did. Every time I looked at my car, I thought of George Orwell’s Boxer in Animal Farm and how meanly he was treated at the end of his usefulness. He too was sold for scrap, which for a horse means the glue factory. The day the tow truck came for my car, I started it up for the last time, then slid out of the driver’s seat for the buyer to drive it onto the tow truck bed.
In French, voiture is feminine, appropriate, I’ve been told, because a car, like a woman, is capricious. In Spanish, coche is masculine. I’d never thought of mine as one gender or the other though. It was both, really, sweet, sturdy, useful, gentle and dependable. It had carried us, it had carried animals, and furniture, bricks, boards, sacks of cement, bales of hale.
Before he could put together an entire sentence, my elder son had identified the same model on the highway or a toy version in a store as Ourcar, as if being ours made it a prototype. And now it was being put on a flatbed, cinched down so roughly it seemed to stagger and buckle as the driver tightened the straps that bound it. I wanted to cry. Midday, no lights, no children at my side to share the moment. Good-bye, good-bye, I thought, entirely sad for Ourcar, for 20 years, for all the plans, for children grown, for friends drifting away, for new ones that can’t replace the old, for everything that’s doomed. My only consolation was that Ourcar, unaware of what waited at the end of the journey, felt no fear, only curiosity for what was ahead. That’s what I hoped. But are cars capable of such subtleties of feeling? And such faith?
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