“Jesus Christ!” I blurted out---emphasis on the first syllable, “Je-sus.” I had tumbled off the bench seat of our old Chevy coupe when my mother slammed the brakes. My head grazed the dashboard as I toppled to the floorboard below. The brown and red threads of the tan plaid upholstery prickled my bare legs as I clambered back on the seat.
It was 1951 and I was six years old.
The car---I’ve confirmed from photos online---was a 1940 Chevy 2-door business coupe, and about this color. The model was a Master 85, and in the brochure artwork it looks professional but sporty.
The coupe had its own story and I learned it decades later.
That day we were headed into the city---to San Francisco, 40 minutes by car from our small town north of the Golden Gate Bridge. I watched my mother grip the gearshift with its milky bakelite-tipped handle as she pressed in the clutch in one smooth, deft motion. She was a good driver.
In the 1950s medical and dental appointments in San Francisco were expeditions that entailed coat, hat and gloves. Deckled-edged Kodaks show me in a gray and white checked coat with a matching tam that my mother had sewed. I wore white gloves in little kid sizes that now seem unimaginable---clothes for city sidewalks, not the gravel roads in the county where we lived.
Our destination was 450 Sutter Street, a professional building a few blocks uphill from Union Square and one of the tallest buildings in the city at the time. A 26-storey art deco tower, its front doors were recessed beneath a gold fan-shaped portico. I thought my family dentist lived in a temple on the 16th floor. When we waited for the elevator in the black marble hallway, I craned my neck to look up at the bronze and silver ceiling. Its dimly lit zig zag shapes made me dizzy. Only recently did I learn they were Mayan revival motif designs.
For several years my mother regaled friends and relatives with the story about my startling expletive. As the only child of parents who had---and now it puzzles me---mostly childless friends, I often listened to adult conversation. Grown-ups told stories about other people, but they also seemed willing, even eager, to tell stories on themselves. Adults seemed to have an invisible protective skin, and they could become a character and be made fun of, be the butt of a good joke. It was something we kids never did.
Grown-ups telling stories---when not at my expense---brought relief from well-behaved boredom. I watched as the launch of some tale snagged the scattered conversations in the room, reeling in the attention of highball-clutching adults. I listened to half-understood words and events that seemed to stretch out as if along a tightrope of telling. The tension clutched my stomach. Back and forth my eyes darted, from teller to listeners, anxious for some weave or wobble in the story, a gasp of surprise, a sigh of let-down, or a hoot of laughter at the end.
The work of what I later learned to call literary devices seeped unnamed into my brain.
Sixty years after I banged into the Chevy dashboard, my mother came to live with me in Michigan. Unable to manage in an apartment on her own, at age 81 she pulled up stakes on the west coast and moved east to share a house with me and my son.
And of all places, in Flint.
Family recollections surfaced during the six years we lived together in Flint, and one was the back story to the 1940 Chevy coupe. We both remembered its faded beige finish and the red pin stripe still visible along its sides the year I grazed its dashboard. According to my mother, she and her older brother had bought the car new in their hometown, Portland, Oregon. In the course of the purchase, the dealer off-handedly mentioned that delivery charges could be saved if the car were picked up at the factory in Michigan.
Brother and kid sister set out east by train. Grand Northern’s Empire Builder ran daily from Portland to Chicago’s Union Station where they could pick up Grand Trunk Western mainline and get off at Flint. My mother recalled being told to wait on a Saginaw Street corner for a man who would take them out to the factory---which must have been Chevy-in-the Hole.
To save money on the return road trip to Oregon brother and sister shared a motel room and my mother remembered sleeping on a trundle bed. At remote stops along U.S. 30 and the way home, my uncle---a jazz lover---searched out obscure recordings. Heavy 78s in brown paper sleeves, some of them ended up in our house, gifts from my uncle to teach my mother about jazz.
Four years later, in 1944, my mother got engaged and planned to move to San Francisco where she would be married. Her brother let her take the car---he was headed to Washington, D.C., to work in the Office of Strategic Services or OSS that had been established by Roosevelt in 1942. Off to a glamorous career in the capital, my uncle readily signed over the title and threw in some jazz records. The Chevy coupe became my parents’ first car.
By 1955, my grandparents lived with us and a more practical family vehicle was needed. One summer evening my dad pulled into the driveway in a 1950 4-door Ford custom six “executive sedan.” A deep forest green, in the center of its grill a “bullet” jutted out that only underscored the car’s roomy boredom.
My dad bought it used. We never again had a brand-new car like that sporty Chevy coupe.
I’m still in Flint. My mother died here in 2008. I drive Saginaw Street and imagine her waiting on one of its gusty corners in 1940, twenty-three years old and never dreaming that she would return to this city where her first car was made.
Growing up, I’d had to suppress a flinch whenever my mother plunged into the anecdote about my “Jesus” outburst. Now the story seems less attached to me than to places and people that I have loved. The protagonists depart, social conventions change, and places are transformed beyond recognizing. The story remains and now I can do the telling---I did learn to be one of those grown-ups who can tell stories on themselves.