My Grandmother’s Tercel

The last car my grandmother bought herself was a new 1984 Toyota Tercel. I thought it was too small and an ugly color, but she loved it. Every time we walked up to it she would gush, "Whose pretty little car is that?"

I had never heard my grandmother use that voice before. I only knew the one she used to complain about my father. Or to order me and my sister not to walk so far away from her. Or to ask why I wasn't wearing the sweater she bought me. 

I spent most of my life afraid of my grandmother and dreading our time together. But once I learned how much she lived through before I was even born, it helped me forgive her for being so difficult to be around.

She was put in an orphanage with her brother after their father died of the Spanish Flu, then came of age during the Great Depression, which taught her to track every penny she spent for the rest of her life. She became a bookkeeper, then a single mother in the 1940s. She kept my mother, kept working, and kept lists of every dollar she spent on my mother's diapers. Plus every dollar my grandfather didn't give her for those diapers.

L: My grandmother posing in front of her orange beast. R: My grandmother and my mother in the 1950s.

My father said my grandmother only kept my mother to prove to her mother she could. But it doesn't matter to me why she kept her, just that she did. And then helped her daughter pay for college. And helped my parents buy a house. Then helped me pay for college.

It took me a long time to accept that spending her money was how she showed love. Because I always wanted a grandmother who hugged us and laughed when we played, not one who loved to remind us of every naughty thing we ever said or did.

The only time I remember sitting in her lap was when she let me drive a car for the first time at about eight-years-old. I don't remember why she put me behind the steering wheel that day, but I remember us all laughing as I struggled to guide the car through the empty parking lot. 

The next time she gave me the wheel was two decades later when she took me to England so I could drive on the left side for her. The day after we picked up the rental car I woke up with a cold that my grandmother blamed on my walking around with wet hair. "You better not be too sick to drive," she announced as I stared out the window above my bed, wishing I could just sleep.

Later that same trip she gave me a rare compliment when I miraculously drove us back to our hotel through thick fog with no GPS, maps or even road signs to guide me, and later we shared an even rarer belly laugh. We got lost while driving to see a friend of hers and stopped at a pay phone to ask for directions:

"Where are you?" the friend asked.

"We're at Weak Bridge," I said, calling out the only sign I saw.

"You're where?" her bewildered friend said.

"We're at Weak Bridge!" I said, then finally it hit me. "That's not the name of the bridge, grandma. That's just telling us it's a weak bridge!"

We collapsed into the only laughter I remember sharing with her as an adult.

Another 20 years passed before I drove for her again, but this time she didn't ask me to. She also didn't ask me to write out all her checks so she didn't pay her rent twice, or to have meals delivered to her room every day when she stopped going to the dining room to eat.

Instead, she fought my help every day until I finally cracked at the diner where she demanded to know why we weren't at the French bistro she loved (knocking over all the tiny tables with her walker) and I snapped at her before running into the bathroom to finish yelling in a stall. 

Afterward as I buckled her seatbelt she said, "Are you sure you don't want to just push me out of the car?"

I sighed. "No, grandma. I don't."

And I didn't. But I did ask my husband to start driving her around after that.

A few years ago she died just shy of her 98th birthday, but she is still with me because I drive her car every day. I still hate its color. It has no air conditioning. The radio doesn't work. I can't move the driver's seat anymore and the rear-view mirror disintegrated long ago.

But I love driving it. Because now in that car I can spend time with the grandmother I choose: all the best parts with none of the bad. Inside her car, I don’t think about the woman who spanked me for spilling cereal milk on her bedspread. I don’t think about the woman I drove to doctor’s appointments after cleaning poop off her shoes. 

The first visa she got to live in France at age 56.

Instead I think about the woman who drove me to countless museums, operas, ballets and Broadway shows. I think about the 56-year-old who moved to Paris for a year so she could learn French. And the 80-year-old who walked miles and miles of that city with me during a transportation strike. The 83-year-old who took me to New York. The 90-year-old who filled her tiny car with everything that would fit and drove herself to her new senior apartment complex in Petaluma. 

And I hope that the more time I spend with that determined, independent woman now, the more likely it is that I'll still be driving myself around when I'm 90. 

(Justine Frederiksen is a reporter for the Ukiah Daily Journal.)

2 Responses to "My Grandmother’s Tercel"

  1. Scott   August 22, 2019 at 2:00 pm

    Great story

    Reply
  2. Cat Spydell   August 24, 2019 at 9:09 am

    Excellent read, and as an owner of a bright yellow Tercel I got from a relative years ago, I can relate!

    Reply

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