Holding the Keys
“The secret,” he told me, “is to pull a cotton towel across the surface just so, while the car is still wet. It has to be all cotton, and you can’t let the sun start to dry it or you’ll get spots.”
I’d gone to visit my grandparents at the lake one weekend on a break from school. Grandpa was excited to see my car and was anxious to teach me the essentials of waxing and washing it. I wasn’t proud of my first car, the 1970-something Plymouth Volaré, dubbed the Vo-la-la by my brother. Of course, he had little room to talk. He drove my car’s big sister, the Chrysler Le-Bo-Bo, a voluptuous silver sedan.
Best as I could tell, my scuffed black coupe was a senior citizen hand-me-down that a misguided teenager souped up with an erector set, beginning with a hand-cut sunroof.
The car would get me where I needed to go, but my cheeks flushed to pose with the car for Grandpa’s camera, and I was certain I’d never take the time to wipe it down for water spots.
None of that mattered to Grandpa. Owning a car was a milestone to be celebrated, and a responsibility to be taught. Perhaps, in some way, for him it marked my arrival at true adulthood, though, in my fifth year away from home at college, I thought I’d long since arrived.
Looking back, I suppose he may have been right by degrees. Keys to one’s own car were permission to go where one wanted. I could pick up groceries without planning ahead or begging favors. I no longer had to scan the bulletin board in the dorm lobby for a driver headed in my direction to travel home for breaks. And my roommates and I wouldn’t have to stick out our thumbs on the south on-ramp for I-94 when we worked weekends at the greenhouse in the city anymore.
Grandpa held onto his own keys as long as he could. Probably a lot longer than he should have. There were the posts and such that he bumped into — they were out of place, I’m sure. The cemetery plots he drove over — just a shortcut during the funeral processional, you know.
I recently worked on a mishap between an 18-wheeler and a kind older gentleman in a luxury sedan. It ended with the deputy writing orders for a driver evaluation that the man likely won’t pass. As I considered the abrupt turn his life is about to take because of one improper lane change, I recalled sitting around a restaurant table years ago in a small Iowa town plotting the disappearance of my grandpa’s car keys. A stretch of the truth here, an outright fabrication there, and if nothing else, an anonymous call to the appropriate parties. He and Grandma would be stranded in their senior housing complex and dependent on the kindness and convenience of friends and family.
The streets would be safer, sure. And something truly tragic averted. But Grandpa had to surrender an essential part of himself, necessarily but unwittingly. There was that day when Jesus told Peter he’d stretch out his hands and be dressed by another, and carried places he didn’t want to go. He didn’t say Peter was going to like it.
He just said it was how it was going to be.