Routine Maintenance

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Photo by Madeleine Witt.

On a Saturday afternoon in September, in the waning brilliance of the summer sun, you might have seen my mother’s convertible — a cobalt blue, mid-90s BMW — gliding past on one of the picturesque roads of Long Island’s Gold Coast. “There goes summer,” you might have said, “cruising along without a care in the world.” But you’d be wrong. Driving my mother’s 1994 Le Mans Blue 325i may waft wind through your hair and the bucolic buzz of bees to your ears, but it is hardly carefree.

It typically takes at least two or three attempts to start the engine, largely because turning the key requires a secret combination of jiggling, hitting, and yelling at the steering wheel. If you get that far, a dull, urine-hued light on the dash suggests that you “CHECK ENGINE,” regardless of whether the engine has been checked or not. The LED display on the console will politely inform you that the taillight is out, but you shouldn’t worry, because it’s lying. (Probably.) Once you actually start driving, you can relax and take advantage of the car’s state-of-the-art, touch-screen audio system, specially designed to play classical music, static, and Spanish language Top 40 hits on a suicidal loop no matter how many times you jam your index finger against the display. The interior panel in the back seat is held in place by pure luck, so the next time you make a sharp turn or slam the passenger door (which comes apart unless opened from the inside), the panel will most likely pop out again, revealing a spaghetti tangle of yellow and white wires and the concentric black ripples of a speaker head.

Life used to be better for the Beemer. Its original owner, my maternal grandfather Harold, purchased it off the lot in San Diego on an impulse in 1993, back when the car was a metallic burgundy — or, as BMW calls it, Calypso Red. Harold, recently retired at 66, mostly went for spins around the neighborhood or to the supermarket to stock up on his favorite sugar-free coffee candies. Grandma Bea refused even to ride in the car since the suspension was too low. As a result, when it was driven to our house on Long Island in the back of a flatbed truck in 2002 following Harold’s death a few months earlier, its odometer sported a modest 63,000 miles, most of which had been driven on the smooth, flat asphalt of my grandparents’ sunny suburb. The transition couldn’t have been easy. San Diego receives nine inches of rain annually; Long Island gets about 45. In a storm, the convertible slaps its windshield wipers back and forth in such a manic frenzy that they either collide or contort so as to become completely useless. At the first sign of snow, the brakes begin to groan and any hope for traction goes out the window. That is, if you can manage to open the window — the driver’s side can be temperamental.

We’ve had all of this fixed on multiple occasions. About four years ago, my father even commissioned a holistic makeover as a present for my mother — thus the Le Mans Blue. And yet, after each visit to the service station, new problems inevitably arise (the trunk only opens, nonsensically, when the convertible top is positioned at the right angle), and old ones inevitably get worse (the gearshift must now be navigated by feel rather than by sight). At this point, we barely take it out of the garage. Nonetheless, we’ve kept it alive, which is strange given the amount of time, money, and energy necessary to do so, but not as strange if you consider that, until a few weeks ago, we also kept a piano in our living room for nine years even though no one in my family can play “Chopsticks.”

There isn’t a lot left of the family my mother was born into. Harold passed away almost a decade ago, and Bea recently followed, succumbing to complications from pneumonia after suffering the debilitating effects dementia for several years. My mother spent a long time estranged from her brother for reasons that are too deeply rooted in the siblings’ lifelong history for me to fully understand, and the two have only recently begun to reconcile. But their childhood home is now inhabited by someone else. Even my grandparents’ old house in San Diego is gone, consumed by a Californian forest fire. My mother didn’t have a functional relationship with her family growing up — she was often neglected by her mother, and her father spent most of his time traveling — but now that both of her parents are gone, she and my uncle are left with the task of reckoning with those remnants.

I think we continue to maintain that clunky relic of an automobile because the rest of us are acutely aware that we don’t really know how else to help. My father’s mother has become less lucid over the past few years, and his father is still recovering from a bout with tongue cancer, but neither of them are close to the condition Bea was in the last time I saw her. And my siblings and I are too young even to begin to understand what it’s like to have a past life with a different family, let alone what it’s like to lose one.

So when the sun is shining and we’re not in a rush and we don’t mind the possibility of needing to be rescued from wherever we’re going should the Beemer crap out on us, we put the top down (praying that it doesn’t get stuck midway) and go for a drive. When the aliens come to Earth and ask me to explain this human concept of “love,” I think the absolute best I could do would be to point at that heap of junk and tell them to take care of it until it stops running.

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