Mom never drove a car.
To be totally accurate, I should say, I never saw her drive a car. She claims that in 1931, at the age of 16, she went to the drugstore in whatever small town in Texas her family was living in at the time and exchanged a dime for a drivers license. Apparently at that time, proving a proficiency in driving was no more necessary to obtaining a driver’s license than proving a proficiency in fishing was necessary to obtaining a fishing license. Whether or not she actually drove is unknown. No one in the family has any recollection of that happening. Two years later she married and received not only a husband, but a chauffeur. That union lasted 78 years and Dad did all the driving for 75 of those years until he passed the keys over to my brother at age 95. That Dad did all the driving was for the best. Dad was the pragmatist, rooted in logic and a good sense of direction. Mom was the dreamer, the artist, and had no interest in navigation or driving. It was a good arrangement for Mom and Dad and everyone else on the road.
Growing up during the Great Depression, to say that Mom and Dad were frugal, would be an understatement. But if Dad had a fiscal weakness, it was for cars. Even then it exhibited itself in the most conservative of ways. Dad liked big cars with big trunks and he was partial to Pontiacs. In the Pontiac line the Catalina and the Bonneville were the full sized cars. The Bonneville had more luxury features such as power windows, but in Dad’s mind that just meant more opportunity for things to break, and since the trunks were the same size on both models, Dad drove Catalinas. He also paid cash for them. He taught me from an early age the concept of setting aside money every month for your next car purchase.
“Making a payment to yourself,” was how he explained it. I learned the concept, but have yet to apply it. (There was one exception, but that’s a blog post for another day)
And so it came to be, that in the summer of 1967, at the age of 13, I was in the backseat of a brand new 4-door Pontiac Catalina. Dad was taking my mother to the monthly meeting of the South County Art Association. I shared the backseat with a painting that my mom had just completed. I don’t remember much about that painting, except that she had mixed sand with the paint to give an added dimension to her creation. I also remember Mom being very nervous. The art club was having a guest lecturer, Dimitri Zonia, a local artist of some renown. In addition to the lecture, he was also going to critique the work of anyone who wanted to bring in a painting.
Dad pulled up to the entrance of the Presbyterian church whose basement provided the venue for the art association. Putting the car into “park”, he exited to retrieve the painting. Mom climbed out and waited for Dad to come around with the painting. I took the opportunity to slide into the passenger side of the front bench seat and watched as Dad passed over the painting and gave Mom a quick peck on the cheek.
The Midwest sun was close to setting, but there was still enough daylight left for my father to pick a parking spot underneath the shade provided by the boughs of an ancient oak tree that had somehow survived the construction of the church and it’s parking lot. In 1967 the average price of gasoline averaged 33¢ per gallon. That was reason enough to park and wait for the meeting to be over rather than make the round trip home and back again.
Dad turned the ignition key into the auxiliary position, quieting the engine and turning on the radio. We cranked the windows down and the humid Midwest air rolled into the car along with the summer sounds of crickets, cicadas, katydids and tree frogs. Spilling out of the car were the sounds of Jack Buck and Harry Caray, announcing the Cardinals baseball game that was in progress. In 1967 the St. Louis Cardinals were on fire. My favorite players were Bob Gibson and Orlando Cepeda. That night was a good night because Bob Gibson was pitching and Orlando Cepeda was tearing things up. When the opposing pitcher intentionally walked Orlando, rather than face him, I did an imaginary fist pump in my mind. We sat three feet apart on that bench seat. A man and a boy. A boy on the way to becoming a man, and I was learning from the best.
There are awkward silences, but there are also comfortable silences. When people are at ease with themselves and with others, conservation is not always needed. Dad viewed words as currency, something to be spent only when necessary, so we sat in silence, intent on the game. It was a very comfortable silence.
The game ended about the same time as the art club meeting concluded. I gave up my spot on the front seat as soon as I saw my mother approaching the car. The Cardinals were victorious and so was my mother. The silence ended.
“I can’t believe it,” Mom exclaimed, “I was so nervous. he was so critical of everyone’s work, I almost didn’t put my painting up for critique. At first he didn’t say anything, he just walked back and forth in front of my painting. I was scared, then I started to get a little aggravated, finally he said, ‘It’s people like you who make the rest of us nervous, good job.’ ”
It was a story that got repeated throughout my teen years and so became committed to my memory.
Sometimes in life, things come full circle. In 1995, I took a position as the Creative Director at Concordia Publishing House in south St. Louis. Adorning the walls of our fifth floor were pencil drawings by Dimitri Zonia, illustrating the “Song of Songs”. A couple of years before his death, I received a call from his daughter, inquiring if we still had his illustrations on display, and if so, would it be okay for him to come view them. I told her that they were still on display and that I would love to meet them.
A few days later I was privileged to give Dimitri and his daughter a tour of our fifth floor. Dimitri was visibly moved and honored that we still had his work on display. On the way out, I related the story of his critique of my mother’s painting. He could not recall the event. I remember though, and I remember sitting with my father in a 1967 Pontiac, listening to that baseball game as clearly as I recall Mom’s story.
The Cardinals went on to win the World Series in 1967. Bob Gibson won three of the four games without giving up a run. Orlando Cepeda was named the MVP that year. I didn’t understand it as a thirteen-year-old, but looking back now, the real MVP’s in my world, were my mom and dad. From my mother, I learned the value of passion for your craft. From my father, I learned patience and kindness. From both of them, I learned the value of devotion to your spouse.
It was a good year.