In Chapels of Music and Steel

Cars as sanctuaries


in Features


No one would ever peg Betty Wright’s funky 1972 hit, “The Clean-Up Woman” as a heartbreaking ballad. From its first emphatic chords on an electric guitar, followed by Wright’s soulful delivery, the song is one to rock your hips — not rock your heart. Wright sings about taking her man for granted and then losing him to the woman who swoops in to clean up the pieces of the neglected fellow’s ego. Indisputably, it is a song about loss; it is also a top-40 tune with an insistent beat that makes it nearly impossible to keep from dancing.

But dancing was the last thing on my mind on a recent afternoon when I finally left my classroom to go home, the sun dazzlingly low in the winter sky. I slid a shiny disc into the CD player, and the small space of my car welled up with that bright rhythm and Wright’s snappy delivery. Suddenly, I was shaking with sobs I had been holding back for months.

As I drove home, eyes straining to see through bleary contacts and the blinding sunset, I was 15 again, my sister, Terri, 11, and we moved to Wright’s tune as it blasted from the radio in our bedroom. Neither of us was much of a dancer, but Terri had watched some girls at school doing “the robot,” and now she attempted to mimic them, and I attempted to mimic her. We jerked our way through a few bars, then dissolved in laughter, each pointing at the other as the more foolish — and then we redoubled our efforts, determined to nail it, to look like the dancers who mesmerized us every Saturday on Soul Train.

Just one year before this emotional meltdown in my Honda Accord, I stood in front of a church full of family and friends to deliver Terri’s eulogy. On that cold January day, sun streaming red and blue and yellow through the stained glass, I had been fiercely determined not to cry. I had written a tribute to my sister that I hoped was worthy of her and I did not want to collapse halfway through it. I wanted people to hear every word. I wanted Terri to hear every word. And so when the minister spoke just before me, and around me others were dabbing at their eyes, I held a tight rein on my emotions. I was there, but somehow not there. I was waiting for my cue. And afterwards, when I had finished speaking, and the first bars of Terri’s favorite song lifted up towards the rafters — the Beatles’s tune, “Here Comes The Sun” — still, I did not cry. I had drawn my laces tight and high. It would not be easy to let them come undone.

Those laces stayed cinched for a long time. A series of calamities involving my nephew — Terri’s son — occurred immediately after the funeral, and for a time, he came to live with me. My quiet, peaceful existence was upended; every day seemed to bring another drama, another obstacle, and the time I had intended to spend grieving was instead overrun with challenges I had never envisioned having to tackle.

But on that day in the car, the dust had finally settled. Life once more seemed reasonably calm. I had created the CD just the night before, carefully selecting from my iTunes library songs that reminded me of my sister. I wanted to put my finger directly into the socket. I wanted to push my tongue against the sore tooth. I wanted to make myself feel her loss in the most painful and soul-shaking way possible.

And so I turned to music — always the swiftest and surest route to tears. And I chose my car as the place I would experience this requiem, because there was no other place where I could be more wholly free to feel what I wanted to feel. Certainly I could not give myself up to grief when I was at school, teaching my classes. And strangely, neither did I seem able to surrender to grief when I was at home, in the solitude of my four walls. For at home, there was always something else calling me away from the pain. There was dinner to make, laundry to do, and essays to grade. There were emails to answer and Facebook posts to fritter away my hours on. At home I could turn away — but in my car, I could go nowhere but down the road in front of me — the real road of blacktop and yellow lines, and the interior road that led straight to my heart. And this inner road did not have to be traveled in a forward gear; here, the gearshift slipped easily into reverse.

I was reminded of a Bible verse my mother recited to me when I was a girl and she was instructing me in the habit of prayer: “When thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut the door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.” (Matthew 6:6)

As a child, this directive confounded me. “I don’t get it,” I said to my mother. “Why does God want me to pray in a closet?”

“Not an actual closet,” she told me. “It just means a private place. Don’t pray where others can hear you. Pray where only God can hear you.”

“So that means we don’t need to go to church anymore?” I suggested, pleased to have found biblical support for Sunday mornings spent lolling in bed.

“No,” she said, smiling, “that’s not what it means.”

All these years later, the verse makes more sense. My car was my closet, my private place. Apart from every other demand but attentiveness and motion, it was the place I chose in which to grieve for my sister.

This was certainly not the first time a car became for me a sanctuary — a kind of holy retreat. In fact, for me there was a long history of this link between my inner self — my spirit — and the automobile. Perhaps it even began as early as the sky-blue 1955 Pontiac Sedan.

This Pontiac was the car my parents owned when I was born. It was a behemoth with a back seat so spacious that even after Terri came along four years after me, the two of us could stretch out on it for naps during cross-country trips and have no need to kick or elbow one another for more room. A car from the prehistoric days before air conditioning, its windows were always rolled down, the dusty wind of the highway whipping our hair and snatching away our voices.

Here was the chapel where I truly gave myself to God — for then, God was no one but my father, the one in whom I put all of my trust. Unrestrained by seatbelts, Terri and I surrendered all control to the man behind the wheel. I never worried which way we were going, whether we would arrive, because it was out of my hands. I had one purpose in that world: to lie on my back and stare out the window at the clouds that tried to keep pace with us, that were forever lagging behind.

My father kept that car long after it had gone out of style. The cars of the mid-1960s were sleeker, racier, and as I grew old enough to appreciate such things, I was profoundly ashamed of the Pontiac, which dwarfed the cars of my friends’ parents like some lumbering blue dinosaur. I begged my father to buy a new one, but he only laughed at my pleas.

“Nothing’s wrong with this car!” he’d say. “Still going strong. Why should I get rid of it when it runs like a dream?”

I don’t know if he finally caved in to Terri’s and my appeals — or if he was instead swayed by my mother’s longing for a car with air conditioning — but in 1966, the behemoth was traded in for a sporty, blue-green Chevy Impala. I was beside myself with joy. If it is possible to worship a car, then certainly, I bowed before this one. Sometimes I would sneak into it just to sit and inhale the heady new-car smell, to run my hands over the nubby upholstery.

Best of all, the Impala had a radio. When my mother was at the wheel, we were at the mercy of her old-lady tunes on WAVA, but when Dad drove and Mom stayed home, Terri and I reveled in music cranked up to unholy decibels. My father, being completely deaf, could not hear the radio no matter how high we turned the volume, and as soon as we jumped in the car, we switched it on and sang along with our favorite tunes on WEAM 1390 — pretending to be teenagers, behaving as we believed teenagers must behave — our models being shows like WingDing, American Bandstand, and The Monkees. Suddenly, everything was groovy. We’d unroll the windows and let the blasting chords of the Troggs’s “Wild Thing” be the first sounds our friends heard as we rolled up to wherever we were going. The Impala was my holy place because of its choir — a choir I controlled.

In the summer of 1973, my father traded in the sporty Impala for a white four-door Impala that bore no relationship at all to the swift antelope from which it took its name. Car styles in America had continued to get smaller, more streamlined, but for some reason, Dad chose this model that was nearly the size of our old Pontiac. Terri and I called it “the Boat” — an epithet not only full of derision, but for me, dismay, as well. I was beginning driver’s education classes that fall, and this mammoth battleship would be the vessel I helmed across the streets of Arlington. I was unhappy — and intimidated.

My father drove that car for only a couple of weeks, and then he never drove it again. He never drove any car again. In September of my junior year of high school, he entered the hospital for what was to have been routine gall bladder surgery, and after a series of unexpected complications, he died that December.

Throughout that autumn while he was in the hospital, my mother occasionally took me out to practice in “the Boat.” The first lesson could not have gone more disastrously. At the bottom of our street, Mom told me to turn right, and unaware of how light a touch was required with power steering, I twisted the wheel hard and shaved off the shiny aluminum stripping along the side of the car against a nearby telephone pole.

I was terrified that my father would be furious with me when he learned of this, but I don’t think my mother ever told him. There were things to worry about far more momentous than body damage to the Chevy. If I had accompanied my mother more often on her trips to the hospital, I likely would have surmised that. But I was in deep denial as my father’s health deteriorated. I avoided the hospital. I found reasons to stay home. And then he was gone.

At his funeral, I had the same detached, out-of-body sensation that I experienced at the service for Terri. As I sat in the limousine, waiting to depart for the cemetery, I looked up at the church and saw two of my best friends coming out of the sanctuary doors. One was crying, leaning on the other. I noted this with curiosity. The Kleenex my mother had shoved into my hand at the start of the funeral was still in my fist, crumpled but dry.

A month later, I had just passed my tests at the DMV and received my driver’s license. Upon returning home, I asked my mother if I could take the Impala out for what would be my first drive with no one but me in the car. I’m sure fleeting thoughts of all the phone poles awaiting me must have passed through her mind, but she nodded and handed me the keys.

Now, more than 40 years later, I still recall that drive vividly. I remember exactly the route I took, a circuit around the neighborhood streets, unwilling to test myself quite yet on a busy road or highway. At one point, a car following me came unsettlingly close, no doubt annoyed at my cautious progress, and so I pulled over to the side of the road and put the car in park. I needed a moment anyway to catch my breath, to steady my nerves. I was acutely aware of the power that was mine in that enormous automobile, of the damage I could do to myself or someone else if I made a mistake.

Sitting there, I turned up the volume on the radio. The first song I heard was Jim Croce’s “Time in a Bottle” and the second, Barbra Streisand’s “The Way We Were” — two songs that look back on a better past, with a wish that those happier days won’t be lost forever. Both are love songs, about romantic relationships, but on that January afternoon, alone in “the Boat” that my father had purchased just months before, they seemed instead to have been written just for me. They were about my father, the man I had lost. If only I could save time, somehow — in a bottle or a time machine — I could be with my father again. And the memories too painful to recall — such as being too scared to visit him in the hospital — well, I would choose instead to forget. And I would remember not the sadness, but the laughter, the good times. Nonetheless, as Streisand hit her last heartbreaking note, I was crying hard, all alone in the Chevy. In my closet. My private place. And I was praying, too, but not to God, about whom I was none too sure. Instead, I prayed to my father.

By the time I was ready to buy my own car, I had somehow lost my penchant for something sleek and sporty. Heavily influenced, I think, by my years of driving the Boat, I put my meager savings down on a used car I would refer to as “the Tank” — a green 1968 Dodge Dart that looked sturdy enough to knock over and flatten telephone poles instead of being damaged by them.

This was the car I drove around the beltway every weekday morning in the autumn of 1978 on the way to my classes at the University of Maryland. Even in the lightest traffic, it was a 40-minute commute, and often, much longer. Although the Dart had not come with a tape deck, I had one installed so I could play my gigantic eight-track tapes, and entertain myself on my daily journey. Alone in my green sanctuary, I could permit myself to “worship” without worry of judgment or quizzical stares. Instead of the radio with its current hits — “Hot-Blooded” by Foreigner or “Got to Get You Into My Life” by Earth, Wind and Fire — I instead selected tunes from my big box of Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie, and Duke Ellington – strange choices indeed for a college student in those last years of the ’70s.

Zooming around 495, snapping my fingers to Billie’s “Them Their Eyes” or Ellington’s “Jungle Nights in Harlem,” I got my share of speeding tickets, but I was idyllically happy in my jazz-filled bubble of solitude. There were plenty of reasons to be less than sanguine once I arrived at my classes or had to negotiate the real world, but for approximately an hour and a half each day, I answered to no one. I was the sole director of the choir in the Chapel of Dart.

I was devastated when the Tank came to the end of its days. There was no accident and no buyer’s disenchantment. One day, circling the beltway, I pushed my foot to the accelerator, and instead of speeding up, the car began to slow. I pumped the pedal to no avail. I steered the car to the side of the highway and waited for a passing trooper to rescue me. The Tank had simply died — the automotive equivalent of a massive heart attack. There was no lingering and expensive illness. It was over — just like that.

I went out immediately and bought a used Plymouth Valiant — which was just a Dart masquerading under an assumed name. In this car, I drove to my first real job and dared my first solo weekend at the beach. The Valiant was with me still when I landed my second job and when I moved in with the man who would become my first husband. We had bought a tiny duplex that sat at the top of a very steep street. The house itself was on a hill, and the driveway that led to it was a sharp incline. From our front door, one could turn, look down, and survey a broad swath of what was really a very shabby neighborhood. But it was our first place, and crummy or not, we were excited to own something.

One day, getting ready to back down the precipitous driveway, I suddenly realized that I had left something important in the house. Grabbing my purse to run back inside, the strap caught around the gear shift, knocking it into reverse, just as I was stepping out of the car. The wheels began to roll backwards, and I was trapped for a moment between the open car door and the car itself, being pushed along with the Valiant on its downward path. As the car picked up speed, I was knocked flat. The open door passed over me, and the car careened to the bottom of the driveway, then down the plummeting street until it crashed with a shudder of metal and glass into a phone pole — the second of my driving career. I picked myself up off the concrete, and it wasn’t until I stood that I realized I was shaking all over.

Though I didn’t know it at the time, that moment marked a nose-dive in my own journey as precipitous as the hill that had destroyed my car.

For three of the longest months of my life, I sank into a dark place, unable to eat, unable to sleep, scarcely able to function. Somehow I held down a job, but I was barely myself, and I didn’t understand why, though all was not well in my relationship with my future husband. I lost 20 pounds and didn’t have the energy even to cry. By then, I was driving a Honda Civic, and in it, I passed some of the most wretched hours I have ever known. Desperate to save myself, to feel like myself again, I grasped at straws, listening to a gospel station that played the hymns I remembered my mother and grandmother singing when I was a child: “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” “How Great Thou Art,” and “Precious Lord.”

I would flee to my mother’s house, where Terri still lived, and huddle beside her on the couch while she watched MTV, which was then a brand new phenomenon. Michael Jackson’s Thriller album was at the top of the charts, and we watched his videos over and over again. In my Civic going home, I would sometimes dial away from the gospel station, which only seemed to make me sadder, and listen to whatever Jackson tune I could find. “Billie Jean” was huge that winter, but so was “Beat It.” The irony of those lyrics was not lost on me. Beat it, Michael sang, and how I wanted to. I didn’t want to be defeated by this force that seemed to have such a hold on me.

And ultimately, I wasn’t. By May, with the budding of the trees and flowers, something shifted within me and I felt myself become myself again. My mother and sister and I celebrated my return with a road trip to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. I was back at the helm of the Impala as we cruised down 95 South. Irene Cara’s “Flashdance . . . What a Feeling” was the number one hit on the radio that June. Its triumphant lyrics about overcoming fear could not have been more apropos for me at that moment in my life. It was a hymn that the three of us sang together. My mother and sister rallied to my side. We were a congregation of three.

My mother died in October of 2012. I was appointed to deliver her eulogy. I was also asked to drive to the funeral home and pick up her ashes. When I carried the heavy urn to my Honda Accord, I considered for a moment what to do. God knows I didn’t want some horrible disaster with those ashes. Should I put them in the trunk? No. That seemed all wrong.

I set the urn down on the passenger seat, and carefully belted it in place.

“Guess you’re riding shotgun, Mom,” I said out loud to the urn, fully aware of just how crazy this conversation was. I laughed an awkward little laugh and turned on the radio. “Want to hear some music, Mom? Let’s see what kind of tunes we can find.”

When I arrived at the church, I shared with Terri the whole story, and we laughed — the kind of laugh people share when everything is terrible and you are trying hard to keep from crying. I had no idea how very short a time it would be before I enacted the exact same scenario with Terri’s ashes, just a little over two years later. On that winter morning in 2015, talking to my sister’s urn on the seat beside me felt both unreal and right at the same time. Was she there? Could she hear me? I slipped a mix CD into the player and we rocked our way to the cemetery with the O’Jays singing “Love Train.” Terri loved her R&B. So dammit, I would give it to her. I turned the volume high.

Now, every morning as I drive to school, every afternoon as I drive home again, I pop in one of the many CDs I have made since my sister passed away. In my iTunes library, they are labeled “Terri 1,” “Terri 2,” “Terri 3,” and so on. Not especially original, but they are easy to find — and I know precisely what they are for. For the 40 minutes I spend commuting every day, I devote myself to grieving the loss of my sister — a ceremony of pain and love that I delayed for a long time.

I have chosen the songs because I know they will make me feel her presence very deeply. Many of them bring tears to my eyes. But not all of them. Some make me sing out loud, beat time on the steering wheel, rock back and forth in my bucket seat. Some of the songs make me happy to be alive.

Sometimes that seems wrong. That I should be happy when she cannot be — when she is gone. But then I put on a rocking tune that I know she loved — maybe “Joy to the World” by Three Dog Night. And I turn the volume up. I open the windows to the wide world, to the universe. And I hope — if Terri is not somewhere singing herself — that she will forgive me for doing so. Forgive me for breathing in the damp breeze, the blossom-heavy air. Forgive me for being here on this earth when she is not. Here in my serviceable, compact car — in my small and private place — I lift up my voice to the heavens, simply because I still can. •

All images by Isabella Akhtarshenas.