On the day after my 27th birthday, I looked out the window and was astonished to see my car flanked by two fire trucks. Flames poured from the engine. I went outside and found shards of glass scattered on the pavement around the melted front tire. A fireman holding an axe asked me if the vehicle was mine. I nodded, and he said, "Say goodbye." Then a tow truck came and took my gray 1985 Oldsmobile Ninety-Eight Regency Brougham away.
The car originally belonged to my grandfather Aron, who rode horses and leaped from moving trains as a boy in a small village in Poland. He later became a butcher on the Jersey shore. He had arms as thick as butcher blocks, from which he would swing us kids. I remember how he tapped his scarred fingers against the kitchen table as he spoke to my parents in self-conscious English about Wall Street and Israel. He was handsome, with pale blue eyes and a gentle, gap-toothed smile. In grade school, I wrote an essay about how I wanted to be like him: temperate and thoughtful, the treasurer of my synagogue, and cherished by my family.
He had been in a nursing home for several years when my parents discussed giving me his car. I was hesitant. I wanted his blessing. So I visited him one day and explained how I would be honored to drive his car. He nodded and smiled and kissed me with dry lips.
He died not long afterward. In the years that followed, I drove his car proudly. It had plush leather seats, automatic everything and a top-of-the-line stereo. I was confident it would get me where I was going not only because it was a big, reliable car but because it was my grandfather's.
People called it a "boat" or a "tank." They parodied an ad campaign that said, "This is not your father's Oldsmobile," saying instead, "This is your father's Oldsmobile." I laughed and said, "No, this is my grandfather's Oldsmobile," and then told them about my grandfather the butcher from Poland, and his wife, Pearl. Even when the vinyl roof leaked and the engine burned too much oil; even when my family urged me to get a new car, I kept it because it was his.
After the Olds was towed away, I wistfully recalled my father's descriptions of his old Brooklyn neighborhood, in which his grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins all lived within shouting distance. In that respect, at least, it was not much different, I imagined, from the village my grandfather left behind in Poland. For me, the Olds was a souvenir of the past that had helped console my longing for such a close-knit community, but I realized it meant something very different to my grandfather.
The Olds spoke to his pride as an American businessman — one who dealt in nonkosher meats and worked on the Sabbath. For him, and for a generation of immigrants like him, an automobile was a symbol of assimilation and success.
The adjuster declared the Olds "a total loss." I took a few snapshots of it in the tow yard and walked away. Eventually, I replaced the Olds with a sporty black import. At first, I felt a little guilty; it was almost as if I had betrayed my one true love. But I got over it. I knew my grandfather would have been happy to know I finally had a car of my own.