father, am i a man now?
June 24, 2011 § Leave a comment
From my adolescence onward, there was an expectation from my parents that I was to enjoy cars. In 1963, when I turned five, my father bought me a 1921 Aston Martin with a five pound note the size of the Welsh flag. I spent most of my childhood in the northern countryside of Wales; my family’s estate was six acres of farmland, a barn where the dairy cows slept and then the barn house I called my home. So I suppose it seemed all safe and fair to teach me to drive at least half a decade before my peers with the kind of open space that was in our possession. When I crawled into the car for the first time, my legs dangled from the edge of the driver’s seat like wind chimes and my fingertips could just barely reach the head of the shifting column. The next day, my father tied twenty-centimeter wooden blocks to each pedal with scraps of leather; within twenty minutes, I had crashed the car into the trunk of an oak. My father stacked the wooden blocks in a tower for me to crawl down from the driver’s side, which was propped up on a branch above ground.
You would think that this would deter them but it did not. When I turned twelve, my father bought me a race kart that was metallic with cobalt stripes. He built a track in our basement by painting two white lines around the perimeter of the room and placed hay barrels sporadically around the center of the track to buffer any collision. My interest actually sustained that time, but with the eventual acquisition of some strength and endurance, my parents put me to work with the cattle. Of course, I had always thought that my father’s scheme was to strengthen my hands with the milking of our cows only to later on have the power and coordination to handle any stubborn, vintage transmission.
His commitment to my interests waned instead, however, and I kept to the cows. When I turned fifteen, my mother started a writing school. They replaced the hay barrels with single seat desks and covered the track with large woven mats and filled the room with a dozen girls between the ages of seven and twelve. It was not so much an erasure of my childhood but a re-designation of it: suddenly, I did not mind sweeping up the dried mud and manure in the doorway to the house nor did I mind carrying four gallon aluminum containers of raw milk in from the barn so long as I could see a toss of hair over a shoulder or the delicate crossing of two slender ankles underneath a chair. My parents were promptly made aware of my daydreams and closed the writing school after a short year.
It never occurred to me until I was in my early twenties that the pressures from my father actually worked against his own disciplines. When I could afford my own, I bought myself a salvaged Austin Healey. Her imperfections allowed me to reminisce about my first feeling of triumph and then immediate failure. My father often found me grinning like a lunatic as I polished her nose and sides, or he would hear an unsettling laughter from underneath her girth as I realigned the axels. From afar, you may have thought that the car had a voice of her own.
When she was ready to be driven off the property, I spent fifteen minutes combing my hair. My mother rolled her eyes at me and my father followed me around the house with a pipe in his mouth, leaving a furious plume of sweet smelling smoke in his wake. I drank a tall glass of milk and bid them “good day” as though I were a patron in a store who had just purchased a pack of chewing gum and walked out.
The feeling that I had falling into the seat of that car was unlike any that I had prior. Her interior hugged my body and she whispered secrets to me through the valves of her engine as it hummed to warmth. My father noticed the hairs on my neck raise; he cleared his throat like a terrible roar and they immediately laid back down to rest.
“What is it, Papa,” I squealed. He laughed and simply walked away.