The family’s 1969 Chevy Malibu still sits in the Robinson’s driveway in Bakersfield, Calif.
Dear Chevy Malibu,
For years I thought you belonged to my father, but you were actually my mother’s first car. She bought you brand new in 1969 from Garrard Chevrolet in New Orleans to make her way from New Orleans to California to begin a new job after graduate school.
You were a thundering hunk of metal, which our neighbors nicknamed “The Land Yacht.” Your color perfectly matched the skin of an avocado. The interior was a cavernous valley of green leather that was spacious enough to fit just about every kid in the neighborhood as well as enough baseballs, tennis racquets, and picnic lunches to keep us amused for an entire Saturday afternoon. My father loved you, which I suppose is why he was the primary captain of The Land Yacht. Mom eventually became weary of never being able to use her car when she wanted it and eventually purchased another for her exclusive use. You officially belonged to Dad from that day forward.
Our relationship ran a little hot and cold over the years. In the beginning there was nothing but love. I vividly recall being taken to school and chauffeured around with my sister to softball practice, piano lessons, and the park to fly our kites on windy days. And when Dad took us out on the freeway, I felt like I was flying in a mini passenger jet. When I came down with a cold in the middle of the night, you and Dad returned from the 24-hour pharmacy with cough medicine. When I left my science project in the back seat, you and Dad flipped a U-turn and returned to school moments before the late bell rang.
The author and her father, Larry Robinson Jr., in the 1970s.
But every summer those leather seats ruthlessly burned the backs of our thighs. The heat even shot through our T-shirts and pierced our backs as we were on our way to go swimming. It was our fault really. Dad told us to put our swim towels on the seat before we sat down.
Things changed a great deal in middle school. More than one of my classmates made an unkind remark about your age … and your looks. I wasn’t fooling anybody the day that I suddenly came down with a headache and needed to duck down in the front seat after Dad picked me up from school. He realized that my “headache” hit at the exact moment that we drove past a large group of my classmates who were walking home. I had to endure a long speech about the virtues of well-made, classic cars and the poor intelligence of my friends for the duration of the car ride.
Your age became a concern by the time I got my driver’s license. I found myself falling back in love with you, since you saved me from being chauffeured around by my parents. And Dad was quick to point out that if I ever got in an accident with any of those “new plastic cars” that I’d always walk away without a scratch. However, that “well-made, classic” engine developed a habit of stalling out whenever I stopped at a signal light. And the driver’s side rear-view mirror randomly fell off when I was on my way to a friend’s house. Remember the time I drove home from school and your horn started to blow when I flipped the turn signal? It blew in one long, uninterrupted spasm that sounded like an airsick goose. It wouldn’t even stop when I cut the ignition and ran into the house in a panic. That was the last time I ever drove you.
Actually, I think it was the last time anyone ever drove you.
Your descent into disrepair could have been avoided, but those were difficult times for us all. You and Dad actually fell ill around the same time — during my sophomore year of high school I think. He contracted Valley Fever by inhaling an airborne spore that spread throughout his body like a cancer, weakening his body and his mind. When he was no longer able to drive or work you sat in front of the house for about a year — weakening just as he was. Mom was too preoccupied with an ailing husband and two teenaged daughters to tend to your needs, which is why you were in less than tip-top shape by the time I was old enough to drive a year later. You were essentially handed down to me from Dad by way of his illness. I was happy to have a car, but sick about the reason why you were suddenly all mine.
Dad’s death, during my last year of high school was the end of an era for you as well. You’ve been sitting in the driveway of Mom’s house since then—covered by a rotating cast of twin tarps that have banded together to protect you from the brutal Southern California sun for the last 22 years. Mom’s had plenty of purchase offers, but can’t bring herself to sell you.
None of us have come out and said it, but keeping you around has been a way of keeping Dad’s memory alive. You and Dad were kind of one and the same: strong, reliable, handsome, and dutifully performed any task like a pro without complaint.
Just like Dad I know that I appreciate you more now than I did during your days of health and vitality. That always seems to be the way that it works.
Although this is coming about 20 years too late, I’m writing to thank you for all that you did for the family. Faults? There were plenty. But the fact is that you never truly let us down. Not once. You were the foundation of so many good things in our lives and the cornerstone of memories that no photo album can adequately hold. Our lives would not have been so secure (or nearly as interesting) without your presence.
Mom’s been talking lately about finally letting you go to the highest bidder, and perhaps now is the right time. Letting go of an object isn’t nearly so important as holding on to a memory or an emotion. There’s even been talk about trading you in toward one of the newer Malibus on the road, but there is no replacing the true original. The sleek interior automotive design of today can’t compare to your long couch-like front seat that could only be adjusted if both occupants focused their collective body weight in the same direction. And manual door locks and windows are much more fun than fancy electric gizmos.
You made our lives better in your own unique way, and I will always be eternally grateful. You were the best.