It was like opening a time capsule.
There were 12 plastic-encased audio cassette tapes, mostly by musicians who no longer perform, plus one recording of an old Lux Radio broadcast – a 1940s suspense play. There were road maps and atlases, one dating back to 1979. There was a safety kit in which all the supplies were so crusty with age or degraded by extreme temperatures that they were pitifully beyond any service at all. There was a rusted disposable cigarette lighter, a remnant of days when smoking was still socially acceptable (or in case of the odd rock concert). There were 47 coupons – all expired – for a wide variety of products. Two dog vaccination certificates for two different dogs, both of whom passed away more than five years ago; and one red plastic rain hat that hadn’t been worn since 2010 – probably because it doesn’t actually look good on anyone nor does it protect the wearer from the rain particularly well. One outdated phone book. One compass. One tape measure. One watercolor paint brush. Two pencils. Three pens (none working). One notebook. A Bible. A paper-wrapped plastic drinking straw. A 24-pack of bungee cords. Four pairs of earrings and a gold watch that looked vaguely familiar.
These were just some of the more unexpected finds.
I have long been an admirer of abandoned buildings and places inhabited only by left-behind ghosts and shadows, whispers and memories. But this was my car. This capsule of long-forgotten things and times was my 2001 PT Cruiser.
The car came to its final rest at the end of my driveway on Thanksgiving Day, too tired to move any farther. Its transmission, its battery, most of its electrical life, its tires, its finish, its undercarriage, its oil pan, its hoses and the ability to hold on to most of its liquids – all gave up and out almost simultaneously.
What was left was a shell of a once much-loved carrier and caretaker of my life.
When I began clearing it out a few weeks later, I realized it was also an amazing reflection and repository of my personality, my passions, and my lifestyle.
To begin with, I’ve never been accused of obsessing over the cleanliness of my car. As a result, the animal fur was thick inside it, and represented a number of different relationships, including two cats that had made the move with me from Indiana to Aiken in 2004 with remarkable grace and a sense of adventure. The fanny pack slung over the back of the driver’s seat still contained a map of Hitchcock woods, along with a rock (that could be an arrowhead), a braided nylon combination leash/collar for encouraging lost dogs to come along home, and six cents. There were towels with muddy paw prints, a couple of books, and several writing pads.
Leaves from at least a dozen autumns or springs or summers lined the doorframes and floor mats. Behind them, I found little scraps of paper with phone numbers but no names – an obvious trail of new friends waiting to be made. In the pockets of the doors there were four pairs of sunglasses and a state park pass that further underscored my love of the South Carolina landscape, while an empty thumb drive and several used ink cartridges pointed to my livelihood as a writer. Faded calendars pulled from under the seats and expired membership cards and other memorabilia that had slipped into crevices supported the arts and animals and children and churches. Tucked in the glove compartment was a plastic sack of other people’s keys – an exchange of trust and friendship to feed the cat or check on the dog or open the store or bring over some soup.
Not long ago, I visited a cemetery in Vermont in which one memorial stone was a carved likeness of a car. I think I understand that symbolism better now. More than a possession, it must have been their vehicle through life – keeping them safe, connecting them with family and friends, carrying them into all their adventures, bringing them home again. I only wish I could have somehow opened that stone car door, or peeked through its granite windows, and seen all the bits and pieces and memories still in it. Perhaps, like mine, it was filled with things they had treasured in life. And then it was left as an imprint – a marker – about who they had once been.
A life well-remembered by the things left behind.