I was going through some old notebooks where I used to write during the 1990s. There are schedules, poems, story parts and sometimes journal entries. I was happy to find my memories of cars in my life.
We didn’t own a car until I was 7. My mother went back to school to get her teaching certification when I was 5. When I was 7, she had her degree and was teaching at the school I attended. She brought a gray Ford. She always bought Fords because her father worked at Fords. My father’s family always bought Chevys. Why, I do not know.
We called our light gray car Betsy. Every Saturday we would pick up my mother’s sister and her daughters. The 5 of us would ride across town, usually taking the Blvd, from the West Side to Theodore on the East side to spend the day at my grandparent’s house.
I remember getting a flat tire once on the way home. My mother changed the tire while we ran up and down the sidewalk. I liked the drive down through the exotic crowded flats and houses. All those people outside grilling or sitting on porches. The neighborhoods looked lots more exciting than where we lived in a flat on Calvert. More people, older houses. We passed through areas full of white people up from the south and black bottom, full of black people up from the same south.
Before the car we would catch the bus on Saturdays. Often having to get off and walk because I got bus sick. There was a big bridge over an industrial area, junkyards, railroad tracks… that we had to walk across. My sister Pearl and I ran across, looked over the railing, having a great time. I later learned my mother was scared to death of heights, but she hid it so we wouldn’t be.
My father’s car
Anyway, back to cars. My father didn’t buy a car until after my parents were divorced. How did we get to church on Sunday or over to his mother’s? I can’t believe we walked… I’ll have to ask ( later note: unfortunately I didn’t and now it’s too late.) My father always bought a car with no extras, no clock, no radio. They must have been new.
My mother always got a used car. Her father, who we called Poppy, went with my mother when she decided to trade in Betsy for a newer used car. As we drove into the used car lot, the door flew open. We left with a newer black Ford.
I recall my cousin Barbara getting her thumb or finger closed in the car door. She very calmly said “Aunt Doris, my finger is in the door.” Nobody paid her any attention. She didn’t sound like she had her finger in the door. Then she started crying and Mommy opened the door.
The first car in my life was Lizzie, Poppy’s old Ford. It was black with a running board and awning-striped shades on the windows. We pulled them down when using the car to change when we went swimming at Belle Isle. Poppy didn’t have a garage. The back of his yard was taken up in a large vegetable and flower garden with a winding path and bird feeder. It’s all torn down now and cement block/razor wire surround the whole block now an industrial storage area.
Poppy rented garage space from a neighbor across the alley. Was it the family with all the kids? I don’t remember. I do remember my mother telling me one of their sons mentioned to Poppy something about his pretty granddaughter and I figured she was going to say Dee Dee, my older, beautiful cousin. At the time I was skinny with glasses and hair in two braids. I was truly surprised when she said he was talking about me. Come to think of it, he was skinny with glasses too. Anyway, I don’t remember ever talking or playing with him or any of my grandparent’s neighbors. We stayed in the house or yard making up plays, building fairy castles, playing imaginary land and swinging.
Back to Lizzie. After we took the bus over to visit, Poppy would drive us home. Maybe while we were there the mothers went grocery shopping. I remember how we grocery shopped in Springfield, Massachusetts pre-car … we walked.
We all squeezed into Lizzie for our yearly visit to the zoo. We granddaughter all spent the night before the trip – 4 girls smashed into a double wide cot in my grandfather’s room. If I woke up at night I was doomed to lay there and listen to his loud snoring.
Let’s see, Poppy, my mother, her sister and 4 or 5 kids in one car?! Maybe we were in Betsy by this time – three adults in front and 5 girls squeezed into the back seat. Singing “John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt” and other camp classics that Dee Dee taught us.
I remember going up to Idlewild in my other grandfather’s big green buick in the 1950s. The car was full and some of us (including me) were sitting on the floor. This doesn’t make sense, but I remember it.
Flash forward. Oh, wait, I used to have to go to bed at 8 o’clock or maybe earlier. Way before I was sleepy. I’d watch the girls next door playing up in their attic playroom. They were our age. They had an awful, mean dog named Dutchess that tried to bite me once, so we never went over there. My father had a big stick he carried to knock the dog silly when she ran out at him. One night I saw a pink Cadillac parked on the street in front of my house. A pink Cadillac. It wasn’t full dark yet, dusk. I was kneeling at the open window and there it was. This was in the days of black and dark colored cars. I was amazed.
After Henry and my mother married they spent many weekends driving around looking for a place in the country. Pearl often chose to stay with my father and so it would be the three of us. We drove around Canada, but the houses on the lake – What lake? – On the beach, the beaches in Canada were public beaches and there seemed to be lots of teenagers racing cars up and down them. I always liked trips. Sitting in the back seat looking at all the stories going by.
Henry’s car was a red and white Chevrolet. It always struck me as chunky. That was on Oregon and there was no driveway so the cars (Chevy and Ford) were parked out front. When we went to Nanny’s and Poppy’s we drove via the highway. We passed over an area of junk piles, We’d gotten into the habit of saying “If this bridge broke, we’d land right in the junk yard where we belong.” Henry took this (for some reason) as a personal insult and we had to stop that.
Back to the repair shop
Once we gave my Uncle Hugh a ride way out Grand River somewhere to pick up his car from where it had been in the shop. The drive was long. On the way home, he stopped suddenly for a red light. We were right behind him. Blam! Back to the shop he went.
Driving to Old Plank Road
We used to drive to Old Plank Road, near Wixom and Milford, our two country acres with a big, old farm house on it. We’d drive out Grand River or take the Freeway. My mother and Henry would sing songs like “Indian Love Call.” We drove passed a Square Dance clothing shop. I would have loved to have one of those dresses.
Learning to Drive
I started learning how to drive when I was 16 or 17. Henry was teaching me out at Old Plank. I wasn’t all that interested in learning to drive but I learned to drive to Wixom and even went 40 mph down the black top. The end of my early driving career came when I had turned into a driveway and was supposed to back out but instead I went into a ditch. Just as my cousins drove up.
I tried learning to drive again in Detroit when Jilo, my first child, was a baby. My husband Jim was teaching me but there was too much traffic. It rattled me and I gave it up and continued to ride the bus or catch a ride. This worked when we moved to Atlanta where my second daughter Ife was born, but not after we moved out of the city. I finally had to learn to drive. I started learning in Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina and ended up getting my license while pregnant with third daughter Ayanna, in Simpson County, Mississippi in 1976. Our car at that time came with the job and was a little gray Volkswagen.
Our cars from then to now
After the Volkswagon we bought our first car. It was at an auction – a light green post office jeep. The only seat was the drivers seat. My husband Jim bolted an old kitchen chair onto the passenger side and the kids just sat in the back. There were no seat belt laws in those days. After that, we had an old car with a hole rusted in the backseat floor. My daughter Jilo put her foot through that hole once to see what would happen. Luckily, nothing. There was a blue car of some type and there was a Datsun truck – red, with a camper. We sat in the front and the kids rode in the back.
After leaving Mississippi we moved to Excelsior Springs Missouri. My brother-in-law left us his black rabbit Volkswagen. It was a bit small for two adults and five children. The back shelf came out and several of the children would ride back there, sort of in the trunk but with their heads coming up where the shelf was supposed to be. Eventually we bought our first new car – a much needed station wagon. It died of a fire years later. Nobody was in the car or hurt. The Idlewild fire department came and hosed the car well and that was the end of it. There followed a series of used cars, a blue van, and as Jim retired and we moved to the big city, we bought a newish used car that I hope will last us another 20 years. Or however long we keep driving.