Vivian, Sweet Vivian

Vivian and I first met in the front lot of Continental Motors in the spring of 1978. I loved her immediately. True, she had some miles on her – 67,000 – but they gave her an attractive maturity that appealed to me at twenty-two. She was like an older woman who could guide me down the unfamiliar roadways. Viv wasn’t beautiful in the classic sense; she didn’t have the sexiness of Porsche or the vavavoom of a TransAm, but her boxy Volvo hips, her no-nonsense ride, her tall, soft felt seats were beautiful to me. She had a Swedish flag over her left rear bumper, but otherwise her body – a pastel green – was unmarked.

I brought her home and washed her, waxed and vacuumed her, carefully cleaned her windows. Small imperfections appeared on closer examination – a small scratch on the hood, a paler green to her left rear fender, a pen-sized hole in her passenger seat – but they were the scars and freckles that made Vivian unique. Driving around town, I was unable to resist a regal wave from her throne-like seats. I brought Vivian to parties and to work. Vivian and I drove friends to Boston and Vermont and at night I tucked her into my driveway.   Over the years Viv became less like a new lover and more like a comfortable old friend, but I never took her for granted.

I always made sure Vivian had the highest octane and fresh, clean oil. I replaced Viv’s filters, brakes and belts, rotated and replaced her tires, put in new brake lights and lenses, changed the alternator, belts and batteries. The mechanism for rolling up her left rear window was broken by an autistic kid I worked with in 1981; I could force it closed but it never opened again. At 120,000 miles I rebuilt Vivian’s engine and we rolled on and on together.   We vacationed on the Cape and Jersey shore and went to shows in the city. When Viv’s odometer stopped working in 1984 at 167,000 miles, I decided not to fix it. Why should I? Vivian didn’t need to be reminded that she was getting old.

When Viv’s radio died, I put in a cassette that was better. When her driver’s seat began to sag, I tried to switch it with the passenger seat, but they were different sizes. When Viv’s oil began to leak again I tried not to notice.   Vivian’s muffler was the last thing I replaced.

By 1986, Vivian’s coat had faded to a yellowish green, her shocks were squeaking and her tires were bald. She left rainbows of oil where ever she sat and trailed a flatulent gray smoke like she’d lost control of her bowels. Fewer and fewer of our friends would ride with her. Even I had to admit that Vivian had become an eyesore.

That fall I took Vivian on a trip up the Hudson River to a writers’ conference. We both knew it was a farewell tour. Vivian struggled up every hill without complaint and steered carefully around the curvy, country roads as we admired the colors of the changing trees. At the conference, I wrote poems to her.   At dinner, I told Vivian stories to the other writers and teachers. At night I lead the group in singing Vivian songs. (Okay, there was no Vivian songfest, but there should have been.) On Sunday, we limped home and pulled into the driveway with a final exhausted gasp.

On a gray, overcast Monday, I brought Vivian to the LaJoie Salvage Yard along the Norwalk River. Halfway between a nursing home and a center for organ donation, it was the best place I could find. I tucked Vivian into a corner with a view of the river, patted her worn and tattered green felt seats, rolled up her windows and locked her doors. I paused for a minute with a hand on her roof before backing away and saying goodbye.

Over the next few weeks, I probably drove by LaJoie Salvage a dozen times, but I never went in. I gradually realized that I didn’t want to find Vivian in pieces, or worse, find her gone. If I didn’t go back I was free to imagine her enjoying the late afternoon sun by the river. Or in Volvo heaven; Lord knows she deserved it. Or, my favorite, imagine Vivian in every old Volvo I drove by. Those 240’s were built to last; thousands were still on the road. When I saw an old 240 at a stop light or on a highway, I could imagine a piece of Vivian inside: a fender, a water pump, maybe that new muffler I put in. A little piece of Vivian could still be driving some family off to vacation or taking some teenager safely to work. I love to think Vivian’s still out there on the road she loved so much.