Driving American

I first saw America from a silver Buick that called to my mother from a dealership along the New Jersey turnpike. We’d been in this country less than a week and were no more committed to America than to the rental car we’d picked up at the airport. Then she spied the Buick. I imagine something about its width and breadth and the regal redness of its plush interior put her in mind of “Charlie’s Angels,” a big hit back then and also the inspiration for the fringe she was sporting that year. It was ours that very day.

In all the years since, I’ve wondered about that car and its role in all that happened afterward. My mother has always claimed that she and my father didn’t expect to stay in this country, that they’d come just to wait out the trouble back home. But before the trouble turned into a revolution, we’d already discarded the rental and were headed across the country in our silver Buick. We drove west for two weeks until finally my mother narrowed her eyes at a strip of California coast and told my father to stop the car because she’d just found us a new home.

Afterward that car mostly traveled the three miles between Terra Linda and Corte Madera, where my parents had bought the Casa Buena, a run-down motel off Highway 101 just north of San Francisco. And only my father got behind its plastic maroon steering wheel, because for a long time she didn’t think she knew enough English to pass a driving test.

Those first few years in America, she and I walked everywhere together – to school, to the mall, to the community pool. But I, already a true Californian, couldn’t abide walking as a mode of transport. Terra Linda was hot and dusty. We were the only pedestrians for miles. I dragged my heels and kicked up such a fuss that one day she’d just had enough. We got on a bus to the DMV, where somebody shoved a pencil and stack of papers into her hands and told her to take a number. She passed her driver’s test on her first try and never looked back.

Now I mark the decades by her cars. The pale yellow Cadillac convertible she bought soon after she got her driver’s license – that one pretty much sums up the ’80s for me. By then the motel was making enough money for us to move five exits up the highway to Tiburon. I was sitting in the backseat of that Cadillac with boxes of kitchenware when she drove into our new driveway for the first time. Its successor was a Mercedes the exact shade of bruised apricots. She drove that car when, in less prosperous times, we moved to an apartment in town and she started working at the motel most nights and weekends.

It was in my mother’s cars that we raced up and down the interstate all through the ’80s and ’90s in pursuit of some version of the family we’d lost by coming to America. A few times a year she sent away for AAA maps and plotted a course to the many relatives scattered across the United States. She’d load the car and we’d hit the road.

It was a style of travel well suited to my mother and my grandmother. Persian pop music blaring from the tape deck, they gossiped and bickered their way through pounds and pounds of pistachios, while I moped in the backseat. Every one of the thousand times I complained of boredom, my mother would pass me a handful of nuts and advise me to “look at America,” which most often meant Interstate 5 somewhere outside of Fresno. No other provision was made for my amusement.

When I turned 16, she surprised me with a car of my own: a cherry-red Chrysler LeBaron convertible. It cut quite a figure in my high school parking lot – more of a figure than I would have liked, to be sure. But it took me places, which for me, like any other teenage girl, meant places far from home.  And though she could not have foreseen it on that day in 1979 when she bought the silver Buick, she was on her way to acquiring an American daughter and becoming, in her way, American herself.

She’s been economizing a lot since my father died. To get around town in recent years she’s made do with my cast-off vehicles, a succession of gray and black Asian imports, one as indistinct as the next. I disappoint her with my choice in cars, I know. To her mind, when it comes to transportation, I’m always so clearly missing the point – which, roughly speaking, is that a car should be chosen for its capacity to propel you toward what you love, or at least to help you ride out your disappointments in style.

Now that she’s on her own, she hasn’t planned any more road trips. Only under great duress will she drive as far as San Francisco by herself. Her domain is a circumference of 10 miles in Marin County, and she favors roads with speed limits under 35. I, meanwhile, can’t ever seem to summon the patience necessary for seven hours in a car with her. I know I disappoint her in this, too. But when she wants to visit her cousins in Los Angeles, I drive her as far as the Amtrak station in Emeryville. These days it’s the two of us bickering and gossiping in the front seat, and though Persian pop music and pistachio nuts play no role in our journeys anymore, mostly she is grateful for the ride, and so, too, am I.

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