I was out with an old friend the other night. We somehow ended up talking about cars, specifically our first cars. Having grown up in Manhattan with its wonderful transportation system I knew that I would never have to learn how to drive. I could walk everywhere and when I couldn't walk there were plenty of buses and taxis and trains to take you anywhere you needed to go.
The summer I turned 18 my mother was adamant that I take driving lessons. I tried to refuse but she wouldn't let me. I couldn't imagine why on earth I would need to drive. This was not an argument she would lose. I would learn how to drive in Newport, a much better option than the crazy, crowded streets of Manhattan. We needed a car. We had just one that sat in a garage on the Upper East Side during the week and would take us to Newport for weekends during the school year and over the summer. My father was not about to let me learn to drive in his car, a beloved Mercedes that would never part his side for about 20 years when it cost him more to maintain than the home they lived in!
Mom wanted something big and sturdy for me. She wanted something nice looking but her frugal ways would also mean that she was not about to dump a lot of money on a sturdy piece of metal. If she could have, I am sure she would have picked out an old Woody. But she found the next best thing. It was a large gray Mercedes with a huge front grill and little fins on the back. She was elegant and sturdy and would be our Newport car for many years to come.She was 18 years old -- the same age as I -- and she was all mine!
While, stunning as she was on the exterior, worthy of any party fit for F.Scott and Zelda, her interior was no frills. I had no CD player (did we even have CDs back then?) or tape deck. I can't remember air conditioning, but that is not something one would need in Newport when cruising along Ocean Drive with all the windows open while blaring Steve Winwood's Back in the High Life Again... or crooning along to Don Henley's Boys of Summer on Bellevue Avenue. My friends adored my car. They loved to hop in and if we were not walking to one of our many evening destinations, I would most often be the designated driver. But long before I was able to take my friends along I had to learn how to drive.
Since I was 18 I was no longer required -- in Rhode Island at least -- to take driver's ed. My mother took it upon herself to teach me. We were prepping for my very first ride. My mother was showing me where everything was and how to use everything. We prepared by adjusting our windows and took a few laps around our large circular driveway, learning how to carefully press on the gas and the accelerator. When Mom thought I was ready we prepared to take the vehicle on the road. As I was approaching the stone pillars I saw a small construction truck appear on my left. As it approached I froze. I had come to a rolling stop but my foot had become paralyzed, hovering mid-air, someplace between the brake and the accelerator.
What happened next was not pretty. The sound of metal crunching is a sound one tends never to forget. The sound and sight of the crunching of a very large Mercedes grill is something else one tends never to forget. Especially when one attempts to drive for the very first time!
The car's grill had folded like an accordion. I could see the disappointment in my mother's face. But she was not angry... As I would have been. The repairs had cost more than the car had! But the car was loved by us all and was fixed up like new.
I would learn to drive with a certified driving instructor in his small red car and before I knew it I had my own driver's license in hand. My gray car had become one of the family and we had even given her a name. Leibshen. As though she was a family pet. It was really quite amusing. Every time I left the house I'd yell out to my mother that I was taking Leibshen. As though on a walk. Though instead of a leash, I would be taking the keys.
When I was going into my Sophomore year in college my parents explained that they thought that car might be better suited to keep locally. She was getting old, after all, and they worried about her breaking down on the highway or on the busy streets of Boston. So Leibshen would be the Newport car. Eventually she became my mother's car. And my mother loved and nurtured her as though she was indeed the family pet. Older cars require a good bit of upkeep and maintenance and every time Leibshen was in the shop, which was a good bit towards the end of her life with us, mom would call to tell me. And I would make get well cards that would be posted on the inside of the garage where Leibshen slept when she was not at work or play!
I was given another car much more suited to a young girl requiring a reliable car. My father had surprised me with a zippy, fun and peppy red Volkswaggen Jetta. I did love it so. She was perfect. But she was not Leibshen. A dozen or so years ago my mother had to get rid of Leibshen. She had started to rust pretty badly and the undercarriage was in bad shape. Rust, in cars, is like cancer in people. It must be completely removed or it will keep coming back. She found someone who restored old cars as a hobby and he was more than happy to take the car from my mother. My mother was so pleased to be able to give Leibshen a new home.
If you are ever in Newport and ever see my Leibshen wave and say hello!