Eulogy for My Beloved 1992 Mazda Model 323 Car
The End of My Mazda 323
From a couple living just down the block and around the corner from our house that we had then in Marquette, Michigan, on Wednesday, October 12, 2005 my wife Kayle Rice and I bought a 4-door all-wheel drive 2001 teal-colored Subaru Legacy L Wagon. Our new to us used car had five on the floor stick shift and, unlike my Mazda, had cruise control, a radio, air conditioning, and power windows. We loved it.
A week after we bought the Subaru, on Wednesday, October 19, 2005, thirteen years almost to the day after I bought it, I donated my white, two-door 1992 Mazda Model 323 to the Jacobetti Center, home of the Northern Michigan University School of Technology and Applied Sciences. The Mazda became a teaching tool. If the automotive repair students could resuscitate it, the school would auction it.
I never realized until it was fit only for the junkyard or for automobile repair school how much I loved my Mazda. As a familiar extension of my body, for many years it had served me well and faithfully.
Driving Evelyn Leekley
Buying the Mazda new in October 1992 was a Leekley family project. My name went on the title, and I made the final choice. One brother helped me to search the car dealerships and to make the deal. My other brother made the car payments, with our widowed mother's aging Volkswagen Rabbit as trade-in.
I had been caring for our mother, Evelyn Leekley, at home since brain damage from a stroke in July 1988 had left her unable to converse (aphasic) and with her right side paralyzed (hemiplegic). Home was in Winthrop Harbor, Illinois, at the corner of Lake Michigan and the Wisconsin border. I was to use the Mazda, as I had the Volkswagen, primarily to chauffeur Mother on short errands -- to a restaurant, to a thrift shop, to church, and so on.
My mother could understand what others said fairly well, and she knew what she wanted to say, but she could not say it. Nor could she write her thoughts. Instead of speaking words, she said, "Go," not as a word but as a meaningless vocalization. She gave it meaning with her tone of voice, facial expressions, and body language. "Go, go, go!" might mean, "I am angry," or, "I am sympathetic," or, "I am happy," or "Please help me onto the toilet," or, "Please take me to the gardening store to buy starter plants for my flower beds," or, "Let's invite my friend Helen to go out to lunch with us," or whatever. It typically took me ten to twenty minutes or more of patiently asking yes-no questions -- "Do you want to go somewhere?" "Do you want me to take you in the car?" "Do you want me to take you somewhere here in Winthrop Harbor?" "Do you want me to take you to somewhere in Zion?" -- to finally guess her meaning. It did not help that she tended to get her yes head nods and no head shakes mixed up.
When we were shopping for the car to replace the Volkswagen, my brother and I would take Mother with us. My procedure for helping Mother into a car was to open the passenger door wide, move her close, lock her wheelchair, help her to stand on her left foot, pivot her in a half circle, lower her onto the car seat, and pivot her on her tailbone as I cradled her shoulders and lifted her legs, to get her seated in the car. The doors of many cars did not open wide enough. Some cars had seats too low; some cars had seats too high. The passenger door of the Mazda 323 opened amply wide. The passenger seat was just the right height and size for getting Mother in and out of the car. Her folded wheelchair fit easily into the space between the hatchback and the back seat. And the price was in the economy car range that the family could budget.
The Mazda had no radio, no air conditioning, no cruise control, and no power or automatic anything. It was a handy little running-errands workhorse of a car. Virtually every day, year after year, I took my mother in the Mazda on some errand or outing -- to eat at a family restaurant if that's what she wanted, to shop for our groceries at a supermarket, to browse at an antiques and collectibles show at the fairgrounds, to attend Mass, and so on. Sometimes we would sit together in the car at a park in Zion, Illinois and watch ducks, geese and swans swimming in the lagoon, and I would entertain Mother by getting out and tossing pieces of day-old bread in the air for the gulls to catch.
Sometimes we would drive to a resale shop in Zion, Kenosha, or Waukegan, such as Salvation Army or Goodwill, and shop for large Teddy bears and for toddler clothes. Then at home Mother, with her one good hand and with a little help from me, would dress the Teddy bears in cute toddler outfits. At a resale shop, in her wheelchair, Mother would use her left hand to look through a pile of toddler clothes that I had put within easy reach. Meanwhile, I would shop for stock for my used book business.
I was 51 years old and had been caring for my mother for five years when, in January 1994, I received a letter from Ipswich, South Dakota, from United Church of Christ minister Reverend Kayle Louise Rice, saying she liked my Single Booklovers profile. I replied that we lived too far apart to date but that perhaps we could be pen pals. We soon realized we both, at that time, used the online program Prodigy, and then we exchanged emails daily.
We had three dates that spring and summer, made possible by Kayle's travels that took her through my part of the country. We each thought the other attractive and admirable, and we were very comfortable together. Love germinated.
Kayle moved from South Dakota to Kalamazoo, Michigan, her hometown, to study for a Masters of Comparative Religion degree. We emailed daily, and we dated a couple of times per month, taking turns making the 200-mile Winthrop Harbor - Kalamazoo trip. Love grew, and I proposed the day after Thanksgiving Day, 1994. On February 26, 1995, in my older brother's then house in Gurnee, Illinois, Kayle and I wed.
When she finished her studies at Western Michigan University, Kayle joined me and my mother in Winthrop Harbor. There was little market in the area for those with a Masters degree in Comparative Religion. At first Kayle worked as a community college adjunct philosophy instructor, but that scarcely paid for her gas and work clothes. She worked variously as a secretary, a phlebotomist, a Borders Books clerk, a nursing home activities director, and a hospital chaplain. Over a number of years, following her conscience and inclinations, she changed her religion from United Church of Christ to Unitarian Universalist, and she studied and interned to become a UU minister. I continued seeking my way through the paradox of being a latitudinarian Catholic.
We distinguished our cars by calling hers "the Honda" and mine "the Mazda."
Because of her advancing age and need for professional nursing care, in August 1999 my two brothers, sister, and I put our mother in Rolling Hills Manor Nursing Home in Zion, Illinois. It was non-profit, and when checking out nursing homes in the vicinity, we had been favorably impressed by the competence and spirit of its management and staff. Mother liked it. Virtually every afternoon I took her in the Mazda back to our Winthrop Harbor house, or I sometimes took her on an outing, such as to a restaurant or to the park lagoon to watch the ducks and geese. After playing at home for a while with her beloved doll collection and with her stuffed animals, she would ask me--with facial expressions, left-hand gestures and, "Go, go," vocalizations--to return her to the nursing home, for her afternoon nap.
In summer 2002, Kayle accepted the position of part-time minister of the Marquette Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Marquette, Michigan. I followed her in October 2002, after during the summer and early fall reducing and packing my Leekley Books stock. Kayle came back for the big move. We loaded a rented truck with 200 boxes of books, assorted book cases and shelving, and our household furniture and goods. She drove the truck, and I drove the Mazda, to Marquette. There we put most of our belongings in rented storage and, while waiting to put the Winthrop Harbor house on sale in the spring, took house-sitting gigs. My trusty little Mazda got me about Marquette city, township, and county and, on occasion, out of the U. P. -- to visit my mother and to finish emptying the Winthrop Harbor house.
Mother understood that, when confronted with the choice to either move with my wife or to keep my promise that I would take her, Mother, home from the nursing home every day, the former duty trumped the latter. I made the 670-mile round trip to Zion and Winthrop Harbor in the Mazda every two to three weeks. In those last months Mother was like a Buddha, at peace, shed of all resentments and regrets, content, smiling benignly on everyone. A treasured memory is her big smile and joyous laugh the last time I drove her to the lagoon to watch the gulls, ducks, geese, and swans.
Mother died of an infection February 4, 2003, at age 89. The Winthrop Harbor house sold in April 2003. With money from that sale as down payment, Kayle and I bought our own house in Marquette and moved into it in June 2003.
Is it romantic humbug to love and eulogize a car?
Too Old, Too Worn
Nine months later my Mazda 323's mission changed again. On an icy Sunday morning in March 2004, on a hill curve on Wright Street in Marquette, a van slid into the path of my wife's Honda. No one was badly injured, and the van, carrying an adult couple and half a dozen teenagers in town from Wisconsin for a volleyball tournament, just got scratched. But the crash totaled Kayle's car. We became a one-car couple.
Kayle never liked the Mazda much. She missed her car's automatic drive, cruise control, air conditioning, power windows, and radio. The Honda had been even older than the Mazda. For years she would talk from time to time about a coming day when we would trade in both our old cars and buy one better one. Her talk of trading in the Mazda when we could afford to buy another car increased a lot after the accident totaled her Honda.
My reply was always that when we did buy another car, I still wanted to keep the Mazda for another dozen years. Why not? I had read in the Car Talk newspaper column that it is always cheaper to keep a car running than to buy a new one. Besides, it takes months, maybe years, at least for me, to learn to know kinesthetically if a car will fit into a narrow parking space or through a hole in traffic--or to just know how it will perform in the given situation.
Through the years the Mazda had not needed much repair and maintenance--regular oil changes, new tires before leaving Illinois, new belts as scheduled, an occasional new muffler or exhaust pipe, and so on. Then, during the months of 2005, the car deteriorated. The horn stopped working. The parking brake dash light stayed on. Going up a hill, the engine sometimes would sound as though it were racing, though the car moved no faster. And the car made clunking, clanking, grinding, or clattering noises whenever starting, backing up, proceeding forward, turning, slowing, or braking. We worried about it, but for lack of funds we put off having it looked at.
Our worry ratcheted up a notch when, one spring day on a pastoral visit to a rural couple, as she drove it at a little over 50 miles per hour down a long hill, the Mazda's steering wheel shook in Kayle's hands. When that shaking happened to Kayle again, we stopped driving the Mazda outside of Marquette city or township. To drive out in the countryside, to the airport, or across the peninsula, Kayle, or I, or we both would get a ride, take the Greyhound bus, or rent a car.
Worst of all, in the hot humid weather of 2005 July and August, the Mazda often would stall while stopped at stoplights and stop signs. Then it sometimes stalled at low speed. Then it sporadically stalled even on not so hot and humid days.
We kept procrastinating getting the car diagnosed. Finally, on August 22, we left it at the Marquette service station near us, to which we had taken it in the past. I walked back there next day. The diagnosis was not good. The mechanic who had a look at our car, backed up by the other mechanics, told us don't bother fixing it, buy another one. He said that their computer diagnostic equipment was not programmed for a thirteen-year-old foreign car. They would need to work manually and painstakingly on the different parts of the car, to confirm or refute their suspicions. Labor costs would be expensive. The motor racing on hills, with no boost in forward speed, might be the clutch slipping. Fixing that would cost more than $700. The clanking and grinding sounds might be the left back wheel bearings. They did not have a guess yet what was causing the Mazda to stall. The clunk when first backing up might be something wrong with the hand brake. Total repairs, not counting fixing the horn, would cost more than $1,000. Even when all the repairs were done, the Mazda would not be worth keeping. With a car that old, something else would soon go wrong. For instance, the supply and return fuel lines were rusting.
So I drove the Mazda home and reported to Kayle. We did not have the funds or income with which to buy another car. We agreed we would keep driving the old rattletrap Mazda in town in spite of our misgivings.
A couple in their 30s had recently moved to Marquette to work at Northern Michigan University and had discovered our Unitarian Universalist congregation. They liked it, including Kayle's work as part-time Minister, and started regularly attending Sunday services. To get acquainted, they invited Kayle and me to have supper with them on Wednesday, September 21, 2005, at their house. It was on the south side of Marquette, in the Shiras Hills neighborhood.
That evening we enjoyed their cordial company, their delightful three school-age children, their charming house, and a tasty grilled meal. We left a little past 8:00 p.m.
It was a warm, lovely night. Kayle drove the Mazda. We wound our way out of the Shiras Hills subdivision, arriving at the junction of Nicolet Street and Route 41. Wanting to drive north toward our home, Kayle started to make the left turn. She had the Mazda's nose a little way onto the southbound lane of the highway when the car stalled.
Usually when it stalled it would start right up again, but this time it didn't. As I sat in the passenger seat observing Kayle trying to get the car started, I enjoyed the beauty of the night and our surroundings--houses, trees, streets--all illuminated by streetlights and moonlight.
The headlights of a line of cars appeared to our right, in the northbound lane. As those several cars drove by us, the southbound lane, the lane we were partially on, was empty for as far as we could see to our left, to where in the distance the highway curved.
"You'd best get it started, before cars start coming this way," I cautioned, a bit anxiously.
Kayle glanced to her right at me, to her left up the highway, then back on task. I thought, "Start! Start!" and watched the distant curve.
Then the headlights of a line of vehicles appeared in the darkness, coming around the curve. Northbound cars were going by in front of us. "Still lots of time. She'll get it started," I thought.
But within two or three seconds, the distance from the front southbound vehicle, some sort of small truck or SUV, to us had about halved and was shrinking very fast. That front end and those headlights loomed larger and larger. I sensed the driver seeing the Mazda then realizing we were in the way and not moving. With wonder and curiosity, I realized that the large, fast-moving vehicle in an instant would broadside us.
An instant later, the line of southbound vehicles was zooming past in front of us, very close. Only then did I notice that Kayle had opened her car door, put out her foot, and used it to push the car backwards the inches needed for the vehicles rushing at us to go by. Yet again I appreciated this one of many reasons that I love her--she is ever resourceful in a crunch or emergency. I sat there appreciating my wife's quick thinking, appreciating the beauty of the trees, the houses, the sky, and the night traffic, appreciating our sitting there unharmed and still alive.
I heard Kayle's calm, testy, voice, "How about giving me some help here."
Roused from my revery, I realized that the Mazda was still dangerously a little way out on the southbound lane, though so far cars were whizzing safely past. I opened my car door, stepped out, helped push the car back a couple of feet or so, and got back in. Then in my thoughts I berated myself for being such a slow thinker, for having to be asked to do the obvious.
Several seconds later, Kayle started the Mazda, the traffic cleared in both directions, Kayle made the left turn, and we were on our way home. Arriving, we went about our evening routines as usual, without mentioning our near crash experience.
Next day, when she happened to be passing me in the house, Kayle said, "We should buy another car. Soon. That experience last night spooked me."
I instantly agreed. "Right," I said. She had expressed my very own thoughts.
Buying a car became our daily topic of discussion. We decided to raise the money by converting Kayle's hobby room and the guest room, formerly used to hold Leekley Books book stock, into rooms to rent.
Ever since the stalled on the highway incident, I have had frequent memories of seeing the headlights of that front vehicle a fraction of a second away from crashing into the driver's side of the Mazda, with Kayle and me inside staring at death rushing at us. It seems impossible that Kayle with her left foot--the foot that she sprained that August and that was still sore--could have pushed our car out of harm's way.
As the mental images come, of headlights rushing at us, then of that line of vehicles zipping past us, I cannot help wondering if the crash really did not happen. Maybe in the final instant my mind escaped into itself to avoid the terror, pain, and helplessness of the crash. Maybe we are still sitting in that stalled car, partially on Nicolet Street, partially on the highway, waiting for that instant to go by until the crash.
I sometimes wonder if everything that I have experienced since that moment of expectation has happened within that sliver of a second, has been a wishful fantasy of what my life to come might have been. If so, I believe it is up to me to make my fantasy life good and beautiful.