Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Her car, the virgin

In general I don’t get overly excited by birthdays, but there is an exception to every rule, and every year on this date (actually two days ago, I am running late, so please pretend) I make an exception because it is my grandmother’s birthday, the original Reine, my beloved Bonne Maman.
But in all these years of privately celebrating her birthday – she would be 111 today – I had never realized that she and the AAA (American Automobile Association) both entered the world on the same day (March 4, 1902). I don’t know what time she was born, nor do I know at what time of day the AAA was officially born, but I plan to look into this. Let us presume Reine was born at 3 a.m. on March 4th, in Mons, which is a not unreasonable guess, given how babies prefer to born in the tenebrous pre-dawn; in which case it was only 9 pm of March 3rd in Cleveland, Ohio, where the AAA came into existence. So for the purposes of this connection I am attempting to make, we are going to presume my grandmother was born after 6 am.
If the AAA began with the start of the business day, say 10 am, on March 4th, in Cleveland, then it was still March 4th in Mons. So if Bonne Maman was born anytime before midnight that night of March 4th, then there is absolutely no problem about claiming that she shares a birthday with the AAA. In other words, we have to consider when March 4th in Mons overlapped with March 4th in Cleveland: from 6 am to midnight in Mons and from 12 am to 6 pm in Cleveland. Even if the AAA didn’t officially begin until the end of the business day, say at 5 pm, when it would be 11 pm in Mons, then can we still claim their shared birthday.
This gets complicated, as such things often do.
And why is this important?
Because driving in cars played a small but significant role in the lives of my Belgian grandparents. We will briefly address my grandfather, Bon Papa’s fondness for driving. It was a serious fondness. In Egypt he was a member of an Automobile Club, which was not quite like the AAA that shares his wife’s birthday. As far as I can tell, the Egyptian Auto Club was a group of European men who liked to leave their chauffeurs and wives behind, and go driving into the desert. That is all I know.
Meanwhile, Bonne Maman never drove in Belgium or Alexandria or Indo China or Cairo. She was driven. (And unlike her daughter, SBM, she did not find this objectionable.) Then Bonne Maman and Bon Papa moved to the US to be near their daughter and son and assorted grandchildren, and discovered that in the US it is almost impossible to find gentle chauffeurs named Mohammed. Since Bon Papa had a stroke and could no longer drive, Bonne Maman finally had to learn, in her late 50’s.

She bought a beige Oldsmobile with a Fisher body. How do I know this? For all that I know about - and obsess about - my grandmother, I had no idea what model car she drove. I barely know what model car I drive. So this is what I did: First I searched and searched the Internet for grandmother-appropriate cars of the 1960’s, and found nothing that remotely resembled the car I remembered Bonne Maman driving. Then I emailed my siblings and cousins, and my cousin in California is responsible for the phrase “with a Fisher body” which is exhibits a degree of auto-savvy light years ahead of anything I could aspire to. The car was equipped with an early version of automatic transmission, with only 3 speeds. At some later time an air conditioning unit was installed in the middle of the dashboard, so if you sat in the middle of the front (bench seats of course) you could get blasted into Irkutsk.
The important thing about Bonne Maman’s car was that it was a Virgin.
By a virgin, she meant it had no dents or nicks or bruises, that it was as perfectly intact and pristine as it was on her first day on the road. Some grandmothers might like their pubescent granddaughters to be virgins; Bonne Maman apparently only valued virginity in a car. And miraculously, this car remained a virgin, long after it had been driven into the garage wall, long after it both suffered and inflicted numerous dents, scratches, scrapes and hematomas, long after it straddled a fire hydrant and received a speeding a ticket in Wyoming. This car was gave witness to the triumph of pixie dust over epistemological evidence.
“But she is still a virgin,” Bonne Maman repeated in her lovely French accent, each time the car returned from the body shop.
This was all meant to lead us to my road trip story, about the time Bonne Maman and I drove her virginal & re-virginized car out to California, where I would go to college and she would live nearby in Santa Barbara to keep me company. It was a great road trip. But it will have to be told another day. The important detail is the wooden pomegranate.

Also born in 1902, though not on March 4th, were Charles Lindbergh, the Ayatollah Khomeini, Ray Kroc and Ogden Nash. Bonne Maman outlived them all.

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