In Tony Mirosevich’s non-fiction class at San Francisco State University, we are constantly asked to explore the soft, wavy lines between truth and fiction, between what is real and what is not real. For a recent assignment we were instructed to write about a personal memory and combine it with someone else’s memory of the same event, or write our remembrance of a singular occurrence at several junctures in our lives, filtered through time, emotion, and experience.
It wasn’t difficult for me to find a memory that fit all the above requirements. Years ago I published an essay about my dad having a mid-life crisis at the age of 32, and buying himself a sports car to cope with a mortgage, a wife and three small children. In the essay I described the make of the car, (a Ford Thunderbird), the color, (off-white), and the design (two bucket seats up front and a hard, bench-like seat in the back flanked by two porthole windows).
The purchase of that sports car caused enormous havoc in the life of our growing family. Even at the age of 7, I was aware of my mother’s angst and anger over the T-Bird. She thought my dad was an idiot for not buying her a practical Chevy station wagon, one she could drive to the A&P without worrying about her children’s comfort or her own suburban image.
The interior of the Thunderbird was low, dark, smoky, and mean, and the round gauges on the dashboard glowed an ominous green, reminding me of Russian Sputniks: dangerous, foreign, and prying. Inside, mounted on the doors and console, were ashtrays and places for highballs, should one want to smoke and drink while driving to the country club or grocery store. The most annoying characteristic of the Thunderbird was the backseat because something large, mysterious, and possibly essential to the engine rose up in the middle, causing whoever had to sit there to be uncomfortable and a tad put out. Hours before any car trip, no matter how insignificant, my brothers and I would argue about who would sit on the awkward bulge.
There were slamming doors, bloody noses, and missed important social engagements. More than once my brother Danny climbed into the car hours before a proposed errand to ensure that he would not get the middle position.
Finally, my mother suggested divorce and my father took the T-Bird away and brought home a boxy boring station wagon that had only six ashtrays (the proper number for a family of five in 1959), no portholes, and no place for highballs or travelers.
Immediately after the essay appeared in print, I received angry e-mails from Thunderbird fans all over the world. They informed me that I was mistaken about the design: Birds with round windows did not have backseats!
I dismissed the complaints as misguided fanaticism. I remembered those portholes. They were an important part of my childhood development and identity. Sitting in the backseat of the Thunderbird, looking out a round window, shaped my view of the world and my place in it.
I sent the essay to my father and brothers for confirmation. Danny e-mailed me back and claimed he did not remember the Thunderbird. Brother Bill was more emphatic. What in hell are you talking about? he asked. But my father’s response was the most disturbing. Susan, he wrote in an e-mail, we never had a T-Bird with portholes. You must be confusing our “square bird” with the “little bird” my friend Doc Thomas had. His was black. It didn’t have a backseat, but it did have those ridiculous windows.
Could it be possible that I never looked out a porthole window when I was a child? Did I only look into Doc Thomas’s oval windows and wish that I was looking out? Four years ago I would have sworn on a stack of Bibles that my psyche was determined, in part, by those unique circular windows, and that everything I have said, done and thought since were influenced by my childhood round view of the world. It’s hard to accept that I am, in fact, just a common square-window person, masquerading as someone who is classy, cool, chic, and circular.