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Lorraine Sommerfeld and her mother, Leadfoot Iris (in about 1964). (Lorraine Sommerfeld/Lorraine Sommerfeld)
Lorraine Sommerfeld and her mother, Leadfoot Iris (in about 1964). (Lorraine Sommerfeld/Lorraine Sommerfeld)

Drive, She Said

Memories of mom and the scratched car that kept us connected Add to ...

It’s terrible to say it out loud, but as the car ahead of me finally turned off, I knew I’d be right: it was a little old lady who’d held up a string of cars as she puttered along at 10 km/h under the speed limit. I will forever picture Granny, the white-haired owner of Tweety Bird, tripping along in her Model T, oblivious to everything around her.

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In high school, I had a friend who was stalking a car. It belonged to a little old lady who only drove it to church on Sundays. Or something like that. I don’t recall the car, but he would patiently drop her a note every year, requesting that if she ever intended to sell, to please contact him. He never did get the car, but one of these rare – if not mythical – vehicles remains the coveted find.

Bet nobody ever said that to my mom. She was the antithesis of Granny. One time when the grandkids were small, we were having a family dinner. As parents patiently let the little ones show off their growing wisdom, someone moved the conversation to traffic signals.

“What does red mean?”

“Stop,” came the obedient answer.

“What does green mean?”

“Go.”

“What does yellow mean?”

“Floor it!” We all looked at my mother. She shrugged and feigned innocence.

Her nickname was Leadfoot Iris. She didn’t speed, she just drove with ... confidence. No puttering around for her. She pulled into parking spots, and that was that. No farting about, even though we drove station wagons the size of tanks. She obeyed all stops signs, even if her pull-aways were a little abrupt. She could solve girl fights in the back seat without ever taking her eyes from the road, a feat I wish more parents would master.

When we drove past the motorcycle club’s scary house on the Beach Strip in Hamilton, she would slow way down so we could stare somberly at a place we were certain would destroy property values. I had no clue what property values were at that time, but that fence and those dogs and this bunker were going to destroy them.

It was on this same stretch of road that she got a speeding ticket, obviously not close enough to the motorcycle club to be crawling under the limit. As the officer wrote it up, she stared resolutely ahead, turning her head only once to the row of gaping mouths hanging over the front seat. We understood. If dad was to find out about this, it would be from her.

A squirrel darted under the car once, mindlessly playing walnut roulette one fall day. The thump was as horrible as it was unavoidable. I looked at my mother, and asked if she was crying.

“Of course not,” she sniffled. “Stupid squirrels shouldn’t do that.” She was crying.

When I bought the family home and mom moved into an apartment, it was her first experience tackling underground parking on a daily basis. She hated it, so she refused to do it. Her assigned spot sat empty, and she parked outside in an attached lot used for visitors and people using the ground floor businesses. There was lots of parking; she reasoned one little old lady in a green Intrepid wasn’t hurting anyone.

This was the first car she’d been in charge of buying, and she loved it. My dad had only been able to drive it once before he died, so this was definitely her car. Initially unaccustomed to so much power in a lighter vehicle (she called it peppy), we reminded Leadfoot Iris to cool it.

As the weather turned cold, she knew she'd have to start parking inside. We practised. Her assigned spot was, of course, beside a huge concrete pole. Virtually every spot in underground parking is beside a huge concrete pole. So she parked in the spot next to it, because that pole was on her “good” side.

When the person actually assigned that spot found her car, a conversation with the superintendent ensued. She explained that her spot had the pole on her bad side. She asked them to reconsider. She got a different spot, though she still wasn’t comfortable.

She never did like that underground. I don’t think mom had ever scratched a car before she had to start parking there, but soon enough, a series of long scratches appeared on her “bad” side. We called them her racing stripes. They weren’t deep, but they were there, tagging her forever with the label she would have hated: driving like an old lady.

After she died, I ended up with mom’s green Intrepid. It was a great car; ran like a top, let us rack up the miles, and came with those trick racing stripes. I never removed them. When the time came to finally say goodbye to it, I wrote a column about how tangled my emotions were about that car.

I received a letter from a reader. His father-in-law, who could no longer drive, had the identical car. Make, model, year, colour. The same: 30,000 original kilometres on it, but dad refused to sell it because it was a damned good car and worth more than they kept telling him.

I bought the car, sight unseen. Apparently knowing it would go to a good home – a home where 1994 green Intrepids held special meaning – made the difference. I’d actually found the mythical car my friend had been trying to buy all those years ago.

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