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facts & arguments

Drew Shannon/The Globe and Mail

When I was a kid in the 1950s, my dad brought home a new car. At least it was new to us. The car made him happy, but for me, the best part was that he drove the old car into the backyard and left it there. People used to do that – they just left the car in the yard, or the driveway or behind the barn. If it sat a long time, the car would sink to its rusty floor boards or become overrun with weeds or brush or both.

Dad took the wheels off and put blocks under the axles. My sister and I were thrilled. We had a car! He left the engine in, and at first the car would start when you turned the key. But then the battery ran down and died. That meant we had to make the sounds of the engine and of the gears as they shifted until we found ourselves on our pretend highway.

"Where should we go today?" my sister would ask. She always got to ask because she was the oldest.

Not having a wide repertoire of people to visit at age four, I replied: "Grandma's."

"Wrong. We went there yesterday; we just can't keep going over there. Think of some place different."


"No. We're not going to drive there when we can walk there. We have to go far!"

"California," I mumbled.

"Wow! Yes! We'd have to pack some food! Where did you hear about California?

"That's where the cowboys are," I said.

"Cowboys!" she said with an eight-year-old's disdain. "They've got movie stars in California! I'm going in the house to get mom to make us some food so we can go on our trip."

"Can Tootz come along?"

"No, no, no, no, no! Cats cannot go to California in the car!"

With that, she opened the door and slammed it behind her, leaving me in the passenger's seat. How do I go anywhere sitting here? While I mulled that over, Tootz jumped up through the hole in the floor, climbed into my lap and started to purr. "You can come to California with us, Tootz. I'll hide you in the back seat."

But we didn't have enough time for that. Mary returned carrying peanut-butter sandwiches and a Thermos of Kool-Aid. Before she opened the door, I dumped Tootz on the floor.

Mary climbed in. "Alright. First, we're going to have to drive a long way. We can't just eat now. You can hold the lunch, but just hold it."

During those long drives, the car would make many unusual sounds with high Mmmmmmmms, and then Rrrrrrrrrs, and then maybe some Drrrrrrrrrs. She would steer as if we were on a ship in stormy seas, a mad captain cranking the steering wheel back and forth. Frantically, she'd reach for the shifter and rattle it around, continuing to make sounds. Eventually, her noises quieted, which meant we'd reached our destination or, at the very least, our rest stop.

Throughout that year, we played in that car; going places with or without lunches, with or without the cat. We would pretend we were Edna and Carol; to this day, I have no idea how we dreamed up those names, but at the time, they seemed to suit us. Of course, my sister got to be Carol, because that really was the better name.

When we donned our mother's high heels, jewellery and clothes, Edna and Carol really came alive. Our mother let us use her old lipsticks; rouge was also allowed on our cheeks. How we loved to throw the fox fur around our necks or tilt a hat just so. Even in winter we would clatter out to the car, clinging to our purses, dressed in our finery under our coats and ready for a new destination.

Our trips lasted until the spring of the following year. During that time, I got to drive once in a while. I was allowed to make the Mmmmms, Rrrrrrrs and Drrrrrrrs as long as I did it right.

I was occasionally asked to think of a new destination. Though most of my ideas were voted down, the opportunity to contribute was exciting to me. Dad would help by telling me names he knew my sister wouldn't know. But, by spring, Tootz and I rode along together in the car without her. She decided she didn't want to play that any more. She said the back seat smelled because the cat peed on it. She said she was too old to play Edna and Carol. Dad said she had noticed boys.

When life shifts you into other gears, you have to learn to play a new game. Without my sister, I had to look elsewhere for a playmate. Although Tootz was good at purring in the car, that was the extent of his participation.

That left our dog, Pepper. He didn't mind being called Edna. I got to ask all the questions. Who needed to drive to California making those Mmmmm, Rrrrrrrr and Drrrrrrr sounds, when I had a cowboy sidekick all my own? Had I known before of Pepper's propensity for imagination and co-operation, I would have started my travels with him.

Sally Wylie lives in Burlington, Ont.