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first person

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Illustration by Kumé Pather

It’s happened often enough that I should no longer be surprised, but I’m still always a little taken aback each time it does.

A few minutes after pulling into a parking spot, a stranger will approach with the same big smile on his or her face and then wait patiently for me to get out. It has nothing to do with me, however. It’s my car.

The only physically remarkable thing about my car is the fact that it’s still on the road. It’s starting to lose its long battle against rust and could really use a new paint job. But people of a certain age – usually Generation X-ers like myself – will tell me that seeing my car takes them back to some of the happiest memories of their lives.

My white, four-door 1989 Mercury Topaz has magical powers.

Unprompted, people will tell me about how they used to own a Topaz too or its more common twin, the Ford Tempo. People who tell me about how it was their first car. And stories about driving to the movie theatre in high school with six of their friends jammed inside or how their mother had one that she would drive them to hockey practice in. Several have told me it was the best car they’ve ever driven in the snow. Another took pictures of it to send to his elderly grandfather. One gentleman told me that he owned five of them over the years for his wife and then his kids to drive. No one who approaches me ever talks about the car’s noisy, lacklustre performance or the interior styling that was out of style even when it was new. That stuff doesn’t seem to matter all these years later.

My Topaz was purchased new by my grandmother and then passed on to my parents. Years later, when rust finally claimed my Buick, my father offered the Topaz to drive until I found another car. We joked that it’s a family heirloom. After a month or so, however, I realized that I really didn’t want to stop driving the old Topaz.

I’ve always felt compelled to wring as much use out of things before discarding them. Perhaps it’s the lasting effect of reading Henry David Thoreau’s Walden in my formative years, although I can’t remember if Hank also owned a 30-year-old horse. Thousands of cars just like the Topaz were purchased by people in the 1980s and 90s who thought of a car as simply another household appliance. These cars were an inexpensive means of transportation that lacked nearly all the features that are now standard on new vehicles sold today. Its braking could best be described as “leisurely” so maintaining a safe stopping distance is an adventure in traffic. And air bags? It’s got two – only if you count my lungs.

Having the Topaz has at least taught my children a valuable life lesson: despite your best efforts, things will indeed happen beyond your control. My oldest son was always the one unlucky enough to find himself in the car with me when something would fail in spectacular fashion. He wasn’t rattled at all on the night when the starter wouldn’t stop turning after his guitar lesson, and we limped home with it grinding and smoking until I could finally disconnect the battery. Nor did he flinch on the moonless night that the alternator belt snapped and we prayed that the battery would last long enough to drive home before being stranded in total darkness (we made it). While I’m sure he will speak fondly about his adventures in the Topaz someday, I suspect that it might have influenced his decision to join the Navy and spend most of his time as far away from cars as possible.

So, why do I still drive this car?

As I drive up my street in our other vehicle, I’ll catch a first glimpse of the Topaz in the driveway. And – for just a millisecond – my brain will flash to my childhood and react just like it did years ago while walking home from school: “Nan’s here!” I’m transported back in time, to when I would run inside the house and my grandmother would give me a big hug. Her hugs and unconditional love were the cure for everything. These days, sometimes driving around in the same car that my grandmother once did is the next best thing to being able to have her give me just one more big hug.

Apparently, that’s what lots of other people feel when they see my old Topaz. I’m most often told that it brings back memories of time spent with their grandparents. Two years of lockdowns, masks and restrictions have made many of the people who see my car realize how great it would be if they could go back to their childhood self again, driving around with Grandma just one more time. Because who else was better able to make you forget that you had a care in the world?

One time at the drive-through window I was asked what kind of car I was driving. No one working there had ever seen one like it before. “A Mercury Topaz,” I said. But I know what my car really is.

It’s my time machine.

Doug Wanless lives in Belleville, Ont.

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