Smithology: Gone away

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Smithology watch on mercedes shifter
Credit: Sam Smith

Years ago, my mother drove a Volvo 240. An automatic wagon, navy blue, bought new in 1985. A car you used to see everywhere, dotting freeways and side streets, right up until you didn’t, on that day when they all seemingly disappeared into junkyards to rust away. Gone, at least from daily sight.

Mom is gone as well, now. She died earlier this year, at 65, after a 21-month battle with a brain tumor that seemed hell-bent on killing her and finally did. She was a contradiction; a deeply private and often shy woman but also a goofy and vibrant firecracker, the kind of person who found a friend in every new room. She played the piano but long refused to do so in front of family. As an adult, during visits home, I would often pause on the front porch for a silent second after climbing out of the car, listening with a hope of hearing her at the keys. She was, just once, and the music stopped the moment I opened the front door, but the moment left a dent. As did the soft, resigned laugh that followed, before she rose to give me a hug.

The Volvo was special. My parents bought the 240 new, at Mom’s urging, when I was four. “I didn’t think I was a Volvo … person?” she told me, years after, her voice still tinted with surprise. But they signed the papers because of her. She saw the car on a dealer’s lot one day and fell head over heels. The deal happened quick. My dad, a sports-car nut since high school, had never owned anything so intentionally stolid. Yet he saw something in the car, too. Possibly just extreme fitness for purpose, a man with a family admiring a resolved, durable solution.

Volvos sneak up on you like that, especially if your personality is occasionally defiant of easy definition. (Dad later quit his job to open a restoration shop that doubled as a bookstore, partly because my father and I are similarly bent, but that’s a story for another time.) The blue car, brick-shaped and simple, was capable of sneaking up on precisely nothing else. Not even speed traps. The 240 racked up a stack of tickets over the years, usually in my mother’s hands, despite a 0–60 time measurable by sundial. As far as I could tell, my father found the tickets both funny and irritating but mostly funny, which should tell you something about my family.

Mom and Dad lived on the west coast when she was diagnosed. Less than a year later, the finances of modern healthcare nudged them back to a more affordable life in Louisville, Kentucky, where they had met each other as children. Landing in the east, they put their lives in storage and moved in temporarily with my aunt, planning to look for a house. When Mom’s condition deteriorated, the house search was put on hold. This spring, she simply went to sleep for a week and never woke up.

My dad is like me but a generally better person—quieter, kinder, far more thoughtful. I can’t imagine what his shoes now feel like, but I can certainly imagine feeling so suddenly adrift. Probably because it doesn’t take much imagination.

dad driving mercedes-benz sprinter conversion van
Credit: Sam Smith

Dad needed a place of his own, he said, so he chewed on his finances for a bit and considered possibilities. The resulting purchase had a roof and walls but no fixed address. A used Mercedes-Benz Sprinter Sportsmobile RV, two years old, with a kitchenette, a shower, a toilet, a diesel, and a dinette that morphed into two beds. The Volvo parallel made me chuckle: He had for some time made interested noises about RVs but never seemed the type. When I was little, on family road trips, he used to grumble at motorhomes, their heft and size, scowl as they slouched over to the left lane on freeways.

Over the phone this spring, I heard a shift in tone. “I am not an RV person,” he insisted. “But I like this.” So many calls to follow. Discussing health, possibility. Anything but brain tumors.

The classified ad he sent showed an unassuming, slab-sided van, a visual cross between SpaceLab on wheels and a hormonal Jeep. Sportsmobile was founded in 1961; the company converts commercial vans for travel and off-road use. Its products are RVs but unaligned with the stereotype—not a motorcoach or bus, not an 8000-pound roadbarn with fiberboard cabinets and a badge like Aspen Freedom Wolf Rambler. Sportsmobiles are famously expensive for a van but also famously durable, to say nothing of cheap for a house. Resale value tends to be high, a byproduct of limited production and stout quality, which means you can own one for a bit and move on without losing your shirt.

mercedes-benz sprinter conversion van front three-quarter
Credit: Sam Smith

In the months since Mom’s death, Dad has generally kept to himself. He tries to be smart about pandemic safety, as we all do, but he’s retired, so there’s no mandatory human interaction. Solitude and traveling seem to suit him, and neither is perpetual. Every so often, my wife and I will quarantine ourselves and our kids in the house, verifying our health and lack of virus, then Dad will sling down a highway and come live in our driveway for a bit. Those moments are nice for a hundred reasons.

I hadn’t actually driven the Mercedes until last week. A work assignment popped up in Jacksonville, Florida, around nine hours from our house. Too far to drive and work without a pause for sleep. Dad was nearby, so he offered to come with. We drove down, shot a feature story in a shuttered Florida museum, then walked out to the Mercedes and went to bed in the parking lot. The independence was refreshing. Low-risk travel and work, business done quietly. It probably helped that the emotional wallop of a lost parent can run tidal, strong one day and quieter the next.

 

When we’d left for Jacksonville, I’d simultaneously wanted out of the house and right back in. I’d also just wanted to ask my father about my mother, who she was when I wasn’t around. In the Sprinter, barrelling down I-75, the answers seemed echo-free and better for it.

Dad doesn’t seem to know where he’ll go when the world drifts back to normal. He seems happy with the RV, despite not having been an RV person. Or perhaps that kind of broad labeling is silly, and we all are far more similar than we like to admit, and people aren’t ever really gone, they’re just no longer present in the manner to which we’re accustomed, and we simply don’t know or fully acknowledge any of this stuff in the moment, because we can’t or won’t or don’t know how.

dad drives mercedes-benz sprinter conversion van
Credit: Sam Smith

The answers grow fuzzier every day. I’m 39. Mom was almost certainly older than that the last time she was pulled over by the highway patrol. My last ticket was years ago, though I can’t remember when. Funny how few things make you feel as restless as an inability to recall the last time you got caught.

The Sprinter seemed to lose interest over 80 mph, and thus it never earned any interest from the law and the consequent chance to reset the counter on that forgotten time between transgressions. Mom would have liked it, I think. My daughters like it, our two little girls in elementary school, and they remind me of her in a hundred ways. A lot of singing in the house, for one thing. Another parallel, but a funny one, because I can’t recall ever hearing her sing. Only the music of a person I miss more than I can say, heard and hinted at over decades, almost but never quite enough.

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