Jun. 2, 2007

Grandfather's Cars

by Robert Phillips

SATURDAY, 2 June, 2007
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Poem: "Grandfather's Cars" by Robert Phillips, from Spinach Days. The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Grandfather's Cars

Every two years he traded them in ("As soon
as the ashtrays get full," he said with good humor);
always a sedate four-door sedan, always a Buick,
always dark as the inside of a tomb.

Then one spring Grandfather took off to trade,
returned, parked proudly in the driveway.
"Shave-and-a-haircut, two bits!" blared the horn.
Grandmother emerged from the kitchen into day-

light, couldn't believe her eyes. Grandfather sat
behind the wheel of a tomato-red Lincoln
convertible, the top down. "Shave-and-a-haircut,
two bits!" "Roscoe, whatever are you thinking?"

she cried. Back into the kitchen she flew.
No matter how many times he leaned on that horn,
she wouldn't return. So he went inside,
found her decapitating strawberries with scorn.

"Katie, what's wrong with that automobile?
All my life I've wanted something sporty."
He stood there wearing his Montgomery Ward
brown suit and saddle shoes. His face was warty.

She wiped her hands along her apron,
said words that cut like a band saw:
"What ails you? They'll think you've turned fool!
All our friends are dying like flies-all!

You can't drive that thing in a funeral procession."
He knew she was right. He gave her one baleful
look, left, and returned in possession
of a four-door Dodge, black, practical as nails.

Grandfather hated that car until the day he died.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the novelist Carol Shields (books by this author), born in Oak Park, Illinois (1935). After getting married and having children, she began writing poetry in her spare time, and won a poetry contest with a collection of her work. Then she decided to try a novel. With five children to raise, and all the housework to do, she had only one free hour every day, between 11:00 a.m. and noon. So every day, she would plan out in her mind what she wanted to write, and as soon as it was 11:00 a.m., she would write as fast as she could, usually about two pages. She finished her first novel, Small Ceremonies, in nine months. It came out in 1976, when Carol Shields was 41 years old.

Shields's first big success was the Stone Diaries (1993) (buy now), the fictional biography of an apparently unremarkable woman named Daisy Goodwill Flett, who lives for more than 90 years, goes from rural Manitoba to Sarasota, Florida, marries several men, raises children, writes a gardening column, and whose final thought at the end of her life is, "I am not at peace."

Shields wrote the novel as a kind of scrapbook, with excerpts of fictional letters, diaries, and newspaper articles. She even included photographs that she had found in antique shops to give the sense that Daisy might have been a real person. The Stone Diaries won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1995 and became an international best-seller.

It's the birthday of Thomas Hardy (books by this author), born in Higher Bockhampton, Dorset, England (1840). He was one of the few writers in English who had success as both a poet and a novelist.

It was on this day in 1977 that the short-story writer Raymond Carver (books by this author) quit drinking. He had just started to get some recognition for his writing when he began drinking more and more heavily. Finally, his doctor told him he had only six months to live, unless he quit drinking. So that's what he did, on this day in 1977. He later said, "If you want the truth, I'm prouder of that, that I quit drinking, than I am of anything in my life." He died of lung cancer 11 years after he quit drinking, but he once described those last years of his life as, "Gravy. Pure gravy."

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