My mother was always a sucker for good looks. My dad was a handsome dude who couldn't have cared less about his own appearance. He dismissed any mention of it and called other attractive men "pretty boys." Said it with a sneer. But Mom liked pretty boys and was willing to give up quite a lot for anyone or anything easy on the eyes.
Dad was a working guy, an electrician who came home every night covered in dirt from crawling under houses or covered in fiberglass from crawling through attics. He'd flop into his recliner from exhaustion, not bothering to take off his redneck hat. Mom would chase him into the shower and he'd emerge clean and lean, wearing baggy putter pants and a plaid shirt with two pockets, one for his Chesterfields, the other for his matches.
Several times a year Mom and Dad would get all dressed up to go to a fancy dance at the Coliseum in St. Petersburg or the Italian Club in Tampa. Mom would wear something long and velvety that she'd whipped up on the Necchi, and Dad would put on the white dinner jacket Mom had bought him at Rutland's. He looked damned fine in that jacket with his olive skin that glowed with a pink undertone, and black hair that was thick and shiny.
They were a beautiful couple on those nights in the '50s, with the only fly in the ointment being their car.
Just as she fancied her pretty boy, she loved the sleek lines of a fine car. Four-door cars? Too boxy. She often talked about an old boyfriend with a mysterious scar on his face who drove her idea of the perfect vehicle: a long, low, yellow convertible.
But my parents drove a fully automatic, black 1947 Studebaker coupe that was admittedly a distinctive-looking automobile with its elongated rear and its wrap-around windows. Mom was proud of that car and crazy about its styling, but as somebody once said, looks ain't everything.
That Studebaker never, from the moment it rolled off the assembly line, stayed in alignment. The tires squealed and the steering wheel vibrated and shuddered. The word "lemon" was too sweet for that car. It ate batteries, sprang leaks, belched smoke and died in intersections. Around 1951 the horn began blowing of its own accord. Sometimes the blare was propitious, and Mom would laugh and zoom through traffic, clinging to the shimmying steering wheel, leaving a contrail in her wake. More often, though, when the horn blew willy-nilly, people would give her a good glare, and Mom wasn't somebody you'd ever really want to do that to.
The Studebaker began spending more and more time in the shop and one Saturday morning in 1956, when I was 9 years old, Dad drove off to get it fixed one more time.
He never brought it home. Instead, he pulled into the carport in a mint green 1953 Plymouth sedan. A four-door sedan. My mother was horror-struck. Boxy, she said. Stodgy, she said. You didn't even ask me, she said.
Mount Vesuvius began erupting in our house and then Dad dropped the Really Big One: the Plymouth was a shifter. You can't drive it anyway, he said.
For your information, Mom said, I most certainly do know how to drive a shift.
It turns out that when Mom was a teenager in the 1930s, she'd taken her father's Model A Ford for many a spin while he was sleeping.
She held out her hand for the keys. Come on, Linda, she said to me. We're going for a ride. We lurched up and down the county for hours — quickly discovering that the car didn't even have power steering. Finally Mom got the hang of the clutch and we glided up the driveway, proving that no insult — especially a visual one — would go unanswered.
As I recall, the Plymouth was a simple, sterile, no-frills car that didn't give my parents much trouble, which was too bad in my mother's view because it meant she couldn't justify getting rid of it. This didn't stop Mom from expressing her loathing for it, though. To anyone who might possibly be offended by the Plymouth's drabness she offered a withering apology: My husband bought this car.
When she finally put her foot down about trading it in, Dad knew better than to reprise his previous stunt.
Their next two cars, which actually were their last two cars, were long, low, two-door automatics with power everything and rocket engines. Those two cars, a '59 Olds Super 88 and a '68 Chrysler Newport, ate batteries, sprang leaks, belched smoke and died in intersections, plus they devoured gas, grew rust spots and in their later years you had to stand on the brakes to come to a stop. But Mom loved those beastmobiles to the bitter end.
In 1997 when we sold the Chrysler, it was pretty pitiful, but Mom pointed out that the air conditioning still worked. Just look at the lines on that car, she said dreamily.
Yup. Mom was always a sucker for good looks.
Linda Guggino Humphers lives in Clearwater.