People probably find my family odd for many reasons, not the least of which is that we name our cars. I felt a bit vindicated upon reading that 60 percent of Americans view a car as a member of their family, and just as many name them. When you consider how much time you spend in your car—how many tears and conversations, joyful accelerations and spilt sips of coffee your car absorbs—it’s small wonder that it becomes an old friend.
This week I parted ways with my beloved Ruby, the eponymous Honda Civic. I, who rarely cry, sobbed. You see, in her trunk I found a gift tag from one of my daughter’s graduation gifts and a piece of raffia that I attributed to another daughter’s wedding shower. (No, I clearly don’t clean my trunk often). Ruby was the last car that my parents ever rode in; she willingly accommodated three different types of walkers, and she accompanied me on countless trips to the Emergency Room, three graduations, and one wedding. Her steering wheel patiently absorbed my rage when a work day had done me in, and her CD player read countless books to me on road trips.
So, yes, she was my friend.
Recently my dear childhood friend’s father passed away at age 92. Dr. Paul Conkin was a historian and professor emeritus at Vanderbilt University. Known for being taciturn, shy, and introverted, he was both revered and feared in the classroom. Dr. Conkin was a prolific writer, authoring over 20 books and serving as an expert historian in such American topics as LBJ, the New Deal, and the Great Depression.
However, I didn’t think much of those accolades when I sat, on a Saturday afternoon in June, chatting with him in his assisted living apartment. His stories of growing up in rural East Tennessee, measuring tobacco when he was merely 12 or 13 years old, were inspiring to me. Born the day after the Stock Market crashed in 1929, Dr. Conkin knew firsthand the hardships of agrarian life and, early on, he saw education as his path off the farm and to a better future. A humble man, he undoubtedly never imagined that he would achieve such academic renown.
Despite his intellectual curiosity and abilities—which were amazingly sharp up until the end—his love of nature and simple things never waned. I remember first meeting him when I was 16: He was in his backyard, tending his incredible rose garden. Throughout the time I knew him, we shared a love of flowers.
So on that Saturday afternoon in the early summer, we meandered through topics: genealogy, politics (both U.S. and South American), books, writing, religion, libraries, and Southern culture. His oral review of my novel, Mt. Moriah’s Wake, left me speechless. As the sun sweltered outside, time seemed to stop inside. As Dr. Conkin’s cancer was advancing, I had a strong sense that we would lose him. Knowing that, I made a subconscious effort to really listen—to engrave his sage words on my heart.
There they will stay.
Dr. Conkin was always kind, often blunt, never wavering in his keen interest in people and events. Very reserved, he was unlike my own father, who was gregarious and always laughing and hugging. But how lucky I am to have known and loved two such strong men; how fortunate to understand that we are the better for the different love languages that bless our lives.
When he passed away, Dr. Conkin’s children offered his university retirement chair to me. It has the Vanderbilt emblem and a plaque bearing his name and credentials on the back, and it is one of my most treasured gifts. Sitting in my office, the regal chair elicited several conversations by visitors to my office this week: people who want to hear its story, who want to rest for a minute and hear about a great man and his legacy.
In two weeks, I start a higher position (in the same department and same office). This is equal parts exciting and terrifying. There’s something about that chair, though: it speaks to me across the generations. It reminds me that work that is hard is worth doing, and that learning and growth are both privileges and responsibilities.
A wise man taught me that.
The chair, like Ruby the car, reminds me of where I’ve been and where I’m going. Their inanimate souls make me remember. You see, sometimes a car is just a car, and a chair is just a chair.
But not always.