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Facts & Arguments Essay

My father's not-so-secret obsession

My mother penned a note saying she'd leave him if he bought any more cars. She didn't mention car parts

From Wednesday's Globe and Mail

When I was growing up my father always had a lot of cars - secret cars stored in rented garages all across the city or hidden in alleyways behind friends' houses where he knew my mother wouldn't find them.

The trouble was that these cars were a poorly kept secret. Every so often someone would ask about one of them in front of my mother. My father was never convincing when he denied knowing anything about it. He would try half-heartedly to suppress a grin but was always too pleased with himself to manage. So even though my mother didn't know where these cars were exactly, she knew the secret fleet existed. She knew and it irritated her.

Then there were the cars that weren't a secret, the ones he parked in the driveway of our family home, sometimes occupying both spots for months on end, leaving no room for my mother to park her car. Curiously, the vehicles in his collection weren't what most people would consider treasures. He had old English cars that would barely turn over, rusty Chevs and a 1967 Cadillac that he bought for $1.

The reason for owning any of these cars remains a mystery since it had nothing to do with his day job as a computer programmer and he never tried to profit from his hobby. But he insisted that each one had some special detail - something mechanical or a minor design feature - that made it valuable.

My mother did not share my father's aesthetic sensibilities. Eventually he crossed her threshold of tolerance and by way of a note left in the bathroom she told him as much. "Dear John," the note read. "If you buy one more car, I'm leaving you. Love, Barb." That was in 1987.

The note didn't say anything about airplane engines. To get around the prohibition on cars while still satisfying his motor lust, my father turned his attention to aeronautics. He decided to buy three Pratt & Whitney R-2800 Double Wasp engines and, using a crane, he lowered them into the front garden, where they form part of the permanent landscape. Reflecting back on the note and wishing she had worded it to include all things mechanical, my mother mounted only a minor protest. She could already see that we were no longer going to be "the family with all those cars" because we were about to become "the family with the airplane engines in the front yard."

For some people owning things and accumulating more of those things is a pleasure that can easily develop into a compulsion. When this happens the pleasure is supplanted by anxiety, and the need to track down that ever-elusive item to complete the collection becomes a reason for living.

For a long time I had my suspicions that this was the case with my father. Especially when I discovered that he had found yet another way to circumvent the possibility that my mother would follow through on her threat - he began buying cars in parts.

The truth is that excepting those 30 seconds that passed while she penned the note, my mother never intended to leave him. But if she had actually known the scale of my father's car collection, she would have been angry. Particularly because she was unlikely to buy the argument that, metaphysically speaking, car parts - even if you have enough of them to build a whole one - do not constitute a car unless they are fully assembled. Given the fact that in addition to his working fleet he had enough parts in his possession to build a half dozen more, it was an argument my father was no doubt prepared to make should the need arise.

The need did not arise, however, because my father turned a bunch of parts into a whole car, thus demonstrating his ingenuity and, more importantly, his passion for cars and not just for collecting. He built his own version of a 1929 Model A Woody from scratch in our garage. To get the car roadworthy took him seven years of evenings and weekends that were often interrupted by soccer games, ballet lessons and all the other obligations that come with having a family. Since my father liked to have the windows open while driving but my mother didn't, he decided that this car wouldn't have any windows.

When he finished, my mother was too impressed to be angry. She was happy to pack up my brother and me into the "new" hot rod and go on a road trip. We went all the way from Vancouver to Tijuana and back - twice in three years.

There is something to the old adage, "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em." In their retirement my parents seem to have reached a happy medium. My father still collects cars but not with the same zeal. This is partly because I've kept him busy fixing up my own automotive gem - a 1984 Mercedes that broke down immediately after I bought it last year.

It was a purchase my father discouraged right up until the money changed hands, but for me it was love and I could not be dissuaded. My mother was quick to point out to my father that he of all people should understand, and I'm pretty sure she gets a good deal of satisfaction from seeing him work on it in their driveway. But she keeps this a secret, of course.

Lisa Stark lives in Vancouver.

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