|image credit: Tilt-Shift Photography|
When I was a boy my uncle gave me his complete set of diecast matchbox cars.
There is a photograph of me as a toddler hanging on to our family coffee table, grinning in the flashlight of the camera’s aim, illuminated – darkening the background where you can see strewn on the carpet a multitudinous display of diecast cars. Not only did my uncle give me his entire set of matchbox cars but he and my aunt would take me on Saturdays to the flea market to scout out hidden diecast cars buried underneath piles and piles of junk. I was especially in love with the Matchbox brand, which started out in England as the Lesney company in the 1940s as a cheap way to sell toys to children during the war. I had Hot Wheels too. And I liked Corgi's models. But, my heart, in the end, was stuck on Matchbox.
Visiting the flea market was a big deal. My aunt sold fashion for porcelain dolls. When she and my uncle frequented the flea market stalls, they were looking for deals on doll fashions. My aunt instructed me on the first day I tagged along to help them pick out fabrics. "Don't touch anything," she told me. She put her arms behind her back and turned around to show me, saying, "this is how you walk. Hold on to your arm so you can catch it if it tries to grab something on the shelf." She was right. The flea market stalls were filled with items that screamed "tangible!" The musty smelling curtains and chain-smoking clerks, ogling collectors handling precious prints of Andy Warhol Marilyn Monroe's and 1950s Hugh Hefner Playboys were for me, a boy's wonderland. I obeyed my aunt, though, and tried not to touch. Besides, I had no interest in handling thin veined china or opaque Depression-era glass. I wanted the toys. While my aunt and uncle felt and measured lacy fabrics, I would look for cigar boxes and glass cases filled with diecast cars, hoping to find the prized Matchbox models that would add to my collection.
One day I found a gray London Coach dicast model manufactured circa 1930 by Lesney hidden beneath a jumble of plastic McDonald's free give-a-ways. The seller did not know the Lesney model should have been priced higher so she sold it to me for fifty cents thinking I was just some kid looking to buy something with my spare change. "You got exactly two quarters, kid?" she said smoking a lean Marlboro menthol cigarette. My precociousness got the best of me and I made sure she knew that I had gotten a deal. She looked at me with her venomous evil eye when she saw how excited I had become. Later, my aunt had to explain to me that one shouldn't gloat about a purchase that so obviously was won in the disfavor of the merchant. I just couldn’t believe how lucky I had been to find that coach! Even though it was not in mint condition and probably was only worth about thirty bucks, I felt like I had purchased a vintage collectible roadster.
I recorded the model names in a black composition notebook and I noted where I had purchased the model and quick, anecdotal stories about how I had gotten this car or that car, been given that Peterbilt Lorie or bragged that this car was in great condition. My aunt and uncle gave me a book that listed every diecast car Lesney and Matchbox had ever manufactured complete with photographs of mint models and estimates on value.
Unlike most kids, I never played with my cars but I displayed them in a wooden collector's case that hung on my bedroom wall. I showcased them to my friends and forbade my brothers to touch them. It was always a hassle for Christmas or Easter when family would come over and little cousins would want to play with my model cars. "No," was my emphatic answer. My mother would pull out the chipped diecast models solely used to play with when kids would cry when they could not play with the authentic Spiderman diecast model or the Batmobile. The enjoyment I gained from my collection was purely inner. I had no desire to ram the cars into each other in fake automobile accidents or to use my cars to re-enact bravado rescue stunts involving scraping, dropping or whatever horrible disaster that could befall my diecast model's paint job.
The closest I came to playing with my cars like a real kid was a car show I would conduct in my bedroom. I would showcase my cars to an imaginary crowd of spectators. Or to my little brother, if he was interested, but I would quickly tire of that because he would want to race the cars which I strictly was against. I would set the cars up in a circle or in diagonal rows and use my GI Joes as spectators who would judge the cars and eventually sift out the winner. The London bus and American taxi cabs (I had few of those), German Mercedes, a Coca-Cola eighteen-wheeler, a Morgan Plus 8, and the convertible driven by Boss Hog in Dukes of Hazard were a few of my favorites.
By the time I was in junior high school, I abandoned collecting but I did not discard my Matchbox collection which sat on shelves in my mother’s house, collecting dust, along with my collection of MAD magazines and an assortment of old cameras that I had also collected from visits to the flea market. These cars were mine, I told myself. But just having them sit, collecting dust, seemed silly and I wanted to do something with them. I wanted to give them a new life but not perfunctorily hand them over and be done with them. These cars were special to me and I wanted to give them to someone in a special way. A man does not toy lightly with his childhood treasures. I told my mother that I wanted to give the cars away. She was surprised. "I thought you would have kept those cars forever," she said. "Who are you going to give them to? She made sure to tell me that some cars I could not give away, like the Pan Am bus, because that one was given to her by my uncle and some other cars that were my brothers. I did keep a London bus and a dump truck for myself so I could have them to place in my barrister bookcase as a reminder of my childhood.
I wrapped up the cars individually in tissue paper and placed them in shoe boxes. Thirty old rusty cars I threw into a plastic Hot Wheels car carrier that I had been given also as a child even though I really did not like Hot Wheels and was partial to Matchbox. That’s the downside of collecting: you tend to become snobbish about such things. I packed the cars into the hatch of my hatchback (a faded blue Hyundai Excel).
I was on my way to a graduate school in theology. At the time I was a seminarian and I had been reading tons of books by Erik Erikson on the stages of life and generativity. I had this obsession with figuring out how exactly I could have children without ever having biological ones. I mean I knew I could one day adopt children, but at the time, I was stuck on this notion of being a parent in as many situations as I could. I had been reminded by a retired elementary school teacher who had confided to me only recently that he felt he was more of a parents to his children than his children's own biological parents. "I was with them more hours a day than their parents were," he said. If you stop to think about it, many people in our life, who may not have been parents to us, acted like parents - and some cases filled in the gaps where our parents may have lacked.
So, I drove the forty miles to deliver the cars to someone whom I thought would take care of them for me and also eventually, like me, transfer them to the next generation. I did not give the cars back to my uncle, even the ones he had given me, nor did I store up the cars in a U-Haul storage closet thinking I would have progeny one day to pass on my collection. I figured I must live in the moment. And give to the moment. At the time, I thought of myself as someone who would never have children of my own, so I decided to do the next best thing and give the cars to a child. I had a cousin in mind who liked cars (but not Matchbox) - more like the cars you can actually drive: Mazaratis. Lamborghinis. Hot rods. I knew he was not an avid diecast car collector like me. Nor did I think this gift would imbue in him a desire to scour the flea market circuit for cars like I had done, but I just felt it was natural and the right thing to do to pass on the family lineage of cars. When you pass on a family heirloom you should pass on the treasure to someone whom you believe will implicity understand the deeper meaning of the gift. I had a hunch he would. And he did.
You should have seen him when he opened up every car and displayed it on the kitchen table; his eyes were appreciative and completely aware of the gift ritual that was taking place. Almost as if he knew what to do, he picked up each car delicately, in between his thumb and index finger so as not to tarnish the die and erode the color. His mother got him a stand to place all of the cars and we spent an afternoon placing them accordingly and reading the books on cars that I had also given him: my name scrawled in playful boyish print across the inside front covers, a signature of a me from the past but also a deed to another, a transferal of my cars to him. I told him the story of some of the cars and how our aunt and uncle would take me to the flea market.
We made plans for the summer to scout them out ourselves. “It would be cool,” he said. Several months later, in between studying and writing a paper on the Fathers of the Church, I had a chance to make a quick visit to their house. I told him I wanted to see, “my cars”. I corrected myself and I said, “I mean your cars”. Without reflection, he corrected me and said, “our cars”. I smiled and said he was right, “they’re our cars.” He understood something intimate about language, the possibility of saving “our cars” instead of mine, and he taught me how this sharing is love. I thought he was correct. "Our" is a great pronoun to express love and sharing. Maybe that is how one has children without being a parent. You have to learn the art of "our."
“Our” is the most intimate word in the English language because it means an open sharing that does not preclude each other, does not mutually exclude nor eradicate. “Our” is not the co-dependent obsessions of so-called friendship and needy interchange. “Our” is a simple expression in language that expresses fully the potential for human connectedness. I felt full and human when he said, “our cars” because we both knew we were speaking about what love meant. And each time I see him - he is now seventeen and almost done with high school (and I am sure our cars are stowed away somewhere safe) - each time I share with him some kind of news or a silly joke (what did the zero say to the eight? Nice belt) we both understand “our” and we both know the mystery of sharing. I have come to believe this is important, that underneath every brazen child, every hard-nosed brat, every precocious smart alec, every dirty, scroungy façade lies a real child, a loving child who needs "our." Who would have thought it could be given so easily? I am chastened by the words, even today, because I realize the failure of achieving "our" so obvious in a world torn by grief and war and death.
I realize most of life is suffering and hard. What makes it worth it, at least for a little while, is the legacy of what's been passed on. The people who were parents without "being parents." I learned about Shakespeare, the quadratic equation, Elizabeth Kubler Ross, Minimalism, and Dante from teachers. From my parents I learned about God, balancing a checkbook and cooking. The deeper generative lessons like love, I learned from many different people – but most of the love experiences came from outside the family unit. Eli Newberger wrote that if just one person is crazy about a child who may otherwise be “at risk” then that may be enough to save that child. He was writing specifically about boys and character, in The Men They Will Become, but you can apply his idea to generativity as a whole too.
Most of life’s hurdles, like basic trust issues, guilt and shame, and an inner sense of worth are profoundly etched into our very bodies at an early stage like a father tossing his child into the air and catching her before she falls: there is the exhilaration and fear of being tossed into the air by a proud father back again to the comforting feeling of being caught into his arms which probably set a child’s sense of trust for life – but these issues resurface again and again like when that same child reaches adolescence and the problems of trust resurface all over again as the body changes and new challenges arise. This is the gift of generativity. This is what the ancient philosophers and storytellers meant when they wrote about gaining immortal life. How does one live forever? By passing it on. I guess it's what you pass on that counts in the end.
If you liked this blog post, then you will probably like my most recent book Things I Probably Shouldn't Have Said and Other Faux Pas.