My mom died just before my fortieth birthday—ten years ago—and one of the many, many things she left me was her then-almost-new-to-her 1999 Saab 9-5, which had just come off lease and which she had bought from her friends the Taliaferros, who own the finest Saab repair shop and parts store of all time in Springfield, Missouri. Mom was devoted to that car; it was the newest car she’d owned in quite some time, and it was, besides being a superb touring vehicle, completely bad-ass (despite its sedan status). I still have some of the hysterical emails Mom wrote to me detailing her attempts to become acquainted with the myriad features of the 9-5 (the time the police came by because Mom was driving into and backing out of the garage about 5,000 times in order to get familiar with the car’s footprint was particularly amusing; yes, people, this is how we who live in the smaller towns of America get our kicks).
It took me almost a year to get the Saab back to Brooklyn from Urbana; I had kept it in Missouri to use while I was out there, which was quite a few times in the first year after Mom’s death. During that time, the Saab and I became much more familiar with the people who had become important to my mother in the last years of her life. We visited, and I became fast friends with, Linda and John Taliaferro and their son, Nick, who had owned a yellow Viggen and who my mom had always considered her adopted nephew. We hung out with my cousins Jess and Vicki, discussing politics (as my mom had done with them) and laughing a lot. We spent hours with my cousin Lisa and her girls, who helped me keep my sanity that year, and two of whom are, tragically, no longer with us on this earth. We drove endless miles on back roads, passing Amish buggies and farm vehicles, to the bulk store in Tunas where my mom had bought her vitamins and where they still remembered the pretty woman with the silver hair. We spent endless hours at the post office, from where my mom had mailed me so many care packages, visiting with Cindy; at the Bank of Urbana, where my grandfather had been president of the board, and where reminiscing with Rhonda and Amy usually ended in hysterics; and at Bud ‘n’ Pat’s Grocery, where my mom had bought ‘Hello from Urbana, Missouri’ greeting cards to send to me. Finally, we closed up the house together; put the family silver and some of the more important furniture in the trunk and the back seat; and drove home to Brooklyn, via the southern route (St. Louis, Louisville, and Charleston). That was the first time I had ever driven more than 150 miles by myself, and it cemented my realization that I am, like pretty much every other woman in my mother’s family, someone who gets in the car when things are bad, or when I just need to think.
Through the next ten years, the Saab was my constant companion, in good times and bad. It saw me through my divorce; through my first just-for-fun road trips; and through three more trips to the Midwest (out and back). It witnessed my husband and me falling in love (when we met, by the way, he owned, eerily, a 1998 9000, the 9-5’s predecessor); our marriage; and our move to Vermont (the Saab brought our dining table up, disassembled, in its trunk). It helped me start my business, via seemingly endless visits to possible clients; furnish our home, via numerous trips to Montreal’s two IKEA stores; and get healthier, via drives to farms near and far for produce, cheese, and wine. And, a few years ago, it finally got a nickname, from my husband, who—soon after we had moved in together—started calling it the ‘Silver Lady.’ (This was before I had ever told him that my mom, when I was in high school, had owned a Chevy Corvette she called the ‘Silver Shadow.’)
Over the past few years, the Saab had begun, as any cantankerous teenager, to require greater and greater amounts of expensive care. Frantic calls for advice to Linda and John had become more frequent; dollars spent on diagnostics, parts, and labor had mounted into the thousands. Yet the spouse and I insisted, like all obsessively concerned parents, on maintaining the Saab in as close to its original state as possible, rather than urging her into retirement; we even, after we moved to Vermont, spent almost $3,000 on restoring her body, so that she could live an even longer life. After all, at almost fifteen, she had only 150,000 miles on her odometer, and—as everyone who has ever had a Saab knows—if you can get through the first ten years, they live forever. (The first Saab I ever knew—my friend John’s college car—drove 300,000 miles before it was retired, and then only because you could see the road through the floor.)
I began having strange premonitions about bad accidents involving my husband and the Saab a few months ago, but chalked them up to anxiety over…you name it (my business; my birthday; my health; who knows?). This week, though, I sent the spouse off to his Tuesday evening rehearsal with the following words: ‘Don’t have a bad accident, honey…I’m too tired to come get you if you hit a deer on 89.’ That night, he walked in the door at 10:15PM with the following: ‘Your misgivings were right.’ I was so sleepy I didn’t understand immediately what he was saying. Then I woke up a little, and heard the horrifying story. He had been driving south on I-89, about ten miles from Burlington, when a large black SUV with Massachusetts plates, passing him in the left lane, clipped a deer. The deer went airborne (airborne!), and landed on the left front of the hood of the Saab, crumpling the hood like aluminum foil, denting the frame, and decapitating the driver’s side mirror before it slid off the car. My husband pulled over; shut off the engine; disconnected the windshield washer fluid container, which was dragging on the ground; started the engine; and drove home. The deer, meanwhile, limped off, presumably to die somewhere.
Had the deer landed just two feet farther up the car, it would have shattered the windshield, and today—well, let’s not go there. I’m having a hard enough time imagining an airborne deer—kind of like that scene in Twister where Bill Pullman is driving and Helen Hunt is calling out road hazards and yells ‘COW!’ as she sees an animal in the air coming toward their pick-up.
Saabs were designed not just to deliver the world’s finest driving experience, but to save the lives of their drivers in the event of a collision with a moose or deer. Our Silver Lady certainly did her job this week. Like so many great warriers wounded on the field of battle, however, she couldn’t withstand her injuries. Yesterday morning, she was deemed a total loss by our insurance adjuster. And yesterday afternoon, the auction truck picked her up. I couldn’t face being home when she left; thank God for the spouse, who could. Thankfully, there will be (we think) a happy ending; the driver who loaded our Silver Lady onto his flatbed told the spouse that since she’s (other than the damage) in such great shape, she’ll likely be purchased by a dealer; refurbished; and resold. So, she’ll have a new life. I’m so grateful for that; I don’t think I could have dealt with the idea that she’d be stripped for parts, dying slowly, by inches, in a salvage yard somewhere.
The spouse and I are not people who waste time (especially not when the rental car Geico has temporarily assigned us is a Ford Fusion—ugh!); we went car shopping today, and next week we hope to add a VW Golf TDI to our family. Why not another Saab? Well, for one thing, they’re not making them any more—the company went bankrupt a few years ago, and today, the non-aircraft Saab exists as a nascent all-electric vehicle company, a partnership between Sweden and Asia. For another, reliable and long-running though they may be, parts for the older Saabs are often hard to come by, and—quite honestly—the late 1990s’ models, still made in Sweden, were the last to honor the great tradition of the little airline company that could. (I will miss forever the ‘night panel’ feature on my console, which dimmed the cockpit lights, as any good pilot could rightly expect.) I will not buy a Saab from the years of 100% GM ownership. They are, quite simply, not the same.
And so, a thirty-year tradition comes to an end, for my spouse and for me. To all of you out there still driving fifteen-, twenty-, thirty-year-old Saabs: I envy you. Keep the faith. And to my lovely Silver Lady (1999-2013): I will miss you for the rest of my life. You were the best car a girl could ever wish for; I’ll never love another quite like I loved you. Thank you.