Dad waxes eloquent by washing cars

'Let's get your car washed,' he would say, in the same tone anyone else would use to say, 'I've missed you.'

My father wasn't one for hugging or kissing. He certainly never said, "I love you." Instead, he took me to the carwash. I had barely made it through the door on my first visit home from college, when my father plucked the keys from my hand. "Let's get your car washed," he said, in the same tone anyone else would use to say, "I've missed you."

He drove the rapt way he did everything. Each time he pressed the accelerator or brake felt as though it must have been his first time. I could almost hear his brain sending the messages to his foot, "Okay, now GO, now STOP!" The nausea-inducing journey was followed immediately by a trip to the ice-cream parlor next door.

While my car was being vacuumed, sudsed, scrubbed, and buffed, ("The Deluxe," my father would decree, with paternal machismo, to the delighted attendant), my devotion was being challenged.

Beyond the residual reeling and the wafting Windex, was the pistachio. I failed to see the point of pistachio ice cream. Like sleeveless turtlenecks, it seemed a contradiction in terms. Yet there I stood, licking my lurid cone, and trying to reconcile the occasional sharp nut with all that creaminess. Pistachio was my father's favorite flavor, and so it became a worshipful daughter's fate.

As soon as we swallowed the last bit of cone, we forded the chemical river separating the ice cream parlor from the carwash. My Datsun was gleaming, my father beaming. He slipped the attendant a stupendous tip, and we began the jolting trip home.

When we arrived at the long driveway abutting the house, he drove slowly down the shoulder. Using my car as a bulldozer, he crushed ivy audacious enough to have reached the pavement. We finally reached home with a car that was immaculate but for the tire tread, lined with ivy pâté.

If a visit home from college begot a car wash, what did graduation begat? You guessed it: detailing. While a trip to the carwash meant, "I love you," a detail job meant, "I'm proud of you, too." Unfortunately for my father, I earned a PhD and then went to law school. My car sparkled for years.

Perhaps attracted by my well-groomed automobile, a young lawyer with a stealthy wit, a sterling heart, and a spotless Mustang asked me to marry him. This presented a dilemma. My father liked my fiancé, but enough to take him to the carwash? Even if they made it that far, when it came to ice cream, Arthur was strictly chocolate.

And what of me? Would the three of us go together? Even if Arthur deigned to eat the green stuff, the ritual of the carwash just wouldn't be the same.

Visits to my parents came and went. Arthur and I would depart with our car unwashed. In the meantime, he was discovering other car-cleaning quirks within my family. He met my grandmother, then in her 80s, who not only still drove, but washed her own car. She would ceremoniously don a kerchief, and disappear until nightfall with a rag, a bar of soap, and a toothbrush.

Arthur also met my brother, who spent most of his spare time waxing his used BMW while wearing almost nothing. Often the first sight on approaching my parents' house was my tiny, kerchiefed grandmother commandeering the chamois from my half-naked, muscle-bound brother to work a spot he'd missed.

My mother, Arthur learned, had her own car-washing foibles. She carried a rag in her designer purse to dab any stray gasoline after filling her black Jaguar. "I should have chosen white," she lamented. "Then the gas wouldn't show."

My baby sister was the rebel. One could barely see her 16-year-old curls over the dashboard or see the interior of her car through the strewn tennis rackets, balls, beach towels, textbooks, and Bryan Adams tapes. She had recently received a speeding ticket, despite explaining to the policeman that she was hurrying to the gas station because her tank was nearly empty.

Still, Arthur, my father, and I remained at a carwash standoff. When Arthur and I visited, my father appeared happy to see us, but neither said so nor impounded our keys. I felt a vague sense of having disappointed my dad. I was jealous of my sister, who could look forward to those car-washing college years. I knew her filial devotion was less neurotic than mine, and I resented her in advance for enjoying the pleasure of the wash without the pain of the pistachio.

Arthur and I were married on a damp December evening. The next morning, we stood in my parents' driveway to say goodbye before leaving on our honeymoon. My father eyed our car, dust-pocked by the wedding-night drizzle. He reached into his pocket and placed something in Arthur's hand. It was a packet of carwash coupons. "You can get that car cleaned up when you return," he said quietly, in the same tone anyone else would use to say, "I love you both."

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