I listened and typed in time with his words and hoped he would soon get back to the topic of building his business from the ground up. That was the topic I really wanted to hear about at the moment.
But then something occurred to me. None of my clients had ever talked about cars before, and for that matter, I had never thought to ask about cars. Cars are not generally a topic of interest to me, and they don’t hold much of a place in my own bank of memories. But I had been holding an invisible bias all this time, assuming cars weren’t worth talking about in a memoir.
That evening, I looked over the words I’d taken down during the morning’s interview, and phrases started emerging from the reminiscences about the car. “I made good money that year.” With not so much as a college education, he had built a thriving business that had supported a family of five. “I taught my wife to drive in that car.” His wife died of cancer, but every time he spoke of her, he referred to how beautiful she was and how much he loved her. “It wasn’t like now when you just turn the key or push a button.” Indeed, he had known much more difficult times, and the car embodied the many ways in which simple tasks like driving required more effort and more attention than they do in today’s high-tech world. It must seem strange to him that I don’t even have to find my keys before I turn the car on: merely having them in the bottom of my purse is enough for the car to know to start itself up. What an astounding – and perhaps sometimes bizarre – array of changes he has seen in 94 years.
And when he got to the part about the Oldsmobile, his daughter, who had joined us for the interview, recalled a song her parents used to sing to her when they drove in that car, and that reminded him of a song his mother used to sing to him when he was a toddler.
Stories and more stories emanated from the memories of two cars. It was a reminder to me that by asking the questions I find most interesting – questions about families, about relationships, about traditions, about travels, about child-rearing – I might be overlooking other questions. I’ve never asked memoir clients about their first – or second or third – car, but I think now I will. Some people might be like me and not think cars have much to do with major life themes. But to this client, cars led the way to a multitude of stories.