The passing of cheerful seasons is always hard on a kid — but think of what it does to a parent to witness this, and by “season” I mean Easter, which is around when our Christmas tree would finally be hauled to its last reward out of our living room. My mom, seeking to cushion our feelings, would reassure us that “the tree is going back to its mommy.”
At least the tree had at one point long before been a living thing, but my mom’s conception does connect to the way we invested spirits not just in this pagan remnant but in any object we’d established a close connection with, on an even continuum with the kids’ anthropomorphized dollies and the family’s esteemed pets.
Cars were really number one; we’d get those long after and keep them in service long past when they should’ve been shipped back to their mommy, driving them across whole deserts on the way to our west-coast relatives like a tauntaun we’d cut open and crawled into before making it cross the Hoth wasteland.
The one time we had a new car, briefly, I assumed it was a stolen vehicle; my dad splurged on payments for a then state-of-the-art station wagon with inconceivable Starship Enterprise extras like AC and pushbutton windows that went up and down and, upon motioning us into it where it was already idling in our apartment building’s carport one evening, I thought for sure it was a prank that was going to far and he’d just decided to hop us into a ride that was waiting there for someone else. At least that night I’d get to watch real-life cops at work rather than dad’s nightly crime dramatization. In fact there were no flashing lights that night though less exciting agents would relieve us of the car about two missed payments later.
More typically we would ditch our current car on a Philly or NYC sidestreet and, upon asking my dad if he’d locked it as we walked away, he’d say “If anyone breaks into this thing it’ll be to leave a donation.” Nonetheless, and maybe all the more, we were attached to these cars as long as they stooped to stay with us. We’d give them names, like “The Green Bomb” for the finned, sea-green 1950s battleship we drove for about a week and could see the road go by out the bottom of. My mom had preferred Renaults, a sporty French compact marketed in America in the gas-sipping 1970s, and I believe called the red one “Peppy.”
Those cars were not just household names but a kind of rolling household itself, as my mom and us two kids would spend whole afternoons and evenings, together or on our own, in them. Once mom and we passed a whole rainstorm parked oustide the grocery store with nothing but the entire vanilla Captain Crunch cereal box we’d just bought before the clouds opened to ensure we’d make it through alive. Other times my sister and I would be left to crawl the walls and windshields as my mom left us idling in that same carport or similar parking lots for hours, occasionally interrupted by passersby who’d rap on the windows to ask if we still had parents or if we should at least be towed to a landfill to finish ripping up the car in context.
I would’ve gladly crawled into our bulky console stereos and almost could, their pre-microcircuit vastness containing a vinyl turntable and a slot for blocky 8-track cassettes as well as radio dials and room for your oversized old-school media and rich speaker arrays. It took up the size of a grown adult’s tanning bed to fit all this stuff in in those days, but it was too fun to lay in front of it and look at the colonnade of reconstituted wood lattice over those speakers, like some Busch Gardens miniature of a Moorish plaza. We didn’t name them, but, like era-defining leaders, stereos and TVs (from 12-inch black & white starter-drugs to Pong-enabled fatscreen backup generators) marked the ages of our economic fortunes and the stages of our progression through childhood and into the purchasable future.
Keepsakes and furnishings had similar spells on them; when we’d transplant some department-store heirloom of Mad Men-era upholstered geometry from one highrise apartment to the next creaking three-family I’d feel like I’d simply traveled through spacetime on the dimension-bridging couch; and other relics (the figural booze bottles that already looked like miniature people, the decades-layered melted multicolor candles) would be reinstalled like items on holy altars — literally in one case, as the centerpiece of each living room was a shrine my dad had fashioned from brick and tile, over which a gondola-like lamp cast its light and on which was set a bust of JFK, the only religious focal-point that ever lingered in our homes, and this too had a name, known with totemic simplicity and irreducible devotional truth as “The Kennedy Table.”
The vision of Pee-wee Herman conversing with every stick of furniture and tchotchke on the shelf made seamless sense by the time that show started airing; I’d been naming even my blankets since before I could say other words. When my parents were waiting for their space-age 1960s boomtime Newark, NJ apartment to be ready they titled the rooming house they had to chill in “Suicide Manor,” but after that we lived in too many different rentals to apply the more upscale pastime of naming the place-for-your-stuff like those who give away their mansions to history societies do. To this day I keep diligent lists of what my friends who actually have kids of their own could call them. As actual living things and members of some other family this often runs into some resistance. It’s always possible that the things you put a name to can have their own say.