The Automotive Journeys Of Three Sisters

l-r, Ruth, Thelma, Mary in 1967

This true story is about these three sisters.  At the time this picture was taken in Spring 1967, Ruth was 42, Thelma was 44, and Mary was 46.  From what I’m deducing this picture was taken at Thelma’s home in rural Alexander County, Illinois, in the middle of the Shawnee National Forest.  Mary lived a tenth of a mile up the road.

So let’s break this down and look at the automotive choices of each during my lifetime, which began in 1972.  Let’s start with Mary, my paternal grandmother.

Grandma purchased a new Ford Maverick in 1971.  Painted in grabber blue, identical to the car in this ad, her Maverick was sparsely equipped, coming with the 170 cubic inch straight-six and a three-speed manual transmission.

Long ago Grandma told me the Maverick represented a triumph of sorts for her.  My grandfather died quite unexpectedly about five months before the lead picture was taken and it left her in a distinct financial bind.  The amount of unsolicited advice about what to do didn’t sit well with her (get remarried quickly, sell the property, etc.) and she dug in her heels.  Grandma said her goal was to stay in her home (she’s been in her house sixty-two years now) and pay cash for a new car within five years.

She did so with her Maverick.

Grandma had been hoping for an approximate ten-year cycle on her cars, but it didn’t quite work out.  One day in late 1979 or early 1980, she was on her way to work when she encountered some loose gravel.  Living about six miles from the nearest paved road, her hitting loose gravel wasn’t an unknown event.  But this day was different, with the Maverick ultimately hitting a large oak tree head-on.

Unhurt, Grandma simply put the Maverick in reverse and continued on toward work.  When she noticed the engine getting warm from the now ruptured radiator, she stopped and walked the rest of the way.

The backyard repairs made on the Maverick (which involved a Ford tractor, a come-along, and my father jumping up and down on the hood) gave Grandma a solid year of service before she sought a new car.  The biggest driver of her change of heart was not completely trusting the Maverick to make the two hour trip to her sister Ruth’s house.  So in late 1980 Grandma purchased a teal tropic green metallic 1980 Dodge Aspen sedan with a matching green interior.

Grandma Mary detests green.

Equipped with the trusty if choked slant six, this Aspen was living proof Chrysler had finally perfected the F-bodies.  Driven primarily on gravel roads, the Aspen cleaned up great before being traded in 1990.  This was the first car my grandmother had had with an automatic transmission and air conditioning.  She quickly took to having air, but wasn’t so sure about the automatic.  Part of that was breaking the clutch habit as she periodically slammed her left foot onto the brake pedal for the first few years of ownership.

Grandma was never afraid to use her car beyond its intentions nor was she afraid of much else.  For instance, she once had a temporary sawmill about a mile up the road from her house.  After the mill left, she routinely made trips up to raid the copious pile of refuse wood for burning in her wood stove, loading the car to the gills.  As she said at the time “Why split wood if somebody has left some for you?”.  It was also during this time she let ten-year old me drive her Aspen back and forth to haul wood.

Her philosophy was if your feet can reach the pedals, you’re big enough to drive.

During a freak encounter at a McDonald’s in Cape Girardeau in early 1991, I saw a familiar green Aspen.  Walking up to the lady getting out of the car, I asked her how the Aspen was doing, telling her it had belonged to my grandmother.  She exclaimed how she had been happy to find such a low mileage car (it had around 55,000 miles when traded) that had been treated so tenderly.  Well, she was half right.

Grandma retired in 1989 and decided to get another car as a retirement present to herself.  Having put the Aspen through the proverbial wringer, she got another Dodge in 1990, this time a 1989 Aries with the venerable 2.2 liter.  It had been a “program car”, a nice euphemism for saying former rental car.

Except for a transaxle that committed hari-kari at 23,000 miles, it was a good, solid, and forgettable car.  It was perfect for a retired woman in her seventies.  With the Aries being silver, I once joked how she had managed to get a car that matched her hair.  She did have to have some mild body work performed after an ice storm caused her carport to collapse onto the Aries.

The most memorable thing about the Aries was the day she took delivery.  Seventeen year old me accompanied her.  Her having paid cash threw the finance people for a loop, yet they still wanted to up-sell her an extended warranty.  She and I walked into one of the offices at Town & Country Chrysler/Plymouth/Dodge in Cape Girardeau to talk to the warranty salesman.

The guy we met is still vivid in my memory – he looked like the wardrobe person from Miami Vice had dressed him.  Pastel blues, t-shirt under a sport coat, horrible mustache, no socks with dress shoes – the works.  He quickly dived into his sales pitch about getting an extended warranty and how it was so good, etc.

Grandma was skeptical but I beat the guy to the punch.  I said something to the affect of “look dude; she’s retired, she just traded you a ten-year old car with only 55,000 miles, and she’ll be driving even less now.  Besides, it sounds like you have no faith in your product.  She doesn’t need it.”

His face turned crimson red as I stood up and smiled with a “Grandma, let’s go”.  I drove that Aries off the lot and she bought me lunch.

In 2000, the Aries was sold to a co-worker of mine.  Grandma had found herself a base model 2000 Ford Taurus with 1,800 miles and she brought it home.

This was another durable car that received the Mary Treatment.  In her eighties by now, Grandma got tangled up with a 1976 Dodge pickup and knocked off an outside mirror a time or two while parking in the garage.  She gave up driving about two years ago and the Taurus was sold in 2015 with 24,000 miles on the clock.

Let’s now move on to Thelma.

Thelma and her husband Sherman, like Grandma, purchased a new Ford in 1971.  They needed bigger and obtained what is one of the ultimate Fords of all time – a 1971 LTD!

Years later, Thelma and her husband sold the LTD to their daughter and son-in-law, and I rode in it a few times while in high school.  Descriptors such as awesome and phenomenal don’t even begin to do these LTDs justice.

This LTD was still going strong in the early 1990s when I moved away from the area.  As a point of reference, I’ve realized while writing this I haven’t seen Thelma since her granddaughter, who is my age, got married in 1994 or 1995.

When Thelma and Sherman sold the LTD, they bought a G-body Pontiac Bonneville.  They still had this car when I moved away.

Thelma has simply had fewer cars.  Let’s move on to Ruth, who has had a much different life than her sisters and the most diversity in her purchases.

Ruth loved her wagons.  My first memory of Ruth contains her tannish 1971 Plymouth Fury wagon (1970 shown).  The contradiction of this delightfully huge wagon being driven by a woman barely over 5′ tall was profound.

This Plymouth wagon lasted until the late 1970s when one fateful day Ruth crested a hill and a tractor-trailer was parked crossways in the road.  Knowing there was no way to stop in time, Ruth was faced with the choice of going beneath the trailer or into the ditch.  She chose the ditch and demolished the Plymouth when it rolled over.

Ruth then bought a new half-ton Chevrolet pickup.  Putting a camper shell on it, she pretty much had her Fury wagon again, albeit in a taller format.

Ruth drove that pickup all over the place.  Living in a cabin on the banks of the Kaskaskia River outside of Sparta, Illinois (a town whose primary claim to fame is having the Sidney Poitier film In The Heat Of The Night filmed there), Ruth always had something to haul.

Several years later, Ruth and her husband began taking care of his aging mother.  Ruth’s mother-in-law, who personified the old stereotype of mothers-in-law being difficult people, threw a fit that the pickup was too tall, gave a negative connotation, looked peasant-like, etc.  So the Chevrolet went away…

For a Honda Civic.  And, in Ruth’s tradition, it was a wagon.  Incidentally, Ruth’s mother-in-law had an amazing 1971 Ford LTD two-door.

Admittedly, I had never seen any car like this and it created a small degree of curiosity, although I could never picture myself actually driving it or wanting to own one.  But Ruth drove it all over the countryside, continuing to use it like she’d used her pickup and her Fury.

I remember once asking Ruth what she thought about her Honda.  Her response said so much in so few words: “Jason, it’s not my pickup.”

By 1995, Ruth’s mother-in-law had passed away and she had divorced her husband after discovering his eye-poppingly nefarious activities.  So what did Ruth trade her Honda for?

A Buick Skylark.  So while Ruth had traded her American Chevrolet for a foreign car, she reversed course.  It makes me wonder how many Civics were traded on Skylarks, but there was at least one.

Ruth kept this car for twenty trouble-free years.  Two years ago, she realized her Buick wasn’t exactly new anymore so she made one more purchase.

She reversed course again and got a Corolla.  In a sense, it is the successor to the Skylark – a reliable small car with rather quirky styling.  I haven’t seen the car yet, but I know it’s a creampuff.

l-r, Ruth, Thelma, Mary in 2017

These three sisters are still going strong.  Ruth is now 92, Thelma is 94, and my Grandmother Mary is still as feisty and stubborn as ever at 96.  Of the three, Ruth is the only one still driving, but since she’s the baby of the three, that’s to be expected, isn’t it?