Life and Death in a Chevrolet Family

My uncle Stuart passed away a few weeks ago. He was 70 years old and suffering from serious health issues, but not at a rate that indicated we were going to lose him so soon. It was, and will continue to be for some time, a shock.

Stuart was my mother’s older brother, the oldest of five children. Her name is my middle name because of the special relationship Mom and Stu had; pretty much the same 43 years ago when it was written on my birth certificate just over a week ago, before her heart stopped. She said, “We are twins, but a year apart.

My mom was one of a handful of people who even half understood her brother, who was, and I’m looking for a more nuanced or crafty way to put it, a pain in the ass. He was a huge, handsome man with an impressive beard and (often but not always) a short mohawk. He slipped flannel shirts into belted jeans or work pants, lest you get some kind of “biker” image.

Her favorite shoes were a pair of Minnetonka fringed moccasins. Stuart was there for the transition from “hard rock” to “heavy metal” in the early ’80s (I vividly remember visiting his house when I was young and being floored by some of Iron’s albums. Maiden next to his stereo). He was a loner and cranky, incredibly hard-working, quick-witted and funny as hell when you caught him in a good mood. There was no one like him.

When I was little, going to my grandmother’s for big family reunions was something I loved, largely because of Stu and my three other uncles (Ross, Dean and Tyce). My brother and I were the only grandchildren / nephews for years, so we got the lion’s share when it comes to attention, toys and teasing. Stu would lie on the floor in the den after dinner, make me tread on his back and call me “Beefasaurus” – I was a big kid – and pretend I was crushing him. Uncles would give me models of WWII fighter planes as gifts and then insist on helping me put them together. They would all go out into the aisle to smoke cigarettes and make jokes, and I would follow them to listen, and pretend to understand and to feel cool.

There was always a conversation about who was driving what. Cars and vans, and especially trucks, were in the mix back then, and all of them are still painted in the background of every memory I can recall, in every era of my life. As I grew older, that meant taking a lot of good-humored shit from Stuart, in particular, about driving a chain of Japanese and European cars. (I guess it’s easier to crack jokes on my Saab 9000 than it is on my freshly minted socialist sensibility.)

And when I started writing about cars and driving everything new it meant a lot of download sessions with all the uncles on what was interesting, what was bad, what was worth it. Showing up in the latest GM pickup (or an F-150 just to stir the pot) was often the motion as I grabbed the keys and headed for vacation gatherings. And inevitably, questions about any new thing I rode in turned into stories about collective family history cars.

Quietly a GM family

Like many of us, my relationships with vehicles and people are strangely linked.

Growing up in Michigan and writing about cars for a living, I’ve spent most of the past two decades talking about trucks (especially Chevrolet trucks) with my uncles. So driving a Chevrolet home to remember Stu felt good on every level. The new Silverado RST, oddly fitting in a fully blackened trim, felt good for the occasion. The cars and car stories from my mother’s side of my family – born and raised in Michigan, almost without exception – were put together on a General Motors production line.

My mom’s first car was a 1969 Camaro RS that she bought from Stu – well, Grandpa bought it for her and she paid it back. And while it has strayed from GM’s fold at times over the years, hands down the best car of my childhood was hands down its 1984 Pontiac Fiero. I actually owned it for a spell, although she knows her considerable flaws.) Over the past decade, she has returned to modern Camaros as daily drivers.

Over the years, family reunions have also been populated with Chevy metal. As I flip through old photo albums, I’ll recognize Corvair, Chevy II and Nova, Monte Carlos, Impala and Vegas. At one point, the sedans in the aisle morphed into a bevy of minivans: GMC Safaris, Pontiac Trans Ports, and our family’s invincible Chevy Lumina. A chain of white Cadillac sedans was parked in my grandmother’s garage in the ’90s and early’ 90s (remind me to tell you how she brought her first CTS back to the dealership when she realized this was not a front-wheel drive), then a few Buicks, and then we took her license off at 90 and she’s still pissed off.

And I’m sure every generation of every Chevrolet and GMC pickup has been featured at one time or another. My all-time favorite truck is and forever will be a Chevrolet Square Body (it’s a third-generation GM C / K pickup, for the uninitiated). My grandfather Adrian, who died in 1986, drove a silver 80’s or 81’s C100 that I remember so well I can close my eyes and feel the warm vinyl seats and the whisper of cherry pipe tobacco.

Cars mattered. Stuart, my mother and their brothers were very proud to own them. But they didn’t matter in some kind of bumper sticker. I grew up with a lot of people who would drive a Chevy the same way they would wave an American flag. It was calmer. A family habit. The thing that is known to be “what we do”.

For Stuart, driving a Chevrolet was a way of life, of course. This Camaro that he sold to my mother was followed by a 1971 Monte Carlo in Tuxedo Black with a black vinyl roof and cream leather interior. (This car is almost legendary in my family – the jealousy it inspired in Stu’s siblings is almost palpable whenever they remember it – and yet the only photo we have been able to unearth shows that it is loaded with canoes for a trip to the river.) links would follow.

Its last Chevrolet was a late first-gen Colorado (I’m not sure which model year), red on black, with the unsung 3.7-liter five-cylinder under the hood. A modest vehicle to say the least, but Stuart treated it like a heirloom. Another strong family trait (latent in me until my mid-thirties) is the emphasis on car maintenance which borders on obsession; I have never seen Stu’s Colorado in any condition but pristine.

He was quite proud of this truck. I remember parking it next to my mom’s Camaro on a Sunday a million years ago, and telling me to “write a story about it” with a hissing little laugh. (Two red Chevrolets in front of a barn in Michigan seemed like a hook, I guess.) His Colorado was the last thing we talked about – he was loudly defending the merits of the five-banger, “I had zero problem with that! as if it were a reward, at my grandmother’s 90th birthday party.

In solitude, those snatches of conversation, those hazy memories, and those yellowed photos of backyards and alleys on summer days for decades, don’t mean much. We have passed the time. We talked, in a landscape increasingly laden with ideological differences, about the cars we had and the memories of cars we had in common. Every story is small, every car unimportant, but overall they are about everything we share.

For me, it’s complicated

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