Cars: A Love Language

On expectation, estrangement, and engine trouble

Theo Bickel

Sometimes talking to my dad is like talking to a seventy-six-year-old teenager.

Two weeks after he used the money I gave him to buy a Ford Focus—a practical, reliable car, I should point out—nature unleashed her winter fury on the Green Springs, the mountain community where he lives off the grid in rural Southern Oregon. Despite three feet of snow blanketing the ground outside his fifth-wheel trailer, he tried to go out. Twice he slid off the road into a ditch, he told me, before giving up and going home. 

“You did what?” I asked, making no effort to hide my exasperation. “Why were you even driving?”

“I wanted to go out for lunch,” he countered, making no effort to hide his mischievous tone.

I stopped short of reprimanding him, but inside, I was furious. He doesn’t respect his new car, I thought, because he didn’t have to scrap and save for it. He’d cobbled together the funds to buy it by selling an old truck that was beyond repair and asking me to make up the difference.

Two weeks before, I’d sent $2,000 to Julie, an ex-girlfriend who keeps his calendar, pays his bills, and fills his prescriptions. I’d been persuaded to send her the money for safekeeping until he found a car that suited his needs. 

“He likes shiny things,” Julie confided over the phone. “If you Venmo me the money, I’ll keep it here until he finds a car; otherwise, he’ll just be tempted to spend it.”

When I hesitated—wary of sending my hard-earned savings to a relative stranger—she told me that he’d recently gone to Bi-Mart to buy a new microwave and instead walked out with a pistol.

“They didn’t have the microwave he wanted and the money was just burning a hole in his pocket,” she said. “He’s always buying things. Did he tell you he bought a set of tires for a single mom who lives up on the mountain?”

I sighed. Of course he did.

Despite my reservations, I sent Julie the money that afternoon.

When I was sixteen, my dad and I went to buy my first car. We drove down a country road, my dad at the wheel, to see a friend of a friend. That’s how it worked in those days. Someone knew someone who knew someone else who had bought a car from this guy before.

We pulled up to a house with a rain-sprayed skirt of red dirt along its foundation. There were no flowers or shrubs or anything beautiful, just leafless trees and an assortment of cars parked this way and that, like matchbox toys scattered by a giant. 
My heart sank. When my dad said he wanted to buy me a car, I’d envisioned a normal one—a used Toyota Corolla or Honda Civic—something sensible and reliable. Not one of these misfits with dinged fenders and mismatched parts, the body a patchwork quilt of Bondo and grey primer.

I hid my disappointment and climbed out of the truck, standing quietly next to my dad as he and the friend of a friend greeted one another. They shook hands and started talking about people they knew in common, the various cars in his yard, and which ones needed this or that. 

“This one would be great,” said the friend of a friend. “It just needs a new carburetor.”

Or maybe he mentioned a crank shaft and rods. I didn’t know what any of those things were, but they were familiar words that I’d often heard bandied about when my dad talked to his buddies.

My dad was always bringing home cars that needed work. There was the ’57 Chevy, the Chevy Delivery, and the Volkswagen Beetle, all in various states of disrepair. He’d spend his time after work and on weekends sanding and hammering and tinkering. Every now and then he’d take a car out for a drive. My mom, my sister, and I would pile in with him and cruise the rural roads of my childhood, log trucks looming around every curve. I don’t remember any of those cars ever being truly finished. Instead, they would come and go, traded off to a better home where they would presumably get a real paint job and finish their transformation.

The friend of a friend gestured to a blue car under a bare tree. This was the reason we were here.

“She runs good,” the man said, by way of encouragement, as my dad circled the car.

I knew right away I didn’t want it. I can’t remember the make or model, but it was an off-brand sports car that was probably twenty years old. It’s no doubt worth a small fortune and highly collectable today, but when I was sixteen and longed to fit in, it might as well have been a dump truck.

I didn’t want to be rude, so I tried to muster a little interest, peering in the windows and reluctantly getting into the driver’s seat. I wished my mom was there to declare it unsafe. Instead, I discreetly tried to tell my dad that I didn’t like it. 

“Can I think about it?” I whispered to him, trying to gently telegraph my disapproval. “I’m just not sure. Can we look at some others?”

I knew I was walking on thin ice; one misstep and the offer to buy me a car could be rescinded. My dad could be volatile; he took things personally. He could pout or give me the cold shoulder for days. I didn’t know how to say what I did want. I just knew this wasn’t it. 

“OK, come on. Let’s go,” my dad puffed. He waved goodbye to the friend of a friend, mumbling his thanks as we climbed back into the truck. 

I was silent on the drive home, waiting for a sign from my dad. He’s a slight man who has always worn a beard. His typical uniform was a plaid flannel shirt and work boots. I snuck glances at him and tried to think of how to rewind the day.

“What’s wrong with that car?” he said finally. 

“Dad, I just don’t like it. Can’t we look at something else?” I pleaded.

He ended up spending the car money to buy a new set of tires for his truck. I played the game wrong. You snooze, you lose. The gift was on his terms.

It wouldn’t be the last time my dad let me down. 


Only a few years later, while I was attending college on a Pell grant, I asked for his help to buy a car.

I’d found a beat-up Toyota for only $400. The ignition was a tangle of wires—that should have been a tip-off—and instead of a key, there was a big button on the dash to start the car. My standards had certainly lowered, but I was just happy to find something I could (almost) afford and that would get me from point A to point B. I had $200 of my own and called my dad to ask if he would loan me the rest.

“I need to check with Terry,” he said, referring to his new wife. “I’ll call you later.”

When he didn’t call back, I phoned him, already knowing the answer but wanting to hear it nonetheless.

“I’m sorry, Ray. We just can’t,” he said, apologetic but firm.   

I don’t know if he felt sad or sorry. I only remember receiving the news sitting at the kitchen table in the house I shared with four college friends. It was gray and raining, like most winter days in Eugene. 


I’ve never fully understood why my father dropped out of our lives after my parents divorced.

Was it unbearable sadness that forced him to drift away? Was it fear or anxiety, or something else entirely? I didn’t understand it at the time and, in some ways, it wasn’t up to me, a teenager navigating an unfamiliar world on her own for the first time, to make sense of it.

My mother had moved on to a new relationship right away with someone who was more outwardly successful and capable. He earned a good living and even owned a house—two things my dad had been striving for.

Looking back, it’s easy to imagine that my dad may have felt diminished—that his family had been almost stolen, leaving him bereft and adrift. 

But as days turned into months and the years passed, our estrangement grew, and my dad slowly faded from my life. I can’t remember if he was there when I graduated college. By that point, he wasn’t in the picture, figuratively or literally. A single photo marking the day shows only me, my sister, my mom, and my grandparents. When I married, I only briefly considered inviting him, knowing that he didn’t have the money to travel cross-country to the wedding. Likewise, he wasn’t around when we had a baby. I remember telling him, but I don’t recall much beyond that.

Over the years, our relationship limped along, propped up by occasional phone calls and visits when I happened to be in the area. Most of these efforts were one-sided. I was the one making the call or suggesting breakfast if I was nearby.


A few years ago, my husband and I were getting rid of our twenty-year-old Subaru. I mentioned it to my dad in passing, and he wasted no time dropping the hint that it would be a good car for driving mountain roads.

We decided to give it to him mostly out of convenience. To a dealer it was worth next to nothing, and it would be a hassle to sell it.

My dad was thrilled. Since his knee-replacement surgery, using a stick shift was difficult, and he was scheduled for a second one soon. So we made some arrangements and met my dad’s friend Richard at a freeway rest stop to hand off the Subaru.

It was only as the car was disappearing into the distance that I realized the significance it held. We bought it when I was pregnant, thinking it would be a solid, reliable car for the duties of parenthood. When we brought our son home from the hospital, I sat with him in the backseat, anxiously monitoring each bump and turn in the road as my husband drove well below the speed limit with our precious cargo. Later, when our son had trouble napping, we’d drive the Subaru in circles around the neighborhood, hoping to lull him to sleep. When we moved back to Oregon, the car was loaded onto a flatbed and delivered cross-country; I remember exploring the back roads as our toddler slumbered in his car seat. Later, the trusty Subaru saw us through soccer weekends and camping trips. As we said goodbye, I was glad it would be in the family, so to speak.

A few months later, the Subaru started having engine troubles. When my dad finally let me know, he sheepishly told me that a guy he knew was working on it.

“I didn’t want to trouble you about it,” he said. “It’s a good car, Ray. It just needs a new engine.”

While it sounded ominous to me, it didn’t seem to faze him, as if a wholesale engine replacement was par for the course.

The job became more complicated when the engine the mechanic had purchased turned out to be a dud. Instead of sending it back, he decided to tinker with it, leading to even more problems.

By the time my dad brought me up to speed, we were well into the pandemic and the repairs had stalled. Communication from the mechanic was coming in drips and drabs.

“I told him my daughter gave it to me, that it’s got special meaning,” my dad said over the phone, explaining how he was trying to guilt the mechanic into finishing the job.

It was when I heard those words that I realized the car meant much more to him than my giving it had ever meant to me. We were offloading the car, taking the easy road to getting rid of it. We were avoiding the hassle of selling it online, meeting potential buyers and the back and forth that goes with it. To my dad, it was a meaningful gift.

It made me think of when he offered to buy me that first car. In his eyes, it was a love offering. Cars are my dad’s love language.

I didn’t know it when I was sixteen, but when I rejected the no-name sports car, I was rejecting my dad. His oldest daughter had her driver’s license, and he wanted to get her a car; he didn’t have a lot of money, but he had a friend of a friend. When I think back to this now, my cheeks flush with shame. I’m also sorry for the girl, who just wanted to fit in. 

Perhaps, then, this would be a kind of atonement, I thought, as I offered to step in and broker talks with the mechanic. Typically, I would stay out of it, but this time, it felt personal. I suddenly understood how much the car meant to my dad, and what it meant to our relationship.

I called the mechanic and pressed him to finish the job. Through texts and occasional calls, I let him know that we were waiting. At one point, I even considered paying for the repairs, but I stopped short of making the offer.


My parents immigrated to the United States from England when I was seven. They arrived with two suitcases, a basic education, and a desire to escape what they saw as a rigid class system that limited their choices, and by extension, the future choices available to my sister and me. My dad had dreamed of living in the Western United States, or his romanticized version of it, since he was a child. When he told my sister and me that we were moving to America, he held up a postcard of the Rocky Mountains and said, “This is where we’re going.” 

In his mind, it was destiny. When he was a teenager, he had briefly moved with his parents to Manitoba, Canada. He loved it. He ran wild there, exploring the woods and reveling in the remoteness that was impossible in a densely populated island nation. But after six months or so, they received word that my grandmother’s father was gravely ill. The family packed their bags and sailed back to England to say their goodbyes. They never returned to Canada, but the experience loomed large in my father’s imagination and charted the future course of our lives.


For years, I thought my father couldn’t help me, so I let go. I thought I didn’t need him.

But recently, I’ve come to realize that I did need him—that I’ve missed out in important ways. I needed someone to walk me down the aisle, to advise me, to be happy when I told him he was going to be a grandfather. Instead, he asks me nearly every year how old my son is. When he does, I question my own memory of the series of events that led us to this painful juncture, wondering whether it’s my fault he doesn’t know his grandson’s birthday.

Am I the villain in this story? Is there a villain in this story?

In some ways, it’s easier to take responsibility for my own failings than it is to confront abandonment and indifference.

I’m not proud to admit that I had a certain amount of embarrassment about my dad. He didn’t have the outward signs of success—no big house, no fancy car, no money, no means, and no safety net. Instead, he was quirky and unconventional; he wasn’t afraid to do things his way.

If I look closely, I realize my dad’s enthusiasm for life, his unfaltering belief in possibilities, his penchant for dreaming the impossible dream, taught me to dream, too. He gave me the ability to believe in myself—and to visualize a life beyond my current circumstances.

In a world where giving is equated to money, it’s possible my dad felt he didn’t have anything to give. And for my part, I realize I’d internalized that narrative as well.


When the pandemic hit, I took to checking in with my dad more frequently, making sure he was taking precautions. I sent him masks and helped order his groceries online. We fell into a comfortable routine of phone calls while I walked the dog. He listened and commiserated about the changes in my life—home-schooling and worry about my teenage son’s isolation—offering gentle reassurance when I had the courage to be honest. Though we hadn’t seen each other in person since the fall of 2019, all of a sudden, we were having those father-daughter conversations I’d missed out on over the years. 

But I still felt myself holding back. It’s hard to open up knowing I was let down in the past. And I find myself worrying about the future: What is my responsibility going forward? Does this new closeness mean he will grow to expect more of me? 

For now, he seems content to use our Comcast login to watch Homestead Rescue from his trailer in the mountains. Our connection is tenuous at best. But he’s not getting any younger, and I know one day he will need more. I’m not sure what I will be able to give, or if I owe him anything.

To my dad, who has always had a knack for getting others to do things for him, life is a series of trades and trade-offs. I can’t expect him to change at this point. But I can open my heart and love without expectation. This time, I get to choose.


No comments yet.