Do This in Memory of Me

John’s dad’s 1929 Model-A Ford Tudor Sedan

“Will you take care of my car for me after I’m gone?” My father asked me while we sat in my sister’s living room. I didn’t know it at the time, but that would be one of the final face-to-face conversations he and I would have before he passed away less than a month later.

The car that Dad was referring to was his beloved 1929 Model-A Ford Tudor Sedan. He had bought it for $125 back in 1962 when he was 14 years old and then spent the next two years restoring a car that he couldn’t yet legally drive himself. When kids his age were drooling over the latest muscle cars and building hot rods in their garages, my father was restoring a 33-year-old family car. It would be the modern-day equivalent of seeing a kid put all of his blood, sweat, and tears into a 1986 Ford Taurus station wagon.

As a professional auto mechanic his entire life, my dad owned hundreds of cars. The Model-A was the only car he would never sell. The car was at his high school graduation, it was at my parents’ wedding (as well as the weddings of many of their friends), and it is pictured on my parents’ tombstone. So, when asked if I would take custody of his car for him, how could I say anything but yes?

At the time that my dad died, the week before Father’s Day in 2016, his Model-A had not been on the road in close to 15 years. During those years, my mom was diagnosed with a terminal disease, and Dad became her primary caregiver. Shortly after her passing, his health quickly declined. For all of that time, the ’29 Ford sat in storage, neglected, rusting, and collecting dust. By the time I took over its care, the car’s engine was completely seized up, and no amount of pulling on its hand crank would break it loose.

Luckily, in Dad’s collection of extra parts, he had a spare engine/clutch/transmission assembly that matched what was in the car. My 11-year-old daughter, Bella, and I spent the summer of 2017 rebuilding the spare engine and getting it running on a test stand. Then last fall, we swapped out the seized engine in the car for the one we now had running. By late November, we took the car for its maiden voyage around our neighborhood; the first time it had driven under its own power in nearly a decade and a half.

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John and his daughter Bella getting ready to take his dad’s car for a spin.

This whole project has become about so much more than the car. It has been a means of grieving the loss of both of my parents, a bonding experience for my daughter and me, and, believe it or not, a basis for theological reflection as well.

That last angle didn’t occur to me until sitting in Mass one day recently when the priest referenced the famous exchange between Jesus and Peter recorded at the end of John’s Gospel: “Do you love me?”… “Feed my sheep.” (John 21:17)

Dad’s question came echoing back to me, “Will you take care of my car for me after I’m gone?” Just like Peter, I was quick to respond, but I doubt either one of us knew what we were signing ourselves up for. In both cases, by the time we knew enough to ask informed questions, the person we would have asked was no longer with us.

By the time Jesus’ first disciples were out in the community continuing his ministry, they surely encountered and experienced many things that they felt like they were unprepared for. At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit descended upon the first disciples to continue to inspire and guide them in following their Christian mission. Dad didn’t leave me with nearly as powerful of an advocate as the Holy Spirit, but at least I have Google and YouTube to help me out.

As I reflect on these unexpected parallels between an old Ford and the Catholic faith, I’m also struck by how they are both handed down through word and tradition from one generation to the next. We know that Jesus’ original 12 Apostles passed on the faith to their predecessors through their writings and through their actions. As we work on the Model-A, Bella often comments, “I love how the car still smells like Grandpa.” She’s not wrong — it does smell like him, or he smelled like it. They both had that unique potpourri of gear grease, gasoline, and exhaust that all old mechanics have. Bella still has that firsthand experience to remember what her grandfather smelled like. But her kids will not. They will have to come to rely on her descriptions, much like we have come to rely on all of those generations of Christians who have gone before us.

I still don’t view the Model-A as “my car.” I tell people that it’s my dad’s car — I’m just taking care of it for him. Someday down the road, Bella will take over as its primary caretaker. She’ll teach her kids about their Catholic faith and how their great-grandpa bought a car for $125 when he was 14 years old. Based on what I’ve seen thus far, I think I’ll be leaving both the car and the faith in good hands.

John Oliva

John Oliva has been surrounded by college students for most of his adult life. He spent the first half of his career as a university professor and now works as a licensed, professional engineer in the private sector. Along with his wife Lisa and their daughter, the Oliva’s are active in campus ministry and other service initiatives through their home parish of St John's Church and Student Center at Michigan State University. An aspirant deacon, John is in his first year of diaconate formation with hopes of being ordained for the Diocese of Lansing.