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The Commons
Voices / Memoir

Life's ups and downs in a rusty white Subaru

Sarah Levine finds a surprising connection to the beloved car of her childhood

SARAH LEVINE works as interim director of Emerge Vermont and is program coordinator for Girls on the Run.

Originally published in The Commons issue #466 (Wednesday, July 4, 2018). This story appeared on page D1.


So my story, like so many of ours around here, starts with spending far too much time in a Subaru — specifically, a 2001 white Subaru Forester with what someone referred to as “freckles.” Those freckles were actually dime-sized and quarter-sized and plate-sized rust spots. But I like I the term “freckles” a lot better.

This Subaru — which I decided for unknown reasons to name “Willie” — and I went through a lot together, ups and downs. Willie was with me when I graduated from the Westminster West School in 2002. I was lucky enough to have Claire Oglesby — a force in this community — as my first-grade teacher in her last year of teaching, so I just slipped in under the wire. Claire also had a 2001 Subaru Forester — I was honored to have the same car.

This car was the first car that my mother purchased after she and my dad divorced when I was 6 years old. She was saying, “OK, I have my own mode of transportation. I am my own woman. I’m a single parent. And here we go.”

Even at that time, I recognized the power of that. I remember thinking in my 6-year-old way, “Wow, my mom’s a bad-ass.” (Probably not in those words.) So Willie was a stamp of independence.

Willie was with us when I transitioned into the Grammar School, which seemed huge compared to the West West School. It was the car that I learned to drive on when I was about 9 years old. I would sit on my mother’s lap and move the steering wheel; she would operate the pedals, and I would feel like I was doing all the work when really I was just getting us this close to raising our insurance.

So this car meant a lot to me.

And one day, when we were driving to Wilson’s Tree farm getting our Christmas tree, the car died. In the middle of Route 5. And it was just no more.

And I remember having a very visceral mixed thoughts about that: “Wow. I went to a lot of things in this car. This car brought me to so many different things in my life and it’s gone.” And I also remember thinking, probably within about 60 seconds, “Holy —, I get a new car with my mom.”

So my mom called our mechanic Tom Hayes, who agreed to take the car.

* * *

Lisa McCormick is a world-famous guitar player, ukulele player, singer, musician. She lives in Brattleboro, and she is incredible — not only as a musician but also as a human being.

So right around the time that we gave Willie to Tom, his wife, Jill, had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. Jill ended up using Willie for just over a year or so, I think, before she passed away.

Right around this time, Lisa was in desperate need of a car. Her car had also recently died. She called Tom, who also happened to be her mechanic.

“Hey, do you have anything for me?” she asked him. “I really need a way to get around. Can you help me out?”

And Tom said, “Well, I have this really shitty 2001 Subaru Forester, and it has all of Jill’s stuff in it. But if you’re willing to take it, then it’s yours.”

“Great,” Lisa said. “I’ll take it.”

When she took the car home, she decided — and it felt right — to really give it a deep cleansing. Willie had been with me through some ups and downs in my life; at the time, Lisa was in more of a down point in hers.

I’d like to think the cleansing was not only of the car but also of the more negative energy in her life.

* * *

So when my mom and I were preparing to drop the car off at Tom’s, I was wanting the next person or people to own Willie to feel the gravity of what this car had meant to me, even though I didn’t know if it was going to get broken down into parts or if it was going to get shipped somewhere.

I wanted to convey that in some way. I ripped out a piece of my hot-pink bubble notebook paper and wrote a note: “I hope whoever finds this is having a wonderful life.”

I folded the note really small and shoved it in the glove compartment and forgot about it promptly.

* * *

I had not met Lisa until January of this year. In December of 2017, I learned she needed someone to assist her in her ukulele classes. I have never touched a ukulele in my life, but she made it very clear that she was looking for help with the setup and takedown as opposed to the actual playing of the instruments.

We had a lengthy phone conversation about Vermont and community and music. And after that conversation, I was hired.

And we got pretty close over those next few months. About six weeks since the class, she asked me to housesit for her when she went to Puerto Rico to teach ukulele for about a month shortly after Hurricane Maria had ripped through the island.

It was just pure devastation. She went, and she brought joy and music and love and laughter with her.

Lisa has a lot of art in her house, of all forms: musical and visual. After a few days in the house, I saw this little frame in the corner of the living room. I bent down, and I saw, on this hot-pink bubble notebook paper in a child’s handwriting, a note that said, “I hope whoever finds this is having a wonderful life.”

My jaw hit the floor, and I started screaming. I was housesitting because Lisa has a cat, and her cat literally flew up the wall. I was running around the house, and we were texting, and we were trying to call each other. But she was on this island that just had this hurricane, so the service was bad.

It was just this connectivity, this coming together.

About half my lifetime ago, I had written this note, and it was just the most incredible feeling to have this person — who I had come to care so deeply about — have this same note framed in her house.

The term “over the moon” feels a little cliché, but I felt like I had jumped over the moon, and it was the most amazing feeling.

A few weeks ago, I finished assisting Lisa with her second round of six-week classes. On the very last night of the last class, she taught a song that she had written called “Love Changes Everything.”

It’s true — love does change everything. And I think this type of love, this connectivity, is something that is unique to Vermont. It is something that we have all experienced in our own ways and really makes this place what it is.

So love changes everything.

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