Cars can keep us connected

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A cold tingling sensation shot down my back, and it was no random chill. Suddenly I sensed him. I wasn’t alone in the blue-on-blue 1990 Nissan 300ZX as I headed to my wedding.

My Uncle (“Unc”), who had died 14 years earlier, made sure I knew he was there for me on this day.

Cars get people from point A to point B, but they also get people out of bed early on weekends for Cars & Coffee gatherings, provide space to think through life while going for a destinationless cruise, put people together to bond on road trips, and foster community while creating relationships. They can also be a canvas for creativity.

Joel and Dan Feder playing with a model Z car

My world revolves around cars and the automotive community. They’re my job and my hobby. I was born into the car world. My father’s a car enthusiast, my uncles are and were car enthusiasts, my grandfathers appreciated cars, and even my grandmother had strong opinions about cars. Cars are hard-coded into my Feder DNA.

While I was growing up my family was involved in the Jewish community, and it still is. As a kid, it felt like I was going through the motions of religion, and I fought it at every turn, whether it was attending religious school or prepping for my bar mitzvah. It wasn’t until my mid-20s that it became clear that Judaism played a larger role in my life than I imagined. From the community and rituals to the morals and ethics, I embraced it.

But I never truly knew if those we loved who had passed checked in on us. How would you?

It’s fitting I would discover the answer to this question through cars.

Unc checking my boat-driving skills

Unc checking my boat-driving skills

Unc checking in

My Uncle, Robert Feder, was only 5-foot-6, but he was larger than life. He was the stuff of family legend.

I remember sitting on my family’s deck boat with Unc’s brother, Uncle Jerry, behind the wheel. Unc was in the water strapped to two white wooden water skis. His back faced the rear of the boat, his butt was in the air, and his arms were behind his back holding the waterski rope. Uncle Jerry hit the throttle and Unc popped right up to water ski backward, cementing his legendary status in this boy’s eyes.

As the oldest of four kids, Unc had it the roughest. Grandpa Paul and my grandmother Betty, known to us as “Nonnie,” didn’t have a lot of money when they were younger, and anything Unc wanted he would have to save up for and buy himself. He had grit and was crafty. Uncle Jerry told me he and Unc raised guppies for pocket money when they were young.

Unc was a successful civil rights attorney in Fargo, North Dakota, after leaving the Department of Justice in Washington D.C. While living in D.C., he zipped around town on a Honda motorcycle to avoid traffic rather than drive his white two-door Plymouth Sport Fury convertible with a blue interior. At one point, he had a terrible accident and he was “all busted up,” according to my Uncle Jerry. My grandfather flew out to D.C., but Nonnie went ballistic and told Unc to get rid of the motorcycle.

Unc's birthday gift to Nonnie

Unc’s birthday gift to Nonnie

Instead, in true Unc fashion, he staged a photo next to his motorcycle. Wearing a Superman tank top, red- and white-striped pants, and motorcycle boots, he held his motorcycle helmet in one hand and a “Happy Birthday Mother” sign attached to a broom in the other. He sent the photo to Nonnie for her birthday. She had it enlarged and framed. It hung in her wood-paneled basement at the base of the stairs my entire childhood, and now it hangs in the basement of my house.

Uncle Gary and Uncle Robert (Unc) with their 300ZXs

Uncle Gary and Uncle Robert (Unc) with their 300ZXs

During my childhood, Unc’s daily driver was a blue-on-blue first-generation Nissan Pathfinder with a manual transmission, but his toy was a blue-on-blue 1990 Nissan 300ZX 2+2. The Z was his baby, and people would crack jokes that he washed it with a diaper. He was neurotic about his stuff, just like Uncle Jerry, my father, and myself. It runs in the family.

I remember as a kid climbing into the small bucket seats in the back of his 300ZX early on Saturday mornings at the family cottage on Lake Melissa in Detroit Lakes, Minnesota. If I shut the door too hard, Unc would make me open it again and close it “nicely.” We’d go to the little convenience store down the road at Shoreham so he could buy a pack of wood-tipped Swisher Sweets, a Fargo Inforum newspaper for Nonnie, and a pack of candy cigarettes for me because I wanted to be cool like Unc who smoked cigars. Looking back, those candy cigarettes tasted like chalk.

Unc flying a hull with his Hobie 16

Unc flying a hull with his Hobie 16

Unc flying a hull with his Hobie 16––Unc, Aunt Jan, Hannah Feder, and Joel Feder in the Holder 17 sailboat

Unc flying a hull with his Hobie 16––Unc, Aunt Jan, Hannah Feder, and Joel Feder in the Holder 17 sailboat

Unc was a sailor. I don’t remember the blue and white Hobie 16 that he raced, but I do remember the Holder 17 fiberglass sailboat that was white with blue and purple stripes and teak wood trim.

The man liked to teach and make me think. Ask Unc a question and he wouldn’t just give me the answer. Instead, he made me figure it out to ensure I was challenged and learning.

I was 11 years old when Unc died of chordoma, cancer in his lower spine. The last time I saw him alive was in a hospital bed in his bedroom. He was in pain. I went out to the cement front stoop, grabbed the black wrought-iron railing, and cried. I screamed, too, then cried some more. At 11, I didn’t understand. He was only 54. He was Superman. He was Unc. It was overwhelming. Cancer won and Unc died. Kryptonite.

His 300ZX sat covered in storage for much of the next 11 years, as my Aunt Jan felt it a huge responsibility to care for it to Unc’s standards.

In 2008, my dad and I became its caretakers.

I could’ve tried to get any number of vehicles to drive the day of my wedding, but there was only one: Unc’s Z.

It was just after 10:00 am on Sunday, Aug. 28, 2011, and I was in the underground garage of the retirement home where Unc’s Z sat. It was waiting under a bed sheet after I had spent countless hours detailing it. There couldn’t be a speck of dust on it. It had to shine as it was the only physical connection I had with Unc the day of my wedding.

I turned the key to fire the 3.0-liter V-6 to life. Moments later I took a right onto Hwy 7 in St. Louis Park, Minnesota, and pointed the Z toward the synagogue.

1990 Nissan 300ZX I Photography by Allex Bellus Photography

1990 Nissan 300ZX I Photography by Allex Bellus Photography

Just before I crossed Hwy 169 a cold tingling sensation shot down my back. It was Unc. It had been 14 years since Unc died, but he was there in the car with me. He wanted me to know he was with us for this occasion. He knew I chose his car for the day of my wedding.

Just as quickly as he came into the Z to check in, he left. Suddenly the car felt empty again. What was momentarily a warm interior was suddenly cold and lonely, but I couldn’t stop smiling.

It was weird. Nothing like that had happened before. It made me happy. It felt as if Unc was proud that his car was part of our wedding.

Photo of Unc and Dad after winning a sailing regatta hangs on the wall at the family cottage

Photo of Unc and Dad after winning a sailing regatta hangs on the wall at the family cottage

Unc’s presence could also always be felt at the family cottage. For years, the jet skis and jet boat he and Aunt Jan had were parked at the dock next door, my dad still had a yellow Hobie 16 named Bankshot that he used to race with Unc, and Aunt Jan still had Unc’s favorite seasoned bagel chips in the pantry. As hard as it was to accept Unc wasn’t around anymore, it was good to feel his presence at the lake.

For years I questioned myself if Unc had really visited me in his car.

Then it happened again.

Betty Feder with Dan and Joel Feder

Betty Feder with Dan and Joel Feder

Nonnie said it’s OK

While growing up, I was extremely close with my father’s (and Unc’s) mother, Betty Feder—Nonnie.

Life to Nonnie wasn’t black and white. It was blue. Her parents, Max and Anne, gave her a star sapphire ring as a graduation gift. When she got married she took the sapphire out of the ring and had it placed into a ring for my grandfather. Blue soon became the Feders’ color. Her cars were blue, the boats were blue, her dresses were mostly blue, and even her dishes were blue.

A pillar in the community, she was a tireless volunteer who donated her time. She was the president of the Arthritis Foundation, and was the first woman and non-physician to serve on the national board. She also gave her time to serve as the president of the Minnesota State University-Moorhead Foundation and on the board of the National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods. Nonnie was certified by the Library of Congress to record text books for blind children in North Dakota’s public schools.

Betty Feder's 75th surprise birthday party

Betty Feder’s 75th surprise birthday party

When I was in middle school, Nonnie and I were in her sapphire blue on navy blue 1991 Mercedes-Benz 350SDL on our way to pick up my friend Mark for a play date. As we passed Knollwood Mall on Hwy 7 in St. Louis Park, Minnesota, I asked her, “How old was Grandpa when he died.” “He was 72, Dear, why?,” she responded. Everyone was “Dear” to Nonnie. Naturally, my next question was how old she was. She was in her mid-70s.

I gasped and said, “Nonnie! You could drop dead any minute!” She busted out laughing. From that moment on the joke between Nonnie and her second youngest grandchild was about her dropping dead any minute.

Betty Feder's 2001 Audi A6 with a vanilla and blue interior

Betty Feder’s 2001 Audi A6 with a vanilla and blue interior

Unc was Nonnie’s oldest son, and there’s no question as to why Unc’s cars were blue. Nonnie’s last vehicle was a 2001 Audi A6 4.2 ordered in Ming Blue with a vanilla and blue interior complemented by walnut wood trim. She ordered the 4.2-liter V-8 because it was the only way to get a motorized steering column. The color combination was a lot for the eyes to take in.

In the spring of 2000, I was with Nonnie, Uncle Jerry, and my dad at Valley Imports in Fargo, North Dakota, when she ordered the A6.

“Nonnie, what are you doing? That interior color combo, we’re going to have to try and sell this car when you’re dead someday,” I said.

“You’ll see, Dear. It’ll be gorgeous,” she responded in true Nonnie fashion.

I’ll admit, the color combination grew on me, but it took years after Nonnie was gone.

Nonnie died in 2012 at the age of 92 and it felt like someone hit the pause button on the world. The local Fargo news station ran a segment about Nonnie’s passing. It felt surreal that she was gone.

My father and Uncle Jerry asked me to help sell her A6. I flashed back to that conversation at Valley Imports in 2000. I knew this would happen.

Like any 12-year-old Audi, the car needed a long list of maintenance. From control arms and valve cover gaskets to a timing belt and water pump, the bill was going to be super-sized.

My wife, Karen, ended up with Nonnie’s A6 as her daily driver. In February 2013, after undergoing an exhaustive laundry list of maintenance, the car arrived at our house in Portland, Oregon.

Seeing it in my driveway had me conflicted. On one hand, Nonnie’s car was staying in the family, and it was now part of my daily life. On the other hand, it was a constant reminder that Nonnie was gone, of the hole she left in this world. The interior still wasn’t gorgeous. A button battery that Nonnie had in the ashtray was still present. I left it there.

On March 4, 2013, Karen drove Nonnie’s A6 to work as her daily driver for the first time. She parked in an end spot away from other cars and trees, and then posted a photo to Facebook tagging me to prove it. I was proud of her for respecting that the car was so important to me.

Just before 8 a.m. on March 9, 2013, while behind the wheel of Nonnie’s A6, it happened a second time. I was headed to see friends at Portland Cars & Coffee, and as I merged onto Hwy 217 from Hwy 26, a cold tingling sensation shot down my back. Nonnie was in the car with me.

I could sense her speaking to me. She said everything was alright, she was happy that we chose to keep the car, and that it was going to be Karen’s daily driver. She told me she loved me.

Just as quickly as she had joined me in the car she left. The car was suddenly cold and empty. I nearly pulled over as I began to cry. I felt so alone in the blue A6 with its vanilla interior. I missed Nonnie.

Nonnie's 2001 Audi A6 leaving for its new home with Ryan

Nonnie’s 2001 Audi A6 leaving for its new home with Ryan

They are watching us

The A6 was Karen’s daily driver until April 2019, when it finally became time to move on. The kids were getting bigger and it was getting hard to get our son in and out of the back sport buckets with his rear-facing car seat. Karen wanted a car with built-in Bluetooth, a cupholder that could hold more than a can of Coke, and perhaps repair bills that didn’t average $1,500 per issue. I wasn’t sure if I was ready to part with it, and I still question the decision, but it made logical sense.

I never listed the A6 publicly. My long-time college friend got wind that I might sell it and offered to buy it. He kept it for a few years, along with the button battery in the ashtray, until he moved to Utah and it no longer made sense to keep. I’m told it now lives with a new owner in St. Cloud, Minnesota, who had dreamed of owning a V-8-powered C5 Audi A6.

Unc's Z

Unc’s Z

Unc’s Z now lives in my garage where I get to see it daily. It makes me smile. It makes my kids smile. Unc’s tool kit still sits with his deck of cards in the rear hatch. His maintenance notebook still sits in the glove compartment.

Unc and Nonnie haven’t come back to check in on me again, but I know they are watching over us every time I slide the key into the Z’s ignition and hear the injectors fire, look at the blue Z sitting in my garage, or see a Ming Blue C5 A6 on the road.

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