Twenty years ago my life changed in one swell foop, as we say in my family. When it began, none of us could see how 2001 would spin us around as a nation, as a world, how the actual first year of the new century (if you accept the notion that the year 2000 was the end of the 20th century) would blindside everyone.
In my case it began with the death of my husband, Cliff Polland, in March, which left me reeling all year. Though we’d lived separately for some time, we’d remained married—him living in a rented house in Winters and me in our house in Sacramento. We shared Buddy dog, saw each other on weekends, rebuilt a longstanding friendship. When he died unexpectedly, my life and heart cracked open. I had no idea who I was without Cliff, the tall, once-bearded photographer I’d met in college, the man who, when I said I needed to live alone, said, “I’ll help you move.” And did.
Friends and family appeared to help, and somehow I finished teaching that spring semester and began to shakily regain my footing. About six months after Cliff died, Sept. 11 dawned with the news of two jetliners crashing into the World Trade Center, leaving the world stunned and the United States again at war. It seemed that everyone I knew was thrown off balance and had joined me in the throes of deep loss and grief.
In between those two landmark moments, bright spots winked like sunlight through summer leaves. In June and July, Dick and I bought brand new Hondas, first a Civic for me and an Accord for him because our late 1980s models had certainly seen better days.
And in August, wandering the state fair with my BFF Georgann Turner, GÜD WRTR was born.
I’d never imagined myself a personalized license plate kind of person, but when we happened upon the DMV booth at the fair, Georgann decided that I was. I don’t recall exactly how she came up with that particular letter combination, but right then and there a DMV employee checked a database (it’s possible that it was in a large binder of many printed pages), and it turned out that for a mere $30 registration fee, GÜD WRTR could be mine. They couldn’t put the umlaut over the “u,” but Georgann pointed out that we’d know it was there.
I hesitated, but Georgann did not.
“I can’t put that on my car,” I protested. “People will think I’m bragging.”
“Not spelled like that they won’t,” she said, paying the fee as I dubiously filled out the paperwork.
It turned out she was right, Georgann, as she has been about many things in my life. And, after the plates arrived and Dick put them on the car, she declared herself a published writer, given that she’d come up with the seven letters that identified my little Civic—and me, it turned out—for the next 20 years. (She later had good pieces of her writing published in literary journals, so she was not wrong about that.)
Until I wrote about giving up the car on Facebook, I didn’t realize how many people have come to know me through that license plate. My friend Laura Martin wrote what a surprising number of people expressed: “Now I will never be able to find your car in a parking lot.”
My colleague, retired Sacramento City College track and field coach Lisa Bauduin, wrote, “There were many weekends when I would drive to campus and think I’d be the only fool working… and then I always got a smile on my face when I saw your car as I turned in to the parking lot.”
And my niece, Lauren Just Giel—now a Del Oro High School English teacher who lived with me for a time when she attended Sac State—wrote, “I will never forget the winter of 2004 when you took a trip to Hawaii and let me borrow the car for a week. I had just gotten my license that summer and remember many happy days driving in the rain listening to ‘The Prisoner of Azkaban’ score in my new pseudo-adulthood. To me you will always be ‘GUD WRTR’!”
This week I retired the GÜD WRTR license plates along with the car. It was time, given its rattly condition and the news from the Honda service department that had taken care of the car all these years that it would need a major investment to keep it running. The Accord was in better condition, we learned. If we were going to keep one of them, that would be the wiser move. The Accord would become my car, and Dick would buy a new Civic.
For some time I knew I would one day donate the old Civic to Capital Public Radio. I have former journalism students who’ve interned and worked there, and I’ve been a longtime supporter. But I also recalled the day, years after Cliff died, when Dick and I walked Buddy dog in to the vet’s office to be euthanized. Buddy was growing a massive tumor in his cheek, one that would eventually rupture and cause a miserable, bloody death. The veterinarian gently laid her head on his, looked up at me and said, “He’s ready,” and I nodded as she gave him the injections.
Watching the Civic get hooked up to a tow truck and hauled away felt similar. The old girl still had life in her, and even donating her to charity, I couldn’t fool myself into thinking that she’d be sold for anything but scrap. How silly to stand in the middle of the street, watching the car roll slowly out of my life, only to turn around to find a fully functioning one stopped behind me, waiting to motor by. I waved at the patient driver, trying not to burst into tears before proceeding with the rest of my day.
Georgann and her husband moved some years ago to Washington state where she has coped with cancer for a decade. I see her rarely now, but I think of her often. Somehow letting the car go and relinquishing the personalized plates to the DMV is tied up with missing her, too.
The day before the tow truck arrived, Dick, with his trusty little red toolbox, knelt on the driveway and removed the GÜD WRTR plates he’d affixed there so long ago. He has been my rock and ace cheerleader in all things, and I am grateful to him. The license plates were mine to keep, said the nice woman on the phone with whom I arranged the donation.
And the name lives on the home page of this website, which will remind me of the old Civic but even more will remain a tribute to Georgann, a very GÜD WRTR herself.