In January 2006, my granddad, Buddy Smith, died. He ran a garage in a town so small that the P.O. boxes for all residents are tucked into one corner of the general store. My only solid memory of him was running up to his workshop and asking if I could have some of his sour cream and onion chips, which I had already eaten on the way up the hill. From what I’ve heard from family, he was a great guy.
The whole whirlwind of illness and death was strange for a sheltered nine year old; I vividly remember getting an American Girl doll for Christmas and staying at my other grandparents’ house on the weekends, while my parents were an hour away at the hospital. I was pretty removed from it all, but aware of what was going on. Then, there was the quiet. I was too scared to go to the funeral because I wanted to remember my granddad alive, not in a box.
A few months later while on vacation, we went to see Cars, the Disney movie where anthropomorphic cars have lives and also run NASCAR races the way humans do IRL.
Here’s why this was weird.
Mater acts exactly like my granddad did—it’s downright spooky. He says the same things, acts the same, and like my granddad, he spent his whole life wishing he could ride in a helicopter. When my granddad was sick, he was almost airlifted to the hospital, which would’ve made his fucking life. He complained about being driven there for days, my mom told me. When Mater said “I’d give my left two lugnuts for something like that!,” my mom gasped—that was something my granddad said all the time. Everything that came out of Mater’s mouth was something my granddad would’ve said, since he was a big fan of Larry the Cable Guy, too. He had a baby blue tow truck turned rust-bucket that looked like Mater, and he named it Bertha. He named all his tools and vehicles Bertha.
A little about my grandfather: he would put an entire gallon of ice cream in the microwave and then eat it. He ordered twelve hamburgers and a small fry every time he went to McDonalds. Mater, similarly, was a fucking mess.
When we first saw the movie, my mom knew it was her dad. It’s not the first time he’s done spooky shit since he passed away, after all. He swore up and down that when he died, he wouldn’t have his funeral in the church because it was too fancy. It was held in the town hall next door, and he was buried in jeans and a flannel with a wrench in his chest pocket. When the crowd filed out of the funeral, they looked at the church and, lo and behold, the steeple was tilted. My mom said he was trying to knock it down on the way to Heaven, just to make a point. I saw it myself a few months later, surrounded in scaffolding.
He could glance at a patch of clover and find a four-leaf clover in half a second. None of us were as lucky as him, and he makes sure to remind us of that all the damn time. The clover patch at the foot of his grave usually holds a dozen or more four-leafs. One of them is pressed, laminated, and tacked next to a photo of Mater in my house.
His Find-a-Grave talks about him like an old friend: “He plowed our driveways, brush hogged our fields, made new gardens—with a little advice thrown in—he towed wrecks off the highways and even dragged us out of the mire during mud season. He could pull stumps out of the ground and pick up huge stone boulders with his tractor—which I believe was about his age. He loved to chat and could tell a great story, but first he would take out a pencil and mark down the time on a matchbook as he started to converse so he wouldn’t charge you for the time he was talking.” He was an irreplaceable character in a tiny New Hampshire town.
Eventually, my mom’s three sisters, my grandma, all of my cousins, and every family member who knew Buddy had seen the movie. They would pick up anything Mater-related for each other—toy sets, ornaments, puzzles, Cars-themed snacks, fabric … you never realize how much merch Disney makes until you find you’ve collected all of it and tucked it into the corner of the living room. Seriously, it takes up a whole corner of our living room. R/C Mater trucks have become just as common at the Christmas family Yankee Swap as lanterns and crock pots are.
It’s been 11 years since Cars came out (and believe me, we were first in line to see Cars 2), and the whole extended family still celebrates when they find new Mater toys. We’ve already made plans to see Cars 3 this summer.
Through the process of remembering, we learn more about people than we did before. I never really knew my granddad, but I’m proud to tell people that an iconic Disney character was probably based off of him.