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His mom died in 1975. He spent decades trying to find her car and buy it back.

John Berry’s mother’s 1971 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme convertible. Berry spent several decades trying to buy it back after his father sold it in 1980 to a collector. (John Berry)

One of John Berry’s fondest memories of his mother is of her cruising in a 1971 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme, wearing oversize aviator sunglasses and a scarf tied loosely around her head.

He was 11 at the time, riding down the streets of Defiance, Ohio, in the back seat of his mother’s lime green convertible. The top was almost always down.

“She would make it an event to go to the supermarket,” recalled Berry, now 61. “My mom really loved that car.”

He did, too. So much so that he spent nearly three decades trying to find it and buy it back.

Berry’s mother, Janis Berry, died unexpectedly in 1975, when she was 43 years old. Berry was 15.

“We never got to say goodbye. It was devastating for all of us,” said Berry, who has an older brother and a younger sister. “It was a sense of loss that’s hard to describe.”

His parents were divorced, and shortly after his mother’s death, her things were sold in an estate sale. No belongings of hers were left behind. Even her grave felt far away: She was buried in Jackson, Mich., next to her brother and parents.

The convertible was the sole vestige of Berry’s mother that stayed in the family — but that was short-lived.

Berry’s father bought the car as a gift for his wife in the fall of 1971. Despite their divorce, the car was still in his father’s name. He kept it for a few years after she died before he decided to sell it in 1980 to a car collector who also lived in Defiance, Ohio, about 50 miles from Toledo.

Just like that, his mother’s beloved convertible was gone. But back then, “I didn’t appreciate how much it meant,” Berry said.

Years later, though, in the early 1990s, it hit him hard.

“As I grew older, I just longed for her to be in my life,” he said, explaining that he wanted something tangible as a memory. “So I began my quest to hunt down the car.”

Berry’s father gave him the name of the man who purchased the vehicle from him — Mike Hamilton — but it took several years to track down the right person. Finally, after Berry reached out over email, the buyer confirmed that he did still have the car, though he said he was not interested in selling it.

Berry was disappointed, he said, but at the very least, “it was important to me that I knew where it was.”

He followed up every six months or so, for more than 20 years. He explained the significance of the car and repeatedly reinforced that if Hamilton ever decided to sell it, he would like the option of buying it first. He remained hopeful that Hamilton would one day be ready to hand over the keys.

“It’s a perfect car,” Hamilton said of the Oldsmobile. “Over the years, several people have asked me if I was interested in selling.”

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Still, Berry — who has collected other cars and has long been fascinated by them — was by far the most determined, he said.

“He kept sending me emails and calling, asking me the same question,” said Hamilton, 81. Hamilton’s answer was always “no.”

After all, “it was a special car for me,” he said, adding that he became attached to it and enjoyed taking his granddaughters for rides and driving it to church in the summertime.

But Hamilton, who had 28 cars in his collection at one point, recently decided to start slowly selling some of them — including the classic Oldsmobile.

Although he had a few interested buyers, “it was really sentimental to John, so it was an easy decision for me,” he said. “It was the right thing to do.”

Out of the blue, Berry received the message he had long hoped for: “I am ready to sell the Olds,” Hamilton wrote in an email Sept. 10. “I have another person that would like to purchase the car but have not encouraged him at all because of your longtime desire.”

Berry was ecstatic.

She’s a medical student. Her mom is a custodian at the hospital where she trained.

He drove nearly six hours from his home in Union, Ky., to Rapid City, Mich., where Hamilton moved in 2000, to finalize the sale. His brother joined him for part of the trip.

“I had not seen it since 1980,” said Berry, adding that he paid $27,500 for the car, which was in stellar condition. “It was exactly as I remembered it.”

Reuniting with the vintage vehicle after more than 40 years was surreal.

“It was like somebody turned the key, not just on the engine, but on a flood of memories,” Berry said. “It was really powerful.”

“To be able to sit in that car and put my hands on the same steering wheel she put her hands on and open the door with the same handle she used and sit in the same seat she sat in — it’s a real connection,” he said.

The experience was also emotional for his brother.

“It was nostalgic in all aspects,” said Doug Berry, 64, who had driven the car himself several times as a teenager.

It was a meaningful moment for Hamilton, too.

“I was happy to see that it went back to the original family,” he said.

An added stroke of good luck was that the Berry brothers were in Michigan, about 180 miles from where their mother was buried. They decided it would be a perfect opportunity to visit her grave.

“It came full circle,” Berry said. “It was an emotional journey.”

He arranged to have the car transported the 500-mile drive to his home in Union, and it arrived Sept. 26. As soon as he had the chance, he took his two children, ages 10 and 7, for a spin. To preserve the car for as long as possible, Berry will limit the number of miles he puts on it and will drive it only locally when the weather is clear.

“The blessing in all of this, other than having it, is that my kids get to ride in it the same way I did,” he said. “It dawned on me that 50 years ago, I was sitting in those same seats where they are, and my mom was driving.”

To his delight, Berry discovered that a few of his mother’s belongings remained in the vehicle. In the glove compartment, he found a pair of her aviator sunglasses, a stamp from 1972, a map with handwritten notes, and a pair of her mother’s silver hoop earrings.

Now that the car is in his possession, Berry intends to drive with his kids in the back seat, making a mundane ride to the grocery store feel like a special occasion — just like his mother did. He’ll tell his children stories about their grandma Janis, who was “smart, a talented singer, sensitive, and caring.”

In all the years since losing her, Berry said, he has never felt closer to his mother.

“When I walk by that car, I talk to it like it’s my mom,” he said, pausing to wipe a tear. “In a way, it feels like she is with me again.”

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