Today as I was driving over the Washington Street Bridge and up onto the freeway, I noticed that my heat guage was on H. Beyond it even. There was nowhere to pull over, so I indulged in a moment of pure panic (as well as a healthy does of “you’ve got to be kidding me!!!”) and then I dropped the car into neutral and coasted for as long as I could get away with, breathing a sigh of relief to see that guage fall down below H, the shifting into drive to get a bit of momentum, then back into neutral, and so on, until I was off the freeway and at a safe side street to park.
I got out of the car and started walking, because that’s just what you do when it’s a sunny, beautiful day, and your car breaks down on a street with no bus line. Oy. I walked really, really fast so I could get home (closer than my office) in time to conduct a phone screen interview. What with the barking and the children crying, it went swimmingly.
Last month the same car broke down on me as I was out and about – Alice at a Birthday party, Margaret at a Soccer tournament, Lily napping in back. We still had no second car at that time, so I got to have the experience of our only transportation breaking down with about an hour before I was expected to pick Alice up. Oh, and no cell phone with me (of course). I briefly considered walking two blocks and buying a car on impulse, but rejected that remembering that financing probably took too long. I then called Enterprise and when they asked when I wanted to schedule my pickup, I calmly said, “Now, please.” I was out the door with a rental minivan in 30 minutes, with plenty of time to pick everyone up.
I hate cars, and all things related to cars because they are unreliable and break down at the worst possible moments. All my life. But, I have to give my mother credit, one thing she taught me is how to react in the moment. Stay calm and just solve the problem. Any way that gets you where you’re going. When we were kids, we would go to the beach for two weeks to a month during the summer. It would take hours and hours to pack up the car, and then finally we would pack in with all the stuff, and the dog. My dad never drove down with us, so it was just Mom, me, my brother, my sister and the dog. One of those times, we pulled out of the driveway, got around the corner, and the muffler fell off the car. It was hanging by something or other, but just dragging along the ground as we drove. My mom turned around the car, pulled back in the driveway and ordered, “don’t get out of the car, I’ll be right back.” She returned with six wire hangers, got under the car with my brother, and wired the car well enough to get us through the four hour drive. And back a month later. I must have a hundred stories like this, that have to do with plumbing or appliance repair or veterinary related near-disasters and so on. And all of this, with no google! I shudder to think what my mother would have attempted if she had had the world wide web at her fingertips.
The summer I was 15, my sister was 13 and my mother was 40 was a terrible time for all of us for one reason or another. My friends had dumped me, my sister was depressed and my mother was trapped in a horrible marriage. The kids bedrooms and family room were downstairs from the rest of the house – the living space and master bedroom were upstairs. So the downstairs was a haven, generally free of the step father. My mother would come down after he went to bed, and watch MTV with us, or sit on my sister’s bedroom floor while she picked out clothes for the next day, or sit around and read People and Cosmo and watch old movies with us. One night she casually mentioned, “well, I was thinking maybe we could take a little trip.” When? “Tomorrow.” Without even having to say it out loud, we understood this was a secret. We waited until he left for work the next morning, then packed everything we could think of into the station wagon and left. We took the cat.
That day we drove to Arizona and saw the Grand Canyon. That was the start of a trip that would go all the way across the country, with an extended stay in North Carolina & Maryland, and then back again. We drove down through Arizona (where we got lost for six of the most beautiful, if not nerve-wracking hours of the trip), Texas, Oklahoma, Missisippi, Arkansas, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, and then Maryland. Back across the middle of the country through Colorado, Utah, Nevada and back home. We went to Graceland, and stayed in cheap motels, and floated in a wide variety of hotel pools and spas until they closed down for the night. I think I remember those evenings most of all. One night in particular, we all laid in bed trying to stop talking so we could get some sleep. We had finally gotten quiet, and my mom said into the darkness, “picture yourself, floating in a jacuzzi.” And there was a moment of silence and my sister said, “what? Picture yourself a floating Jesus?” And the quiet was over. We must have laughed for an hour over that. I don’t know why it was so funny, the memory still makes me smile.
We broke down three times on that trip. Once was in Grand, Texas in the middle of a tornado watch on the interstate. A trucker stopped and called in a tow truck and waited with us while it came. Nice guy, but my mom made us stay in the car while she waited with him. Another time was driving through the rockies. The catlytic converter had gone and we didn’t know that we were breathing in carbon monoxide. We were all horribly snappish with each other, had headaches and luckily broke down before we were totally poisoned. We waited two days there while the part came in. The third time was the worst. We were headed back into southern california. My mother broke her rule about not driving at night because she just wanted to get home. Running away had turned out to not be the panacea she thought it would be. There wasn’t the family support on the east coast she hoped for, so she had to take us back. We broked down on an incline, at night on a four lane freeway outside of Barstow. Because it was on an incline, truckers couldn’t stop. A truck with a single guy in it stopped and my mom asked him if he would call a tow truck for us at the next town. A truck full of drunk guys stopped and my mom said, “oh, we’re fine, the police just came by and they said they’d circle right back”. They got back in their car. Finally a van stopped a ways in front of us and two men started walking down the freeway towards us. “Lock the door,” she said and headed up to meet them. She said when she was getting close to them, one of them yelled out, “we’re Mormons with a car full of Eagle Scouts.” I have to admit, I was super excited to squeeze into their car because I recognized a good story when I saw one, but just as we were heading up to their car, a tow truck pulled up. It turns out the first guy had called a tow truck, just as he promised.
The day that the car broke down with Lily asleep in the back and I got the enterprise car, I told my mom about it later and she said, “that’s exactly what I would have done.” Today, as I walked along, I felt extremely irritated, but not overwhelmed. I still hate cars, and I always will. But unlike John, who gets completely beside himself when something goes wrong, I have the blood of one of the toughest, most adaptable, quick thinking people I have ever known.