January is the worst time for car trouble. Cars never fail us when convenient or when the weather is nice. So, when my daughter-in-law Beka called me one recent evening to ask if I could help her get her car to the garage for repair early the next morning, I said yes without hesitation.
Beka had dropped my granddaughter Camille off at her elementary school in Richfield that morning, no problem. She went home with baby Maeve, who is three months old, and settled in at the dining room table to work remotely. Their dog, Martin, a lab mix who can easily intimidate those who don’t know him, slept on the couch in front of the living room window. Beka’s Hyundai was resting comfortably on the street in front of the house.
Late in the day, around 5:00 p.m., Beka and Camille headed out for Camille’s Monday night swim club. Beka started up her car, startled to hear it roar to life at the decibel level of a cargo plane landing in their front yard. My son Shawn ran from the house to see what happened.
“Catalytic converter?” he asked.
Beka told me her eyes must have been very large as she looked at Shawn and nodded.
When I showed up the next morning to follow Beka to the garage, hot coffee in my travel mug at the ready, it was eleven degrees below zero. Shawn had already left for his teaching job at an alternative high school that is not doing distance learning. I took Maeve in my nice warm car and followed Beka’s rumbling, roaring Hyundai south on Nicollet Avenue to 77th Street, turned right, then left into the Honda dealership where she bought the vehicle used less than a year ago. Maeve was completely unperturbed, snug in her car seat. I almost forgot she was there.
Beka hoped that maybe it was really a broken muffler. She hoped that maybe someone didn’t steal the catalytic converter. But the mechanic quickly dismissed that idea with a peek under her car. Nope, he said, it’s gone. They got you. She handed her car keys to the mechanic, came outside and plopped into the passenger seat in my car, and said she feels like she just can’t have nice things.
I drove Beka and Maeve back to their house, so Beka could settle in and do some work while Maeve explored her own fingers and toes. I went on my way back to my own house carefully, aware that black ice on these subzero Minnesota winter days is a dangerous thing. The local radio station I keep on in my car gave frequent reports of spinouts and crashes littering the Twin Cities freeways as the black ice built up from rush hour car exhaust.
While I crept home, I thought about how glad I was that I can help when something like this happens. That I’m available. That being a grandmother, mother, and mother-in-law means there are people who depend on me sometimes, just as I depend on them sometimes. We are there for one another on any given day.
When I had my first apartment without a roommate, my father would show up unannounced every chance he got. He invented assorted reasons to be there: paper towels were on sale so he figured I could use some, that coupon for tacos was going to expire and it was lunchtime, and just when was the last time I changed my oil. I was the youngest kid in the family, the one whose absence ushered in the era in which my parents lived alone. They had no one in-house to care for but themselves.
Many parents live for that moment when they get their house to themselves and they can stop scheduling stuff around their kids. Not my dad. He genuinely missed us – me, my sisters, my brother. He loved rushing to the scene if one of our cars broke down or the furnace broke or we ran out of toilet paper and had no more money until payday. He relished using his senior discount at the nearest fast food place to buy us lunch, or a stop at the liquor store for some Blatz Cream Ale that he could share with us on a hot day.
After my mother died, my father had the worst time staying home by himself. He wanted to be with us, or at least talk to us, daily.
I still regret that I wasn’t the same kind of cavalry for my father that he was for me. As a parent with a teenage boy and a young daughter whose type 1 diabetes kept me from sleeping through the night for years, I often didn’t have enough to go around. Those daily phone calls sometimes made me cranky. But I did show up often enough that those fast food menus my father loved remained something I knew by heart.
My son Shawn calls me every week or so just to chat; if more than a week goes by, I’ll call him. We each pour ourselves a beer or a whiskey in our own respective kitchens and chat about nothing in particular. We pick apart politics, news, swap what we know about the rest of the family. I listen while Shawn talks about his job, how rough it is for teachers right now in this pandemic moment. He is exhausted. Camille is on the brink of her teenage years, while baby Maeve is still working on holding up her head. Shawn and Beka want to buy a house, something they’ve been waiting ten years to do while they launched careers, climbed out of debt, became parents.
I’m so glad they have each other.
I’m so glad Shawn talks to me.
Shawn cares deeply about his students, his artwork (he teaches art and creates his own), his family. He cares about doing the right thing. Somehow, I have a son who sees the big picture and understands how important it is to contribute to it.
I used to chat with my dad this same way. We talked about politics, too, and my dad once told me that the University people I hung around with (my husband is a professor in the College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Minnesota) intimidated him. I couldn’t understand why; my father could hold his own with anyone.
He didn’t agree. But I’m quite sure I was right about that. And I can see him in Shawn.
My daughter Abby is thirteen years younger than Shawn. She is married to Joe, without children, still in her twenties, still launching her career path. We don’t talk as frequently as I would like, but our last couple of conversations have been wonderfully free of the subtle tension mother-daughter conversations often contain. This is something I’ve been waiting for as Abby moves further away from her teenage years. I’m delighted that it seems to be happening.
I have been Abby’s cavalry from time to time: when her car wouldn’t start one subzero day after work, when moving into a new house felt overwhelming, when she needed a ride to the emergency room. And I’ve been there in little ways: when she wanted Christmas lights and I knew she had no extra money, when she mentioned she missed my raspberry muffins so I surprised her with a batch. I’ve been working hard to be kind, be generous, and zip it if she chooses a path I would not. I can feel deep inside myself now what Dad was doing when he showed up at my door with the paper towels: if you have a concrete reason to be there beyond your simple desire to just lay eyes on your kid, then someone has to open the door. And you do that kind of thing, being generous, bringing something thoughtful over – paper towels, muffins, a ride somewhere – until the door opens no matter what. Until you don’t need a reason other than love.
Maybe my dad didn’t need me to be his cavalry. He was teaching me to be one to my own kids. He was telling me to pay it forward before it was a fashionable thing to say.
Back to Beka. Those damn thieves. Yes, I said that earlier and I’m saying it again because they took more than a catalytic converter. They were being selfish, thoughtless, unable to see who they hurt with their crime. I’ll bet they have no one who comes to help them. Why else would stealing be part of how they survive? Those of us who have a family, a community, a support system are able to get what we need to make it through the winter. Through the pandemic. Through life.
There are those who think we can’t change the world or change other people, but I disagree. Give others a chance to change and then believe it when they do. If we can see changes in ourselves and our kids, we can see changes in others, too. It starts with just showing up. Maybe with muffins. Maybe with a warm car.
Maybe with nothing but a full heart.