Vehicles were a way for a quiet, stoic father to open up with his family
I check into a website once in a while that allows people to send postcards – anonymously – with their secrets. Some are dark, some are deep, some are weird, some are silly. But one I saw recently just made me smile: “Secretly, I don’t mind when my car breaks down, because I get to spend time with my Dad fixing it!”
As I write this, my Dad will have been gone 21 years. That’s 21 years of not being asked when I last had my oil changed. My Dad was no mechanic, but that didn’t stop him from fencing off this part of our lives and offering assistance, forming opinions, and shaking his head at how much money we wasted every time we bought a car. He left the home economics areas to our Mom: the food, the child rearing, the decorating and the sticky relationship questions. Nope. Dad didn’t care if you bought a new couch, he wanted to know why you hadn’t got your goddamned snow tires on yet.
My affinity for my late father has never been a secret. He was rough and gruff and almost incapable of affection; you often parent the way you were parented, and he had a pretty appalling childhood. That we knew how much he loved us was a triumph, but if we’d waited around for the words we would have been waiting forever. The apex of his demonstrativeness was simply, “you done good, kid.” I lived for those words.
Instead, like many of his era, and no doubt many others, his actions spoke louder than his words. I read that secret and smiled because I could picture that father. Give him something tangible to repair and he could happily spend hours demonstrating his love. Whoever sent in that secret had found the key to letting Dad speak in the language he was most fluent in.
I couldn’t tell my father if a boy had broken my heart, because he would have wanted to kill that boy. Instead I’d tell him my brakes felt funny, and we’d drive around while he sped up and slowed down, trying to decide if they did or not. He might take a tire off to take a look, though we both knew he wasn’t going to actually fix the brakes. He knew his limits, but the longer it took to decide what I was going to do next, the more time we could hang out without actually talking about the boy.
I actually dated a mechanic for a while, but that meant I became on onlooker in territory that was supposed to be mine. I watched them bond over carburetor adjustments and just felt left out. Eventually the mechanic moved on, and as much as my father hated losing a free mechanic, I think he was secretly happy to have our time back.
When I was little, I’d follow him around like his tiny blonde shadow. I never cared how dirty I got, much to mother’s chagrin, and I never flinched from anything he asked me to do. I’d spear worms onto hooks and I’d pick through bins of greasy nuts and bolts hunting for the size he needed, because only crazy people went and bought things like nuts and bolts from the store. Like most with helpful shadows, he knew to give me enough make-work projects so he could carry on with the actual work, knowing that to discourage a child is to lose them forever.
He’d grunt and grumble from under whichever station wagon we had as he changed the oil. I’d squat beside his legs, the only thing visible, waiting to be asked to hand him a tool or fetch him a beer. He had a problem with beer, my Dad, but when I was still squatting beside him as he changed the oil on our station wagon I didn’t know that yet. That would be something I would absorb later, when he’d ask me about my oil changes one day, and then ask me again the next. All that tiny girl knew then, was that this was where her Daddy talked to her with all the patience in the world.
There would come a time when I knew more than my Dad about the cars I was driving, and even about the ones he owned. As his health faltered, he cared less about the cars anyway, but I missed the easy connection, the default, to talking about something where he could take the lead.
I miss secretly liking when my car broke down so my Dad could help me fix it.