STORIES ABOUT DAD
Grit, Gears, and Grace: A Snapshot
In Detroit, the Motor City, the kind of car you drive is symbolic. It’s a reflection of socioeconomic status and a prominent factor in a family’s profile. It’s also frequently a clue to the family’s source of income. Ford workers drive Fords; GM workers drive GM products. And, thanks to extensive “family plan” discounts, so do their extended family members.
Family reunions in the Detroit area are typically marked by 27 cars from the same automaker parked near a picnic pavilion. (Motor City people don’t carpool very often, either. Car = individuality.)
Likewise, in my growing-up years, having a garage was a sign of relative prosperity.
Pride and joy
For years, my dad longed for a garage. Our house had been built on land given to my parents by my grandparents when they married ten years before and located right next door to their house on a main road.
In the months the house was built, my parents, two siblings, and I lived in a 17-foot trailer parked in my grandparents’ driveway, with extension cords trailing into their house to supply our power. We had a 6” black-and-white TV and a small cooking stove.
It was Tiny House living waaaay before tiny houses were popular. I have a distinct memory of the entire family contracting stomach flu while living in those close quarters. With only a tiny airplane-sized bathroom to accommodate our increased commode demands and cleanups, it was a memorable week.
The new home was a simple, 960-square-foot ranch with three bedrooms and one bath. Because money was tight, a garage was out of the question. In fact, so were sidewalks. In his typical creative problem-solving way, my dad collected wooden pallets from the trucking company he worked for, added wood strips from other pallets to close up the gaps, and laid them end to end to create a walkway from the gravel driveway to the back door.
Our unending stream of used cars — with usually at least one car that didn’t run at all — was parked outdoors, in the elements. My dad lusted after a garage to park and to display his tools. He was not the handy type unless pressed, but he liked tools.
Finally, after scrimping for years, my parents plunked down their money to build a garage a full 16 years after moving into the house. And not just a garage. A two-and-a-half-car attached garage. Pulling into a garage and walking directly into the house was the dream to combat cold, snowy winters. Mom would be able to unload groceries more easily. Dad would have the lawnmower close by.
When it was complete, Dad burst with pride. He swept it daily for months. He organized his gear. He even bought a new four-foot tall Craftsman tool chest with easy-glide drawers.
His dream had come true.
Over the years, the garage became an extension of the house for social events. Tables would be set up, chairs brought in, and friends and family invited. Mom even hung pictures along one wall.
Crushing the dream
I was in my early 20s and going to college at a commuter campus when the garage was built. Living with my parents and working made it possible for me to pay for tuition as I went. I’d recently bought a used car after my previous car caught fire and burned up (a different story).
But there was a problem: the car, a Chevy Citation, had a manual transmission, and I only drove automatics. Dad, a professional driver, was recruited to help me pick up the car, and we proceeded directly to a large, empty parking lot where he taught me to drive a stick shift.
Following a crash course in driving a manual transmission (not literally “crash,” but certainly whiplash-y), I mastered the stick well enough to drive home and improved steadily. Within a week, I was feeling pretty confident, as long as I didn’t stop on a hill.
About a month after getting the car, I started it one morning to drive to work. My dad was the first person to leave on weekdays, so he parked outside, and I had the honor of parking inside.
As I prepared to pull out, I noticed a pen on the passenger-side floorboard. I needed that pen for my night class after work. I reached to grab it, lost my balance, and my foot slipped off the clutch.
To my horror, the car lurched forward with surprising un-Citation-like power, crashing straight into Dad’s new tool chest and the back wall of the garage. I jumped out of the car and surveyed the damage with great distress. Not only was the tool chest destroyed, the impact knocked the entire back wall of the garage off the foundation.
Mom came out of the house and consoled me the best she could. “Don’t worry about it,” she said uneasily.
We both had to go to work, so off we went. I cried the entire day, sitting in the small insurance agency office where I worked. I’d destroyed Dad’s pride and joy. Ergo, Dad would destroy me.
Dad was a truck driver; there was no way to reach him during the workday. Mom somehow contacted my brother Bob, an auto factory worker with a family of his own, who agreed to be at the house when Dad got home. And I arranged to leave work early to go home and face the music.
When I pulled into the driveway, Dad and Bob stood in the garage, staring at the damage. I pulled in with great dread, jumped out of the car, and ran to them, spouting apologies and crying inconsolably. I stopped myself and braced myself for the anger.
Dad looked at me, smiled, and pulled me into an enormous bear hug.
“It’s just a garage,” he said.
© Tina L. Smith, 2021
You’re invited to read another article about my dad, who was quite the charmer in his youth, and how he and my mom met:
This story was written in response to a writing prompt from The Bigger Picture: