Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Den of Thieves (Podcast)
A Prayer Before Driving

My family prays… every time they get in the car they pray. There’s no relying on some breakfast umbrella prayer to cover the entire day’s travels for them. Some families might get away with that – not mine.
Over the years our prayers evolved from the simple, “please help us travel in safety” when my parents were young with just a half dozen kids and a sturdy little green station wagon to “please help us travel in safety and not have any car problems” to “please help us travel in safety and not have any car problems or meet any harm or accident” to all of the above plus “please bless each of the tires especially the back left and including the spare which we have checked to make sure is in the car this time. Please bless the wipers to work if it rains and the windows to roll down and then back up again. Please help the car to shift smoothly, and not jump out of gear while parked on a steep hill and if so let the emergency brake hold- unless that be not Thy will, in which case, please let the garage it rolls through be unoccupied like unto last time.”
As a kid I began to imagine a god with office staff. A god with a whole team of bureaucratic angels whose job it was to analyze every word of your prayer and look for loopholes- ways around the blessings you asked for so God could smite you anyway.
“Please bless the lights to work should it become dark and if they must die –let it be on a straight stretch of road or let there at least be a bit of moonlight or a star to see the hairpin curves by.
Please bless all the wiring. Please bless us to smell the smoke in time.
The van only caught fire once that I know of. It was winter. One of the smaller kids in a car seat started saying “Hot! Hot!” and kicking her feet. My brother Brady looked down and saw smoke and flames coming from the heater under the seat. He yelled “Fire!” and then my mom realized what that weird smell was. She was on the highway, so started to pull off onto the shoulder being careful because of the ice and the deep banks of snow on the side. Meanwhile, she was thinking “How do I get them all out fast enough?” “Who do I grab first?”, “How many of the babies can I carry at once?”. She pulled to a stop, undid her seatbelt, turned around ready to reach for the nearest baby, and then froze. She was alone in the van. She’d had the kids with her…right? Then she saw the sliding door was open and- through the smoke out the back windows-the pile of kids in the snow drift behind the car. They’d bailed before she had come to a stop, with the bigger kids tossing the younger ones and then jumping with the babies. “That was smart” she thought, relaxing. Then she remembered the car was on fire. The bigger kids were already running with handfuls of snow throwing it on the fire. The fire was out. The children were safe. Our prayers had been answered.
“Please bless all of the gauges to be honest and truthful as we should all strive to be, especially the gas gauge, for we knowest that Thou hatest the liar, as do we, when we run out of gas in the middle of nowhere for the five millionth time”.
Breakdowns with my dad were never so dramatic. With him there we ran out of gas, had a flat tire, or the battery died. This always led to him leaving us in the van with my mom and going for help. My mom and dad would argue briefly about which of them would go. My dad was not a fast moving individual, even in emergency situations. “I can find help a lot faster”, my mom would argue. “No Sandy, I can hurry” he’d say as he walked off with a gas can. None of us believed him. In fact, we were all suspicious that once out of sight he went even slower than usual, meandering, sat down for a while to watch some birds and enjoy the quiet.
Back in the van with my mom, we’d sing, tell jokes, design our Halloween costumes, or write our Christmas lists. And then when it started to get dark my mom would tell us a story. It usually involved a group of kids on a ride in the country with their parents, when on a deserted back country road their car would break down and the parents would go for help leaving the kids alone to wait in the dark. I could hear the theme music from Twilight Zone in my head. The suspense just kept building until we were sitting on each other’s laps in an attempt to get as far from the windows and the dark outside as possible. Then my Dad would open the van door and we’d all scream and wet our pants.
“And please, Oh lord, in thy great mercy, bless the brakes to hold out until we return home safe once more. But if they should give out, please help our mother to remember to ‘pump not slam’ as our father hath instructed her. And please soften our mother’s heart so that she doesn’t kill or divorce our father when, after she recounts the harrowing details of the near death of his wife and eighteen of his children as the brakes he claimed to have repaired, failed on the icy hill that led straight to the river’s edge , he asks , ‘ Did you remember to pump not slam?’ .”
Nothing could beat the thrill of my mother suddenly yelling “Everybody quiet, because I don’t have any brakes”. A little kid would ask “Are we going to crash?” and my mom, swerving to miss cars and speeding up to catch the green lights- all the while looking for a hill that would slow us down, would say “I don’t know, just start praying”.
Tall Tale

It was just starting to drizzle as I hurried my boys to the car to take them to violin lessons and noticed two men trying to move a long, flat, heavy looking box from the parking lot to the apartment building next door. By the time I’d wrestled my five, six and three year old into their car seats and got myself in the car, the rain was really coming down and the two men had made very little progress with the box. I watched them for a minute through the water streaming down my windshield. They were both big guys, but the box was obviously too heavy for them. They kept lifting it up just a foot or so then putting it down without even moving it a few inches.
I started the car and sat watching them another minute, turned the car off and looked around the parking lot- no burly, weight –lifter types hanging around in the rain to offer assistance- just me and the boys; late for violin lessons. I started the car again and sat watching. I could see that one of the men couldn’t lift his end of the box, and that’s why they couldn’t move it. “Mom why aren’t we driving?” my oldest yelled from the back.
“Just a minute- I’m thinking.” I mumbled. I wasn’t really thinking; just feeling – the same feeling I get when I try to walk past a penny or a rubber band or even a paper clip that’s lying on the sidewalk. Or when I try to ignore litter on the road when I’m out for a walk- I can’t do it. I get a yard and a half a way and then I’m turning around- marching back to stuff the paper clip in my pocket because that’s what my grandpa would’ve done and that’s what my mom does. “That’s a perfectly good paper clip! Do you know what these cost new? You can always use another rubber band. You don’t just leave trash on the ground!” And you help people who are trying to move a heavy box in the rain- even if you are late for violin lessons and the people who are trying to move the box are two large men you don’t know. “Boys I need you to sit here and be good for a minute while I help those guys move their box”
The men were standing with their hands on their hips breathing heavily watching the box get soggy. They didn’t look friendly when I walked over and said hello. They looked mortified when I said “ Would you like some help?”
“No!” they said, forcefully and in unison. “We’ve just about got it.”
“Ha! You know you need help. Let the woman help you!” An older woman wearing a robe and slippers was standing in the entrance to the apartment building just out of the rain. “You know you can’t get it up here on your own.” She was laughing.
The men looked completely downtrodden. They didn’t say anything, but the one having the most trouble moved over to make space for me at his end of the box, and the other waved me in that direction while shaking his head resignedly. I moved into position at the end of the box, and we lifted and it was heavy and awkward. Together we managed to get it up the sidewalk to the building. Then I realized they were heading for the stairway to the second floor. The guy on my end was breathing hard, and his corner of the box was drooping.
“I think we should try rolling it end over end up the stairs instead of carrying it” I suggested. It was a trick I learned carrying long, flat, heavy things up stairs with my mom. For some reason it was something I’d spent a lot of my childhood doing.
The men agreed. So we did, with one guy halfway up the stairs and me and the heavy breather at the bottom. That put the box most of the way up but we still had to push it the rest of the way. I had my shoulder braced against the box and was holding onto the stair rail to keep from sliding backwards. And it was heavy- incredibly, frighteningly heavy. It was all I could do to keep it from sliding back over me. It was then that I realized I was the only one holding the box. The guy at the top couldn’t get a get a good grip- I could hear and feel his hands struggling to find one. The guy beside me had apparently died or given up. He certainly wasn’t helping in any way that I could tell.
Time slowed down. I was able to think about my situation and what I thought was- “I have made a terrible mistake. I am going to die- with my children strapped in their car seats watching. This box is going to slide backwards and knock me down these concrete and metal steps and squash me flat. And if I don’t die, but just get hurt really badly then my husband is going to kill me, and I’m still going to be charged for the violin lessons my kids are missing. This is where I get killed doing something crazy because of all the crazy stuff I saw my mom do."
Like pick up a piano. Who picks up a piano? We were trying to move a huge old upright and it got wedged in a doorway- one of those situations were we’d tried everything, everyone’s sweating and frustrated. The people trapped on one side of the piano are starting to blame the people pushing on the other side of the piano, and it’s beginning to look like hacking the thing into small pieces might be the only option. That’s when my mom reached her limit. “That’s it!” she yelled, “Everybody get back!” Then she picked up the piano.
She ripped it out of the doorway with a roar, picked it up and carried it into the room she wanted it in. She did things like that. At the feed store the man working behind the counter would start to carry the 50 pound bags of feed to the car for my obviously pregnant mom. She might have let him if he hadn’t looked directly at her stomach and smirked before saying “Let me get those for you Ma’am”
“No I’ve got it” she’d say hefting one up onto her shoulder.”
“C’mon Sandy, you shouldn’t be carrying that.” But his smile was condescending, and that’s all it took. My mom’s smile would harden as she slung a second bag over the first, then picked up a third with one hand. We kids knew better than to offer assistance as she carried them to the car with a spring in her step making sure to throw in a little hop as she crossed the parking lot.
I never saw anything she couldn’t lift move or do if someone implied she couldn’t. We all knew something was about to get done when my Dad would say “Sandy, please let me do it, you’re going to hurt yourself.” My mom would get that look she got at the feed store and then pick up the front end of the truck that we’d been trying to dig out of the mud for an hour. I only saw her pick up a truck a couple of times, but it’s the kind of thing you only need to see once as a child for it to leave an impression.
"And now I’m going to die helping to move a stupid box of- I don’t even know what, and the worst part will be that my family- my mom and dad and brothers and sisters- will find out. They’ll know I wasn’t strong enough."
With that thought my genes kicked in, and with the same roar I’d heard from my mom hundreds of times, I braced my feet, grabbed the stair rail with both hands, and pushed the box up the stairs so that the guy at the top had to jump to get out of the way and the guy beside me got left behind. The old lady was laughing and clapping her hands and the guy at the top said “Girl, You been liftin’ some weights!” and gave me a high five. It felt great. I gave the guy at the bottom of the stairs a high five on my way past and ran to the car making sure to throw in my mom’s signature hop.
Now when my husband brags to our boys that his Danish ancestors were mighty Vikings, I tell them- Paul Bunyan, Pecos Bill, John Henry, Popeye…I’m pretty sure we’re related.