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”.