A few years ago, I gave my father a fat stack of stories that I’d written about our family, hoping to connect with him by sharing a bit of myself. What I didn’t know for years after was the stories hurt him deeply, each one feeling like a condemnation when I had written them as love letters. This is one of those stories:
There’s this tiny alcove at the mechanic’s shop, with a garish gold recliner and a soggy box of National Geographics. I am actually delighted with the room and curled now into the recliner with both feet tucked beneath me while the mechanic changes my tires. His sweet, smelly golden retriever has been following me around since I arrived fifteen minutes ago, and now, he sits beside me like a fuzzy end table, mumbling an ancient tennis ball and practically purring while I scratch his head.
This is one of those moments when I am most my father’s daughter, content amid the wrenches, oil filters and battery cables.
I considered once, becoming a mechanic, even went so far as to sign up for shop classes at the community college, but my father dissuaded me, fearing I would hate it. He was wrong of course, because despite his full understanding of the mechanic’s lot in life, he had minimal (at best) understanding of his precocious second child.
I like to know what makes things go.
When I was a kid, I used to take things apart and put them back together again; clocks, lawn sprinklers, my Pop’s 8-track tape deck. I loved the rush of opening a thing up, investigating its insides, and putting it back together again properly so it seemed as if I’d never opened it up at all. I loved socket wrenches madly, that little sound they make and the way bits slip into place. I loved walking up and down the aisles of Grand Auto, with its scented cardboard pine trees, leather steering-wheel covers and bright orange boxes bearing some secret mechanics-only code.
I’ll need a G-13849 air filter for my Bug-Eyed Sprite, please.
I always wanted to be there in the garage, right beside him, handing him tools and hanging on every word of his shop-talk explanations. I always wanted to be on that roller beside him, looking up at the underside of whatever car he was tinkering with at the moment. More often than not though, I was sent out to play with my sisters. More often than not, I was as most children are, an annoyance in the holy sanctuary of the mechanic’s garage.
Why don’t you girls run on down to the park?
Not long ago, my baby sister told me that Dad said, as a child, I constantly demanded to be held. When she told me this, I had a flash of one of those ancient memories, and as I write about it now, from the damp armchair in the alcove of my new mechanic’s shop, that sensory memory comes again.
My father’s shoulder is freckled with fat orange spots and he has two small moles there, the pale, raised kind that look like you should be able to pluck them right off. He wears these skinny-strapped tank tops and I mumble the fabric or rub it between my fingers until it curls up around itself like a girl’s spaghetti strap. His blondish-red beard brushes against my skin and I squirm and squeal from the tickle of it. His smell is a mix of salt, chlorine summers and elbow grease. I love this perch upon my father’s shoulder. I can see the world from up here and it is insistently engaging.
Something small breaks in me when I realize that most likely that he held me for lack of anywhere better to put me, that he picked me up with a sigh of resignation because nothing else would console his clinging second child.
For most of my life, I have been acutely aware of the distance between my father and I. Up into my mid-twenties, I made clumsy attempts to engage him, each one failing more than the one, which proceeded it. Looking back, I understand how I must have mystified him.
I no longer jump up and down in an effort to get his attention. I no longer tug at his pant-leg with chubby fingers, begging to be lifted up onto his shoulder. Instead, I make small gestures. Keep my distance. Follow his lead.
Sitting now in the damp, golden chair, in the alcove of the new mechanic’s shop, while he changes my tires, I forgive my father his shortcomings and forgive myself for being the whiny little girl who is still, all too often, begging to be held.