How cars jump-starteda father-daughter bond

Whenever my stepfather, Mel, calls me in California, he asks the same question. "How's your fitzy?" he wonders with his New England accent. He means, "How's your car running?" I roll my eyes. Can't he talk about the weather, like normal parents making superficial chitchat?

By the time my widowed mother married Mel, I was a teenager. I cared about waiting tables and squirreling away my earnings for that early-model Dodge with the eight-track tape deck, not about becoming some new daddy's little girl.

Now a moving van hauled my brother's chemistry set and my sister's teddy bears and dumped them in Mel's driveway beside my Led Zeppelin LPs and Mom's saucepans. Mel's four kids peered from their windows.

As far as I was concerned, life was cruising before Mom started calling a new man "honey." I stuffed my grief under an angry shell, cranked up the volume on my stereo, and lay on my bed with my face to the wall.

Mel crisscrossed Vermont and New Hampshire as a salesman six days a week. When his Buick trudged into our Massachusetts driveway after dark, he sank in front of reheated mashed potatoes, counting the minutes until he could slide into his La-Z-Boy. His energy sapped, he had no patience for the tumult of seven children.

My preteen resentment seething, I barely grunted, "Good night," before disappearing under my stereo headphones.

Mom figured she could blend our clans by roasting a second chicken. But in our silent coexistence, Mel and I needed our own territory to forge a relationship. That territory was the driveway.

Our family averaged seven vehicles during my high school years. The oldest boy lined his '75 GMC van with shag carpeting and spent summer afternoons buffing the body to a high shine. My other stepbrother disassembled his '52 International pickup nearly every Saturday morning, only to have it back on the road Sunday night. A stepsister inherited her grandparents' '67 Mercedes, heavy as a tank.

I finally bought a '65 Impala, with a V-6 that could power a bus, and an FM radio that picked up the Boston rock stations. Mom's station wagon and Mel's mature sedan nestled alongside the trailer they purchased so they could escape for an occasional newlywed weekend.

Parking required negotiation. Mel mounted an oversized key carved from pine, a dozen hooks protruding, by the back door. Returning home, we hung our key rings on the rack, like soldiers reporting for duty.

Then we parked in order of morning departure. Mel and I spun off at dawn, so we took the row closest to the street. Since Mom stayed behind to drive the youngest to first grade, her wagon hugged the house.

If I came home before my stepbrother but knew I'd be leaving at daybreak, I left the Chevy on the street and kept an eye out for the van's headlights. When he got home, I scooped my keys from their hook and swung into place behind him. If my stepsister fell asleep early, one of us grabbed her keys and aligned her Benz in its proper spot.

At sunup, Mel crunched onto the winter driveway to turn over the early birds' motors. I pulled on boots and sleepily joined him. We scraped windshields in silence.

But working side by side, we grasped the rhythm of each other's daily lives. Jockeying parking, we learned how to communicate. Jumping a low battery, we recognized that families rely on cooperation. And, sharing the occasional lift, we became father and daughter.

I dialed my parents' number yesterday and remembered my adolescence. In our family's lexicon, when Mel asks about my car, he isn't talking about the weather.

He's assuring himself that if my motor is humming, my health is strong. If I'm avoiding accidents, my life is on track. If my oil is changed, I'm taking care of myself. And if my tires are rotated, Daddy's little girl is safe.

Mel picked up the phone. "Hello?"

"How's your fitzy?" I asked.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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