Monday, March 8, 2010


Long before Paula's kids were allowed on the road, they learned to drive in the field behind the house in Otter River. Justin, a dozen years younger than his cousins, watched in fascination. He loved the fact that it's all right for a kid to drive in an eight-acre field that belongs to his family. He sat in my lap to steer until he could reach the pedals and thereafter took the wheel by himself, with me supervising from the passenger seat.

On Easter Sunday when he was eleven, he clamored for a driving lesson after dinner. The holiday at best wasn't all that gladsome at that time: my father's death shortly after Easter half a dozen years before was still on the back of everyone's mind. With nothing festive going on, Justin and I might as well conduct a driving lesson in the field.

Everything was fine until he ventured too far into that low-lying back corner (an outpost of the family Swamp), where the car sank into the mud and stuck there. I took over the driving and did no better. By the time we finished scrubbing and scrabbling around in the mud and moss, the right front bumper was resting on the ground and the left only a few precarious inches above it.

We crossed the field to the house to see what we could do about rounding up help. Paula and Mary rose to the occasion, and off we went across the field in the almost-rain: misting, damp and soggy. As we trooped out there, Mary said in an impatient treble -- this family runs to sopranos -- "Don't you remember Dad telling you, 'It's too wet to drive in the field?'" "No," I snapped, "because I never asked, because I wasn't interested in driving." That's my family: When you get into trouble they'll drop everything and gather to help if they can, and let you know every step of the way just what a stupid thing to do that was.

All four of us together couldn't move the Toyota. This was serious. I had work to do in Medford. I couldn't afford a delay that threatened to extend at least into Monday. I steamed back to the house and called a tow truck.

"Is it solid enough so I can drive out there?" asked the tow truck guy. I assured him that it was, on what grounds I can't imagine. I also, then or later, started researching busses that would get me back to Medford in time to get my work done. There weren't any.

Assuming the car wouldn't be liberated in time to save me, I indulged in a fit of the furious sulks in the unused back parlor. When my mother ventured to make a suggestion, I barked at her and went back to sulking. The first I heard of the arrival of the tow truck was when someone came in to tell me that it, too, was stuck in the family Swamp.

Meanwhile, unknown to me, about the time I called the tow truck, Paula had called her sons. The three of them, in their early twenties at the time, were a decent start on a basketball or football team. She said: "Why weren't you here this morning? You said you were coming to church? Come up here and get your aunt's car out of the mud."

Still sulking and brooding in the back parlor, I didn't see the sons arrive either. I was told later that they began by dislodging the tow truck -- pushed it, I suppose -- and then turned their attention to the Toyota. Mother says they lifted the front end, placed boards under the wheels, and pushed the car out. I never thought until this moment about what Justin was doing all this time; he was probably in the field with his cousins, trying to help and getting wet and muddy.

I'm sorry to say I don't think I thanked my nephews properly. It was Paula who ventured into the back parlor to inform me that my car was now available. I don't remember seeing the guys at all that day.

Justin describes my behavior in a crisis as "running around screaming as if your hair was on fire." I see his point. When I'm tempted to be annoyed with my family, I remind myself of some of the things they've put up with from me.