The first week as a car owner didn’t start out very well.
I was so excited over the car. I named it “The Neighborhood Trolley” since I got it on the birthday of my beloved Fred Rogers. I drove us to the evening Mass, the first time we’ve gotten to Mass on our own power without a long hike since we’ve lived here. I’ve wanted to drive to Mass more than almost anything else. I’ve daydreamed about going to Mass at a time I choose, waiting until I felt like leaving, going home without asking anybody for help. But I’m still very nervous about driving cars. I left for church thirty minutes early, intending to take only small residential streets so I wouldn’t be nervous. But this is Steubenville. The small, residential streets are dotted with pot holes. They’re so narrow they all ought to be one way but only half of them are. Somehow or other I got lost, and then I ran over a curb, and a piece of plastic under the wheel well fell off.
I was so embarrassed, I didn’t know what to do except to put the wheel-well-shaped plastic in the trunk, and keep driving.
We arrived at Mass late because I’d taken so long, and then I couldn’t pray. I was worried and embarrassed about The Neighborhood Trolley. I have no idea about the guts of cars. For all I knew the engine would fall out the hole in the wheel well if I tried to drive it home.
My family used to embarrass me for being clumsy. They weren’t making something up; they were right. I am clumsy. But clumsiness is something that snowballs on itself indefinitely, when it’s pointed out. I had juvenile rheumatoid arthritis when I was three, and it caused a little scarring in the right knee. I walk with one foot turned out a little bit like a duck, which was was embarrassing to my mother. I wasn’t good at sports, which left me open to bullying. I was absentminded and imaginative, which led to comical mistakes like something out of Anne of Green Gables. My mother made fun of me quite a lot. She didn’t realize that teasing me about my absentmindedness and the way I tended to drop things would have the effect of deliberately recruiting my siblings to do the same– my next younger brother, in particular, was vicious about it. “Shut up, Mary, you fat, clumsy oaf!” is something he used to say all the time.
“Fat, clumsy oaf” was one of the names I internalized. I started calling myself a fat, clumsy oaf. Calling yourself names is a dangerous practice. When you call yourself a name, you run the risk of believing that’s who you are, and then you find yourself making it true. I became more and more clumsy because I was desperately trying not to be clumsy, and my desperation led to panic.
By the time I was sixteen I had terrible anxiety, and a family who treated me like a freak. I tried to learn to drive, but every time my mother would grab the wheel and cringe and I would panic. I didn’t get my license until I was thirty-six, ten years after my parents cut ties for good. We walked or took the bus wherever we needed to go. I’m famous for riding the bus.
When Rosie was little, we pushed her in the stroller. We also used the stroller to cart groceries back and forth to our house, or packed the groceries into cloth bags that are easier on the shoulders than plastic bags are on the fingers. Once I used that stroller to carry a sleeping bag and a sack of rice down to the Friendship Room to help neighbors, and the wheel kept popping off. Sometimes, when he missed the bus, Michael would carry those bags all the way back from Wal Mart three miles away on foot. We became connoisseurs of cloth grocery bags; we had an alarming number of opinions on which bags were comfortable to carry things over a long distance, if you didn’t have a car. One trick is to buy the ninety-nine cent re-usable bags at TJ MAXX. The other trick is to double bag your groceries so they don’t rip or fray the handles, even if you think you haven’t bought that much.
Another term my mother used was “street person,” as in “oh Mary, I don’t want you to become a street person!” or “I’m afraid you’ll look like a street person!” She was terrified that I’d become homeless or near homeless, the kind of shabby poor person who totes her belongings in heavy bags instead of a respectable person, and I did. That’s exactly what I became. I became everything they said I was. I was a street person with a favorite kind of reusable bag.
All I could think during Mass was “street person” and “fat, clumsy oaf.”
Everyone else was chanting “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord,” and I was naming myself “Fat, clumsy oaf.”
This is my first car, my ticket to not being a street person anymore, and I’d messed it up on our first outing because I was a fat, clumsy oaf.
After Mass, Michael and Rosie played on the nearby playground while I paced around trying to calm down, muttering “fat, clumsy oaf.”
I drove us home, slowly, stopping in a parking lot once to take deep breaths and cry.
I asked my friends, who assured me that the plastic part was something that could be replaced later in the month when we got paid as long as I didn’t drive over gravel, not an emergency.
The next day I didn’t want to use the car at all. I was afraid I’d do something else to confirm every bad thing that was ever said to me.
But there was a heavy reusable bag of canned and boxed food in the hall.
We’d bought the bags brand new just a few days ago. They even had the tags still on. And we’d bought the food the other day as well, as a gift for the Friendship Room’s free pantry. There was canned meat and canned soup and boxed milk, as well as an Easter cookie making kit that Rosie had selected for another child to have fun decorating for the upcoming holiday. We’d been planning to bring the food downtown on the bus, before we found the car for sale. We’d double bagged it and left it in the hall.
I threw the bags in the trunk of the Neighborhood Trolley, with the fender cover.
I drove downtown, on the main road, slowly and without incident. I sang hymns to calm myself as I drove– “Bless the Lord, my soul” is a good meter for driving twenty-five miles an hour while absolutely terrified, and “Amazing Grace” is good for traffic lights. Either are much better things to repeat over and over than “fat, clumsy oaf.”
I parked across the street from the Friendship Room, and then I opened the door to check how far I was from the curb, and got back in the car, backed up, and parked again. I got my bag out of the trunk.
And then I saw her– me, a woman just like me. I saw the same kind of woman I was a few years ago, when Rosie was little. Someone my mother would have called a street person.
She was standing in front of the Friendship Room, digging through a pile of used clothing. Every now and then she’d grab a garment and stuff it in a black garbage bag. There were other bags hanging from the handles of her stroller just like we used to hang them, back when Rosie went everywhere in a stroller. The toddler in the stroller looked tired and cross, just like Rosie did when we ran errands and used her transportation for a shopping cart.
I couldn’t offer her a ride without a carseat for the baby, but I could offer her something else.
“Do you want my bag?” I asked. “There are two of them. It’s much easier to carry things in the good bags with the handles– see, they’re brand new.”
Her face lit up. “Oh, yes, thank you!”
“I just have to unpack them first and you can have them.”
She looked at the groceries and smiled even more brightly. “You know, I could use all that stuff.”
I looked from the cookie making kit to the tired toddler. “Take the whole thing. You’ll save me the trouble of unpacking. Just use one bag for your clothes and one for the groceries.”
And she walked away, pushing the stroller, with the bags on her shoulders.
I drove the car I’d named the Neighborhood Trolley home without incident, singing “Bless the Lord, my soul.”
Maybe it’s time for a new name for myself, as well.
Image via Pixabay
Mary Pezzulo is the author of Meditations on the Way of the Cross and Stumbling into Grace: How We Meet God in Tiny Works of Mercy. Steel Magnificat operates almost entirely on tips. To tip the author, visit our donate page.