Corduroy, I thought, early last fall as the leaves turned and daily temps began to fall. I need a pair of cords. Before I go on, I’ll note that what you’re reading here isn’t about buying slacks. What’s on my mind is love, which is what’s usually on my mind, but my musings today are a bit unusual. They’re about love, and car thievery.

Women’s slacks are actually dangerous for me to buy. They tend to be generous with fabric in the hips, while my physique is pretty much hipless. Jeans are my best fit—I live in them. But wearing them day after day, I’ll start longing for a change. So, as the leaves fell, I sat down at my computer and, before long, had found and ordered a pair of cords. In functional black—long length.

The photo at the top of this post is my eighth-grade picture. I’m about thirteen. What the picture doesn’t show is that I was a very skinny girl and suffered much angst about it. My mom had been a skinny girl, too, and she kept telling me I would grow out of it. I remember one night when I’d come home sobbing after rehearsal for a junior high program, because the other kids had teased me about my skinny legs. Mom sat at the kitchen table with me and promised that I would be all right.

You know how, when someone is telling you something you’re not ready to hear, you look anywhere but at their eyes? Mom had a cookie jar that was a large ceramic pig. Its head would lift off and reveal a trove of cookies. That cookie jar was on top of the refrigerator, dressed in a cute little bib-apron and cap that Mom had sewn. I stared at that cookie jar as she was trying to calm me down. Her arms were around me, and her voice sounded pained as she promised, again and again, that I would grow up and like myself just as I was. She was right, of course. One generally is, speaking from love.

Mom’s sewing wasn’t limited to cookie jars. I have two sisters, and when we were growing up, Mom sewed many of our clothes. It was an artistic thing for her—it also saved money. During my grade school years, my father worked as a laborer for a small construction company after the iron mine he’d worked at for many years closed. His paycheck was small, and my parents had to stretch every dollar. Because Mom made so many of my clothes, sewing to me is a form of love—and corduroy, especially, is a physical manifestation of it. You’ll note that in the photo I’m wearing one of the corduroy jumpers Mom made. Even the idea of that fabric is soothing to me.

But back to my newly ordered corduroy slacks.

In mere days, the ring of the doorbell set our dog to sounding alarm down the front hall. I hurried to the door behind her, found the delivered package, and slit it open. Oh no. The pants were cut with hips! I tried them on. What seemed like acres of fabric ballooned around me. If only Mom were here, I thought. She could pin them for me, and I’d sew new seams. It was a fleeting thought—a wish, really. By then, my loving, consoling mother had been gone from this world almost a year. I folded the hippy slacks and put them on the closet shelf. There they sit.

Closing a closet door, of course, doesn’t seal off the things in the closet. The corduroy slacks took up elusive residence in my head. I’m intrigued by the way the mind works—the strange ways that memory is triggered. Immediately, the word “corduroy” was inhabiting my daily thoughts. It would float suddenly into my mind, and then I’d start thinking about corduroy roads.

If you’ve never traveled one, this is what it’s like. You’re driving down a dusty, unpaved road, and you come up suddenly on a section made up of embedded logs, generally in a low lying, swampy area. The logs are laid tightly, like the ribs of corduroy fabric, and run perpendicular to the direction of the road. As a vehicle’s tires move over them, it makes a corrugated racket that you feel in your body. Over time, with sun and rain and frost, even the plain dirt sections of the road turn corrugated and noisy. When I was a kid, roads like that crisscrossed much of the back country, linking undeveloped lakes where we’d go fishing or camping. Thinking about those roads, and that racket, got me thinking about one particular fishing trip. It was the day my mother turned car thief.

I should say, my mother and I . . .

I don’t remember which lake we were at. I don’t remember if there was a rough sort of parking area there, or merely a turnaround. What I do remember is that Mom and I were sitting in the car, talking. We were likely bored. I was probably a bit older than I am in the photo—I know I wasn’t driving yet. My siblings liked to fish, so they were at the lake with Dad. There were a lot of trees between them and us, so what Mom and I were about to get into was hidden from view.

Dad did our driving. Mom hadn’t driven in years. But she did carry keys to the car and was thinking about taking up driving again. Now, our car, a ’61 Impala, had a manual transmission, which of course makes getting behind the wheel a good deal more complicated than driving an automatic. Mom suddenly turned completely around and looked at me in the back seat. “Let’s see if I can drive this car,” she said. I squeaked out some sort of surprised assent, as she got out of the passenger seat and went around to the driver’s side. I scrambled from the back into the shotgun seat. I was complicit, so I might as well go all-in.

You might be wondering—what was it about my mother that made her try to drive a stick shift she’d forgotten how to drive? Gumption.

I held my breath as Mom put the key in the ignition. The car purred to life. Well done. She put it into first gear. Also well done. She took her foot off the brake, let out the clutch, and the car started to roll . . .  j-e-r-k-i-l-y . . . forward, away from the lake and out toward the road. Holy moly! Very well done. Soon we had turned onto the road, and Mom had advanced to second gear. The tires were thumping on the bumpy road, the car was creeping but moving, and we were grinning like the Cheshire cat at Mom’s aptitude and daring—grinning, too, at the thought of what Dad would say if he knew we’d absconded with the car.

It all was going swimmingly, until we decided it was time to turn around. At that point, we were just passing the entrance to another little lake. The road into it was narrow, not much wider than the culvert that ran beneath it. It also ran downhill. Rather than drive all the way in, not knowing what sort of situation we would encounter at the bottom, Mom decided to back into the road and then put the car into first gear and proceed back onto the main road.

It was a good plan. Except for one thing. Gravity. When Mom backed in, put the car into first and tried to coordinate moving her foot from the brake to the gas pedal, simultaneously letting out the clutch, the car rolled backwards! It set us to screaming, and laughing, the laugh that speaks desperation. Mom hit the brake hard, then tried again. But she couldn’t get it right. More rolling—more screaming—more crazed laughing. The car was by this time perilously close to the edge of the narrow access road, and we were staring at a steep drop-off mere feet away. “Get out,” she said. “Stand behind and direct me.”

“Okay,” I said, apprehensively.

So there I was, standing a distance behind the car, and Mom attempted the brake/clutch thing again—the engine raced—the car rolled farther back! I added jumping and waving my arms to my screaming. I kept envisioning the two of us having to walk back and explain how it was that the car was up the road, ass backwards in a ditch. I was heartbeats away from peeing in my pants.

Some automotive angel had the heart to intervene. Mom suddenly got the ratio of clutch-to-brake right, rocks and dirt flew, and she pulled ahead and onto the road. Disaster averted. I jumped in and, over the thumping of the tires, we giggled hysterically all the way back to where we’d started. Mom managed to get the car into the position it was in when Dad had parked it. No one need ever know.

I don’t know if Mom kept our secret, or if she told my father. If she did, I’d guess she framed it as having taken a spin to practice driving. I doubt she mentioned the ditch. I chose not to talk about it. While I’d loved the heady excitement of taking the car and loved that Mom and I were partners in crime, what I’d realized in retrospect was horrifying to me. By almost dropping the only vehicle we owned into a deep ditch, Mom and I had come close to creating a logistical and financial catastrophe for our family. I chose to keep a zipped lip about it, but you can bet I marked it as a life lesson. Think, about more than yourself, before you act.

I don’t wonder that I tell stories about my family. To me, love is the whole point of living—and it’s our families who teach our first lessons about it. I do wonder, sometimes, why I imagine anyone else would be interested in my particular family’s stories. Even in myself, I know there’s an unsentimental, skeptical reader who wants to know what connection my stories have to the hard scrabble world—what reason there is for someone outside my family to care about us. Fortunately, that sort of wondering doesn’t last very long, because even stronger in me is a conviction that the lessons of our private lives are fully applicable to our public lives.

Life has simple, uncomplicated moments, like sewing clothing for a ceramic pig, but life as a whole is anything but simple. The story I’ve told here, about driving down that corduroy road, is not just a funny morality tale. Recall, if you will, that the telling of the story grew out of having placed a pair of corduroy slacks on a closet shelf. Recall, too, what I said earlier: closing a closet door doesn’t seal off the things in the closet.

Even as I wrote that sentence, I saw how it worked as metaphor. We humans carry the weight of human limitation. An individual’s circle is small, and each of us has limited understanding, yet we make decisions every day that have far-reaching consequences: about social issues, political quandaries. It’s fatiguing—it feels increasingly impossible to sort out and evaluate the many points of view. There’s a temptation to simply bulldoze the people we don’t understand, or the ideas we don’t like. To lock them, as it were, into a closet. Well, you know what happened when I put those hippy pants on the closet shelf and closed the door. They took up elusive residence in my head. They kept whispering to me.

So it is with the people and ideas we think we’ve locked away. They’re still there. They too take up elusive residence in our minds, and they keep whispering. Now I don’t see that as a bad thing, but as akin to what the Bible describes as God’s still, small voice. Sometimes only the small voice will shake us up. It’s the small voice that reminds us that we are a “we,” not an “I.” The small voice speaks from love.

It makes me happy that my road trip buddy in this story is my mother, a  feisty woman who wasn’t afraid to get up to a bit of trouble now and then. Good trouble, like sort-of-stealing a car. For reasons I’ve laid out in an earlier essay, I think there’s a Great Beyond and that we’ll join loved ones there who’ve passed on. When I contemplate my own transition to that place, I look forward to getting into even more hijinks with my mother. Of course, after our little joyride in the Impala, I’ll remember to think hard about the situation before we put it into gear.

Donna Salli - Seated - Color

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