My Father, My Car

I was 36 years old when I bought my first car. I did so because I was about to spend the summer at Kripalu, after living in cities with mass transit since high school. Newly unemployed, I needed something inexpensive, so I asked my father to help me find a reliable used car. In less than a week, he spotted his choice: a 1989 Honda Civic.

I trusted his judgment and bought it, setting the wheels in motion for a journey that would split us apart, bring us together, and teach us to share the road in a new way.

The lessons began when I told Dad that I’d shaved $600 off the asking price. “Good for you!” he said with a hint of shock, telling me that he hadn't expected his only daughter to succeed at haggling. I felt proud of myself for showing him that I could negotiate with the big boys.

It was a short-lived triumph, however, because there was one important area where Dad had years of experience and I had none: the stick shift.

Dad hadn’t mentioned that my new car had a manual transmission, and I hadn’t thought to ask. He assured me that I’d master the skill in no time, and I embraced the challenge. Having just quit my radio career to find my true calling, I wasn’t going to let a stick shift stand in my way.

I was optimistic as I boarded a bus from New York to pick up my car at my parents’ house on Cape Cod. A quick stick shift driving lesson with a friend had gone okay, so I assumed I’d master the clutch in my new car on Saturday and breeze through the three-hour drive to the Berkshires on Sunday. I felt pretty confident when Dad took me out to practice—in the cemetery, where my chances of causing damage were minimal.

What I didn’t consider was the damage that could take place inside the car.

Growing up, I had a complicated relationship with my father during some very turbulent years in our family. There was anger and rage, mixed with deep affection and a shared appreciation for nature, music, and humor. Dad and I both have strong opinions, and we often clashed in stormy exchanges throughout my teen years.

Twenty years later, I began to heal and recover from these wounds with the help of therapy and support groups, and my interactions with my father grew calmer as I focused on my own recovery. Dad responded to my new ways with his own attempts to control his hot temper and negativity.

But much of that progress evaporated when I landed in the driver’s seat that June morning and faced the clutch.

Despite my best efforts, I was bucking and stalling at every attempt to engage first gear, nearly throwing us both through the windshield. I jerked past tombstones reading “Rest in Peace” as Dad shouted, “Holy #@&%! Don’t do that! What the hell are you doing?” I, in turn, cried, “Tell me what to do! Don’t just yell at me!”

It was the perfect stage for our relationship drama.

Dad began to insist that buying the car was a huge mistake and started berating himself for recommending it. With each declaration of doom, I grew more despondent. As my father drove us home, I felt hopeless and helpless in the passenger seat, ashamed of my inability to learn this skill, and scared that I’d spent the bulk of my savings on a car I couldn’t drive.

The feelings of despair were old and familiar.

That night I borrowed my mom’s (automatic) car and drove to a support group. The topic of the meeting was courage and, as I shared about my disastrous driving lesson, I heard the laughter of recognition. Later on, several people shared their own stick shift nightmares and offered support. I went to bed feeling lighter, and grateful for my recovery community.

After a week of diligent practice, alone, I finally hit the highway and made it to Kripalu, intact. Soon after, I got a surprising note from my father. He told me that he admired my patience and courage, not only about the car, but also about the changes I was making in my life. He enclosed a $20 bill “for gas.”

I still treasure that letter, because it tells me that my father recognized the person I was trying to become: a truer version of myself. It also gave me more compassion and admiration for him.

Today, I’m a self-employed coach, workshop facilitator and writer. It’s a strange career in the eyes of my dad, who politely asks, “How’s business?” when I visit. When he’s stumped for more questions, he might ask about my latest car, or cat. Dad will never set foot in a transformational workshop or chant "Om,” but he and I can speak automotive code language. He says, “I see you turned on your parking lights,” and I hear, “Good job.” I say, “I changed the oil last week,” and he hears, “I’m taking care of myself.”

I know my father feels guilt and regret about those turbulent years, and he doesn’t quite know how to make amends. He does know how to steer me to the cheapest gas in town, and cheer me on as I drive.

Kim Childs is a Boston-based life and career coach who specializes in Positive Psychology, creativity, and soulful living. She is also a writer, Kripalu Yoga teacher, and facilitator of workshops on creative and personally meaningful living.

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