I knew it was January because another car engine sat in our living room.
After the excitement of Christmas faded, my restless mother decided to rebuild our 1970 Grand Prix. She didn’t have a shop or a mechanics education, but she did have a library card and a neighbor who would answer countless questions for a case of beer.
Mom’s fascination with mechanics began with an old gasoline powered washing machine. At six, she disassembled the monstrosity and stacked the pieces together in the most sensible arrangement she could think of. When she reported her experiment, her irate father insisted she put the washer back “the way she found it.” Mom assembled the pieces more convincingly, and plotted her next mechanical adventure.
In the 1970s, the family passion was underwater photography. Factory-made underwater camera housings never satisfied Mom. She had no tolerance for poor design or awkward functioning. To meet her specifications, she modified every camera, strobe, and battery pack she came across.
Consequently, our guest room housed projects, not people. Spread on the floor, our good sheets hosted O-rings, tiny bolts, clips and mysterious metal bits. The arrangements seemed haphazard, but Mom knew if anything was out of place. Once, I tiptoed across one of her projects, lodging a teeny screw between my toes. I tossed it back on the sheet absently. Three days later, Mom advised me to hand her future wayward parts.
In the mid-1980s, a series of hurricanes wiped out my parent’s favorite diving spots, requiring them to economize for more exotic trips. This meant long boring winters for my mom. With no exciting place to go or camera gear to tinker with, she turned her eyes and hands to auto mechanics. For most of the eighties, engine re-builds swallowed late winters and early springs.
One year, Mom decided to rebuild our 1970 grand prix Pontiac. This was to be my car. Some kids got junkers or fancy sedans. My mother built me a racecar–a 455 cu in (7.5 L) V8 with a hot cam.
The Pontiac turned into a family member before I ever drove it, settling itself in our living room. Its metal and grease smell permeated our house in a pleasant, friendly way, like the subtle cologne of a favorite aunt. On windy March days, curing silicone gaskets gave off a vinegary odor, reminding me of Easter egg dye and spring holidays.
As spring ushered in desert wildflowers, I helped out, holding casings or pumping molybdenum lubricant into joints. Mostly, I watched or poured the occasional glass of wine.
One glorious April day, quite close to my birthday, the neighborhood assembled to celebrate the placing of the Pontiac’s engine. Champagne filled our glasses while our loving neighbors popped the tops of Budweisers. Sputtering to life amidst cheers and whistles, we christened the car “The Blue Bomb,” since the engine rumbled “Baa-bomb—baa—bomb—baa–bomb.”
The occasion was momentous enough to warrant a visit from Dad, who famously despises social gatherings. Nevertheless, he entertained a cluster of senior ladies for a full twenty minutes, before stoutly shaking hands and excusing himself.
Mom, the guest of honor, discussed automotive mechanics until her companions became uncivilly inebriated. The balance of the evening was spent at the kitchen table, nibbling nachos with wives and daughters. The specifics of these conversations are lost on me but I can recreate the mood in a flash. The atmosphere was convivial; a feeling of warmth and acceptance united the women around the table. Mom was the neighborhood Rosie the Riveter. “She can fix it” became “I can fix it.” We all sat a little straighter, spoke a little louder, planned a little bigger.
A week after the engine-starting, Mom, Dad, and I took the Blue Bomb on its inaugural drive. Mom planned the maiden voyage with precision. A new engine must “settle in” through a complex combination of long distance driving and oil changes.
We drove to Gallup, NM and back. Dad followed us in the family van, filled with such a quantity of tools that care was taken to distribute their weight equally over the vehicle’s axels.
Windows down, we zoomed across the weedy, flowery desert. As we approached Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, Mom opened the engine up further, tearing along at maximum speed to seat pistons and O-rings. Toes tightened and the Pontiac resonated.
As sure as Vikings exalted the majesty of the open water in their longboats, my mother and I embraced our own frontier–a car speeding amidst a sea of desert flowers. A future of possibilities swam before us; we can fix it resonated in our ears.