She Can Fix It!

She Can Fix It!

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 device 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.

Mom and the Engine

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.”

1970 Grand Prix

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.

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16 thoughts on “She Can Fix It!

    1. Leah,
      Thank you so much for the kind words and encouragement! I’ve been working on this forever. It can be so difficult to capture a slice of life! 🙂

  1. wow this is so beautifully written. I could feel the excitement and found my toes tightening as the accelerator was floored. Really gorgeous piece. Your mum sounds like a great character and lucky you to have such memories x

  2. Oh what a fun playmate your mother would be!!!! As a lover of hanging out at the airport watching and working on airplanes, this story is great. Loved mechanics ever since I was a little girl. My dad owned a race car in the Indianapolis 500 and my favorite place to be was in Gasoline Alley (after being snuck in of course because I was much too young to be there!) I loved looking at all the tools working their magic in the grease covered hands of the chief mechanic who I considered to be the equivalent of an artist. And just a few weeks ago, as I sat in our large family room I pondered the possibility of moving out all the furniture. Hmmm, I thought to myself, the space might just be big enough to build an airplane in!!! I now know I was channeling your mother!!!! Thanks for such an awesome story Lori. The artwork and the writing are both, as usual, masterpieces! 🙂

    1. Charlotte,
      Thank you so much for your lovely comment. I’ve gotten stage fright trying to reply with a suitable response, so I might stumble and ramble a bit. I cannot imagine how exciting it must have been for you as a girl . I can see and smell the type of artist you write of. All built things are art, more so when precision and alignment are so delicale.

      It thrills me to imagine you building an airplane in your house. I would have to visit just to experience the quality of aviation fumes. It is a joy to hear from you, despite by fumbling absences. May you have many mechanical adventures!


  3. How fantastic! Your mom rocks! Thank you for sharing such a wonderful story. I do love reading your family stories.

    My mom’s dad was a mechanic and owned his own shop here in town. I grew up around the shop. When I drive by it now I can still smell the oil and gas flooding into memories. I also have memories of the vending machine because I thought it was the coolest thing ever. 🙂

    My grandparents yard always had a car being “put together” either from my grandpa or my uncle. The garage is still filled with parts and whatnots and the smell of cary type of things. Your pictures took me back to my own experiences.

    LOVE The Blue Bomb!

    I can relate similarly with my mom, only instead of car parts or a car engine it was refurbishing furniture and building things, or us trying to fix all of the things falling part around our house. (She also sewed and crocheted.) I remember the furniture stains on the concrete, dust from sanding, and or nails and stuff.

    Your story flashed a bunch of wonderful memories for me as well filling me with joy from yours!

    1. Thank you so much Angel! I am always so happy to share family stories.

      How cool we grew up with similar smells I can envsion an old vending machine–one of those ones with the bottle opener and cap disposal space built in. I loved those!

      We refinished some furniture–it is crazy hard to do well. I was never patient enough to do a good job. I’d get super excited and get sloppy. It was only an old dresser or two, but the memory is vivid–I think the smells help make it so. Sewing and crocheting are exhalted arts. I think the most fabric craft I did was potholders!

      I appreciate your visits! Thank you for sharing with me!

    1. Thank you for stopping by. Sometimes I look at my life and remember how important the job of a mother is. One day our own children will have their own stories to tell about us!

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