Recently my son, Porter, wrecked his car giving money to the homeless. He was coming to a rolling stop at the exit of the parking lot after long hours of making sub sandwiches for hungry customers, when he spied a homeless woman at the curb, holding a sign. Reaching for a little something to help is an automatic response, but normally I’m driving, so he can make the handoff without incident. Unfortunately, I wasn’t there and the momentary distraction was just enough time for his little Mazda to run straight under the bumper of a large van. It was his fault, and he definitely got the worst of it. Thankfully, no one was harmed.
I got the message at work, and dropped everything to get to Porter. When I arrived 30 minutes later, the police had left, and the other driver had motored off with Porter’s insurance in hand so she could get her bumper fixed. Porter got out of what was left of his car, and we surveyed the damage.
“I don’t know, do you think we need a tow truck?”
“That’s pretty expensive.”
“It still turns on, and I got it from there to here,” he said, gesturing from the lot exit to the parking space we stood in.
Andy’s Auto Shop wasn’t far, maybe a mile or two at most. At issue was the left turn onto a very wide and busy boulevard with no shoulder, in other words, no margin of error for a car running almost exclusively on uncertainties.
“Drive it around the parking lot, and we’ll see what we can see.”
In the end we took the risk with me following behind. I breathed a sigh of relief when we pulled into Andy’s for forty-five minutes of minutiae which boiled down to “The hood is folded in half, and large chunks of the engine are no longer in their natural habitat.” The important part is actually what came next.
When I was a new driver, about Porter’s age give or take a year, I misjudged a turn and our neighbor’s steel bumper scraped the side of our family station wagon, itself a great, heavy beast of a car that would probably look like a tank today. My father was in the hospital at the time, and my already worried and stressed mother did not take news of my mishap with anything approaching aplomb. “Wait till your father gets home,” she snapped. I knew nothing of cost or insurance or how anything worked. I just knew I’d made a scar on my parents’ car. I felt awful, embarrassed, and scared too.
Two days later my dad arrived home from the hospital in the late afternoon. He didn’t say anything to me about the car, and I wasn’t about to bring it up. But that night as our family knelt for evening prayer, it was his turn to pray, and I heard him say to the Lord, “Help Paula not to worry about the car and know it will be alright.”
Having ascertained that the neighbor’s car had sustained no damage, my parents did not report the incident to their insurance because money was too tight to let their rates go up. The scraped dent in the car remained for several years, but after my father’s prayer no one said another word about what I had done.
That prayer marked a perfect, defining moment, a fork in the road that guided me in my youth, and even more so as a parent, reminding me to step back, gain perspective, keep careful stock of exactly who and what I truly value. I’m still not great at this, but it gave me a place to shoot for.
As parents we talk and talk, teach and teach, never knowing if anything leaves a thumbprint on its way through one ear and out the other. Because we can’t choose what sticks, we need to play the odds, creating so many moments that sheer probability dictates that something will connect. For my dad and I many of those moment involved movies.
I know, two people sitting in the dark in front of a giant screen in blaring surround sound, what could be less conducive to parental moments. Yet the film itself was a shared experience, and more importantly it came with evening walks to and from the theater, or car rides to a theater half an hour away in Idaho Falls, with an assortment of daughters in tow. Over the years these little walks and rides added up to hours and hours of talking, listening as he shared what he had been studying about insects and literature or telling stories of his childhood, or me offering my own tales about the perils of elementary, junior high, and high school. After I scraped the car, the lines he offered in prayer required three, maybe four seconds, but those seconds packed the punch of all those hours at the movies, walking, talking, sharing popcorn and sometimes sneaking chocolate or beef jerky. We never know what is going to stick, but when something does, we have to remember it carries the weight of all that went before, for good or ill.
Growing up as a backwoods southern boy, my dad watched the outside world through film. He was crazy for movies, never knowing one day he’d have six daughters who would follow him straight to the box office. When I was living in Provo with my sisters, Natalie and Sue, we went to the video store so often the clerk told us we needed to make some friends. Apparently, he hadn’t heard we were spreading our addiction to anyone who wanted to come over. In fact, the apartment complex security said they didn’t knock off work until Nat and Sue’s apartment, #52, turned off their lights and went to bed. Movies are definitely bonding experiences.
Here’s the important part I mentioned earlier. The evening of Porter’s accident, we left his car at Andy’s and drove to Taco Bell because in a bizarre and mysterious twist in the panties of the universe, Porter, the super foodie, thinks Taco Bell is the bomb. I don’t get it, but I’m not judging, and generally speaking, Mexican food is often an excellent answer to a number of specific questions. As we sat in the drive-through we discussed what movie we were going to watch.
If you’ll recall, I dropped what I was doing at work, so I had a To-Do as long as my arm, but this was not time for that. Neither was it time for a lecture. Porter was already crystal clear on his mistake, and because of my father’s prayer decades earlier, I understood that. This was definitely time for a movie.
Porter and I are very busy, but we’re always careful to work a movie night into the week, two movies if we can manage it. Covid and quarantine curtailed a number of things we enjoy, but it couldn’t get in the way of everything. In the last year we’ve delightedly worked our way through The Hobbit series, all the Harry Potter movies, much Star Wars lore, as well as a broad array of stand alones, musicals, stage performance video captures, and two Disney+ series. Of course, there were also books to be read and discussed, and new recipes to try. Honestly, we didn’t really suffer through Covid, there was way too much to experience. Currently, we are working our way through the Marvel Universe, and the night of the accident we cued up Thor: Ragnarok.
I realize none of that sounds important. In fact, it could not be more trivial, and yet . . .
I don’t know how many times I’ve asked Porter to be my hands, pulling a little money from my wallet to hand out the window to some troubled soul. It’s never much, no big deal. But after a long day of work at the sandwich shop, Porter could have sped past the homeless woman, figuring somebody with a nicer car would help her. But he didn’t.
When I arrived in the parking lot after the accident, Porter didn’t greet me with fear or trepidation. We’d shared so many movies, and accumulated so many car rides, he knew the only uncertainty rested with the car, not with my reaction. He didn’t know it, but my approach had its roots in the movies and car rides I shared with my own father, culminating in four seconds of prayer that affected my entire trajectory. I think I have to ask myself, what exactly qualifies as trivial?
The wealth of a nation is not in our shiny cars or our fancy houses. Our true riches lay in a father taking his daughter to a movie, a mother laughing with her son, and an 18-year-old boy reaching out to help a homeless woman. When I honestly review this story with its tacos, sandwich shops, and Norse gods, I think about which of these elements will bear the most lasting fruit, and I finally understand. A crunched car is the only piece that truly doesn’t matter.