That winter the Plymouth Valiant supplanted the boat-like wagon we’d always used for the ride to Mass. The reasons were unclear. Maybe it got better mileage. Maybe my parents were reliving their heedless, childless, sedan-driving days.
Together we totaled six—father and mother around forty years old, four boys under twelve. This and the Valiant’s utilitarian layout dictated the seating: three up front, three in back, and none in seatbelts, never mind the nine miles of winding country road to Our Lady of the Mountain. Huge trees lurked all along the route, scarred trunks evidence of the hits they’d leveled on the inattentive. Nailed to one was a shattered reflective panel, the broken pieces evoking a smashed windshield frozen in its frame.
The Valiant was the color of weak coffee cut with skim milk and delivered weak performance too. My father cursed its handling in curves but it did no better on straightaways or gentle downward-sloping hills. It reserved its worst for climbs, and there were several on the way to Our Lady. Then it would chug and grumble in the parking lot long after the ignition was turned off, as if complaining about what it had been put through.
But all of this came only after the family had gotten out of the house. No small challenge given our numbers and needs: bathroom, breakfast, brushing teeth, getting dressed. There was also the growing menagerie to tend to: hungry dogs, elusive cats, mice escaped from their cages. We were always running late, but my father could drive only as fast as the Valiant allowed. We’d watch the snowy fields slide slowly past while above the crows glided out ahead of us like the gulls that accompany frigates. We gave thanks if we arrived in time for the Gospel reading.
So much Sunday stress eventually steered us to the Saturday vigil. One frigid evening, after accounting for the cats and dogs and mice, we made our relatively calm way to Our Lady. We left the Valiant grousing in the cold and went inside, where it felt just as icy. As the wind rattled the windows, the bearish pastor preached on thrift and the pennies to be saved from keeping the thermostat low. Getting back in the car was a blessing if only for the closeness of warm bodies. My father backed out of the space, shifted gear, and then...nothing, except the high whine of the engine.
“Transmission,” he spat, first gently pulling the gearshift and then not so gently. “Frozen!” He tried again, and again, crashing through other gears while we watched, with mounting concern, the futility of his efforts.
The parking lot had quickly emptied, and my father for a moment seemed to contemplate the asphalt expanse. Then he launched the Valiant into the void in the only direction possible: reverse. The three of us in back were tossed like unsecured cargo. My father raced backwards across the lot, faster, it seemed, than the Valiant had ever gone. He spun the wheel right and the car turned left, speeding along the edge of the pavement. “Thawing it out!” he shouted, answering a question no one had asked. We’d probably completed three or four laps like this when the hulking form of the pastor suddenly materialized in the darkness. My father hit the brakes.
Bending from his waist, the pastor peered down through the driver-side window. “Why,” he inquired, “are you racing around my parking lot backwards?” My father’s explanation sounded more dubious the longer it went on. The pastor shook his head, as if disappointed, then retreated toward the rectory, a warm glow in the middle distance. Our grim odyssey resumed. Finally, with a grunt (my father’s) and a shudder (the Valiant’s), the drive gear engaged. We could move forward.
The ride home was quiet. Unarticulated but clearly conveyed through my father’s whispered curses and my mother’s sighs was the conviction that getting to Mass was hard enough without having to worry about getting home. It seemed a consensus had been reached. That night the temperature plunged through zero, while the Valiant, I imagined, chugged and laughed in the garage, as if it knew it had bested us and wouldn’t have to make the trip to Our Lady the next week—or ever again.