When I was a little girl my Mom could not only knit mitten and sew clothes, she learned how to build things just from a book, and she knew how to fix anything that broke without any help at all. She was the smartest person I knew. A regular genius. I learned how to do a lot of things from Mom.
I told you about my little filly, Abou’s Pride and how I had to train her. Mr. Robinson taught me to ride, but Bonita, Mom and I taught Abou’s Pride how to let me ride her. Mom brought home a book from the library that showed her how to build a training ring and we built it out of old telephone poles and cross-arms that Dad brought home from Ma Bell. When Ma Bell had Dad and his buddies put up new poles and Dad brought home the junked ones; Dad was a genius at bringing home junk and convincing everybody it was treasure: once he brought home brick from a torn down building and told Mom that was her new fireplace. Then us kids had the job of cleaning the old mortar off the bricks. I only had to get a dozen bricks each day cleaned, but those darned bricks kept breaking on me; I had to start all over again.
Anyways, Mom studied that book about training rings, paced off the space, and told everybody where to drag those poles. Sometimes she took that book right out to the field and plopped herself down one of Ma Bell’s old poles; there she sat, almost covered by tall Queen Anne’s Lace and wild coffee, in the spot that would pretty soon be the center of the training ring. She looked at that book, then at the poles, then at the book again, studying and studying, with those lips of hers in a tight straight line, like she was about to get mad, but nobody was doing anything wrong. Still, when I saw that look, I decided to tread gently, ’cause sometimes something to get mad about just popped up out of nowhere.
Next thing I knew, Mom was digging post holes with the tractor, and we were sinking poles and building that training ring. It turned out perfect. Mr. Robinson came over and gave her a big grin, like he did when Bonita did a great job on her horse, Peaches. Peaches was just a green-broke horse, so Bonita had a lot of horse to handle for a little girl younger than me.
Mom fixed cars, too. For a long time, we only had one car. If Mom wanted to use the car, she drove Dad all the way to work in the city, then had to go get him at night. Then one day, Dad brought Mom home a car. An old-old car that some old lady only drove to church and back at 35 mile per hour. Mom got so happy about that rescued-from-the-junk car, you would have thought it was brand new, by the big happy grin sitting on Dad’s face. That car refused to go over 35, until Mom lifted up the hood and convinced it with a wrench and a hammer. Mom was pretty good at convincing kids they could do things they thought they couldn’t, and she was good with cars, too. Some days that car refused to start; then she showed me how to hold the butterfly open, while she turned the key. I liked the way it smelled all greasy and dusty at the same time, and the heat coming off the engine reminded me that Grandma said she used to put a pot of stew under the hood and cook supper there when she and Grandpa went out for a Sunday drive, back in the old days when just driving around was how people had fun.
More than once, Mom just opened up the car hood, took a part out, put it in the trunk, and away we went.
“A car’s just like you and me,” she said. “There’s a lot of parts we can spare and still run smooth as silk.”
“Like tonsils?” I said, ’cause I got those out twice, on account of the roots being left in, so they grew back like a bad weed.
Mom showed me how to check the oil with the dip stick and then she put some in, ’cause the level on the stick showed almost dry. She shook her head on that one.
“I just put some in yesterday. Hmmm,” she said, and the bottom lid of her eyes squinched up ’til her eyes were almost slits. She started up the jalopy and took a look around at the tailpipe. ‘Looks okay,” she said, and put some more oil in. She kept doing that everyday, and the dipstick kept getting drier and drier each time she checked the oil. This one stumped her, so we got in the car and went down to the Standard Station to ask the mechanic.
“Yep, you’re low on oil,” the mechanic had his name, Bill, in red embroidery right on his shirt, so everyone would know who he was.
“Well, I’ve filled it up everyday for the past week,” Mom looked at Bill like she looked at me when she thought I was telling a fib.
“How much do you put in?”
“As much as she’ll take, but that’s not much, just a tablespoon or so,” Mom said.
Bill pulled on his chin a little, and his eyes started to dance just the way Dad’s did when he was trying not to give away a joke. “Show me where you put the oil.”
“Well, right there where the dipstick come out.” Mom said with one hand on her hip, the way she did when she told Julie and Frankie to pick up their toys. Bill took off a big screw cap and showed Mom the oil reservoir.
“It’s pretty hard to get the oil in that little hole,” he said looking all apologetic. ‘I use this bigger hole over here. Glad you came in, this reservoir is almost empty.” Mom threw her arms around her waist and bent over like she had a belly ache, when she straightened up, she was laughing so hard, no sound was coming out; the same way I laughed when Bonita or Deanna tickled my neck and kept it up until I thought I would pee my pants. Then Bill slapped his leg and let out a big hoot. Right then I knew what that word guffaw meant that I read in Huckleberry Finn by that man Mark Twain, only that was his pretend name.
Mom laughed like that every time she told that story, sometimes she laughed so hard tears came down her face. She told that story a lot, ’cause she thought it was so funny. Then she wiped her tears away and said, “I bet Bill thought I was the most lame-brained person he every met.”
Mom taught me how to knit and how to sew. How to go back and start over. She taught me how to read a manual and follow direction, and she taught me how to just roll up my sleeves and try. Mom showed me I could learn to do almost anything. All that said, the most important thing she taught me was be the first one to laugh, because mistakes will happen, and a lot of the time, when I think it over, I can see I could have known better. How about you?