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Our Community Journal: “Come with me, little lady.”

The shop owner motioned toward the back of the shop.

Mechanic’s Shop by Ruth Shively

Sometimes our minds bring a memory forward. Maybe this one came because I’m really tired of all the division and polarity in our country. Maybe it’s because at middle age, certain events that take place when you are young suddenly reemerge, asking to be understood in a new way. Either way, this memory from some 30 years ago has pushed itself to the front of my mind.

I was 18 and traveling from suburban Maryland to spend spring break in Florida with my boyfriend. We were traveling in my old, wood-paneled station wagon—even the memory of that ’70s era car makes me laugh. And when that car broke down in the middle of the night in rural Georgia, we were lucky to find a gas station attendant willing to jump-start us. (I did point out that I had a AAA card, which got a laugh from the attendant, and a snarky “Not this far south, you don’t.”) He told us not to stop until we reached a repair shop, and so we didn’t, arriving at a small, rural shop in the early morning hours.

It was my car, so I spoke with the husky-voiced owner of the shop. I was petite—at that age I probably weighed under 100 pounds—and nervous, out of my element. He was likely in his 50s—dark hair, heavyset, looking very much at home. He also looked as tired as we were, disheveled, grumpy. He looked me up and down slowly and didn’t say much. I remember fiddling with my jewelry, feeling self-conscious in his gaze. After he stared at me for a long, uncomfortable minute, he walked over and began to work on the car.

I still remember the stale smell of the dingy, dirty waiting room, the posters of scantily clad women leaning on cars. I still remember feeling small and alone, as if I had landed on a strange planet. Where was the familiar suburban environment I had left yesterday? I remember staying very near my boyfriend.

“Come with me, little lady.” The shop owner motioned toward the back of the shop. The words hung in the air for a moment. I looked back at my boyfriend with pleading eyes. He got the message and stood too, following us both to the back room.

As we got to the small back office, the shop owner pointed to a picture on his desk: a pretty girl, close to my age. “See her?” he asked. I nodded, hanging near the doorway in case I needed a quick escape. “She was my daughter. You remind me of her. She died in a car crash.” He paused, looking hard at me, but I said nothing.

“You remind me of her,” he said more loudly, moving closer to me and pointing at the picture. “You could be her.” I must have backed up because he pulled away. “I’m not charging you for fixing your car,” he added, sitting down at his desk, looking down.

I wince now, thinking of the empathic responses I could have given. “Thank you” was all I managed at 18. I was mostly focused on my safety and getting out of there—and also on the words “not charging you,” which means a lot when you are 18.

I mumbled thanks and we left the shop. I never saw him again and have no idea if he’s even still alive, some 30 years later. But now, with driving children of my own, I can begin to imagine his pain, to understand the depth of what he was trying to do—to connect with me in some way, because he couldn’t connect with her. I wish I could have honored that gift in a better way than I managed that day.

And yet, he stays with me, this stranger from long ago. I think of him when I watch the news and see the way people are responding to each other today—the missing the heart of each other, the disconnection, the emphasis on difference.

So I try in some way to honor him now. When I find myself feeling disconnected from someone, I whisper to myself to look for some way to reach out, to look for what might be hidden but is there all the same. I try to reach for that, even when it makes me uncomfortable, even when it’s not my first reaction.

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