Childhood Memory: Dad & The Accident
NOTE: These short memory stories, dropped in as they are to my Ask Maxwell column, do serve a purpose. While definitely different, my aim is to provide context for what we were thinking when we were children, which will help us to understand our own children. I find that in going back into my own childhood and sharing stories of my own struggles and what I was thinking at the time has been very helpful in connecting with my own daughter as she has grown. I would urge you to take these a little bits of inspiration to share your own childhood stories with your kids at bedtime. I guarantee you will receive rapt attention. 🙂
Friday afternoon after school always meant driving out to the country with either our mother or our father. While our mother would eventually go other places on the weekends or in summer, my father never would. For him going to the big old house in East Hampton was a dream come true that never got old. He often said, “Why would I want to go anywhere else? It’s the most beautiful place in the world.” We believed him so much that when we were teenagers and started to visit friends and see other places on our own, I was dumbstruck that there were other places that were different, amazing and totally unknown to me. I remember thinking that maybe I should tell my father that there were other beautiful places in the world – just as beautiful – but then, I thought he might not want to know that, so I never did.
While our mother had a new, green Chrysler LeBaron station wagon with wood panels, our father drove an old white Toyota four door with a hatchback. He’d pick us up on Fridays after work at Columbia Presbyterian in Washington Heights where he was professor of psychiatry. On fridays, the doctors all did rounds of the psych wards and visited with all the troubled patients, so he always had a story to tell us.
Oliver and I would pile into the back seat, no seat belts necessary, and put our feet down on the empty Marlboro cigarette cartons that Dad threw over the seat and which grew with time. Being with Dad was like being a cowboy on the high plains – no rules, windows wide open and no stopping til we got there. Dad would drive with one hand on the wheel, the other propped in the open window with his hand resting on the rear view mirror.
The Toyota was as spartan as could be and Dad didn’t really care about cars as long as they worked. He said Toyotas were the best in the world because the engine never stopped. This was true. We had that white Toyota for longer than any other car I remember, and, at the end of its life, my father parked it in the backyard of the country house – an eyesore, rusty and out of date – so that the new houses being built behind in what used to be wheat fields would pay their own money to put up a fence. My dad was so mad that there was a new development behind his dream house, that he shook his fist for years, but they put up a fence and a hedge pretty quickly. The Toyota always did the trick.
Sometimes there would be a woman in the passenger seat when our Dad picked us up. We didn’t mind that someone was joining us for the weekend but found it sort of odd that a woman would want to hang out with us three boys. Usually we all slept in my father’s bed, but when a woman came for the weekend we’d have to go back to our rooms. Some of the women would be there on multiple Fridays and one of them – my father said – played Cat Woman in the Batman television series that we watched in the afternoons. I remember looking at her from the back seat and wondering how hard it was for her to get into the skin tight shiny black catsuit that Cat Woman always wore.
Finally, one woman kept coming, and we didn’t get to sleep with our Dad anymore because they got married. I remember the morning my Dad called us together at the kitchen table and said he wanted to tell us something – that he and Lisa were going to get married. I said, “ok.” and really didn’t think about it too much after that because Dad had already asked us – one Friday, driving out in the Toyota – which of the women who had come for the weekend we liked the best. Oliver and I both said, “Lisa.” because it wasn’t even close. She was the nicest to us, and we liked the food she cooked. So it was decided.
One Friday before all that, we were driving out with just our Dad. We were getting started, heading out of the city when we got to a place where all the cars were going really, really slowly. We were on one of those big roads that runs by Laguardia Airport and then along the water until it gets to the LIE. The area was totally city in my mind, but all of a sudden there was a huge lake of water that stretched across the road and cars were slowly navigating in and around it. It must have been the remains of some kind of flash flood, but that type of nature was not something we were familiar with in New York City. Aside from the rare snow storm in the winter, the city just always worked. Nature couldn’t stop it.
But this flood was stopping us and my father said he wasn’t sure the Toyota could get through it. “What could happen?” I asked. “Well, if it’s really deep the water could come up over the engine and we’d konk out in the middle of it and be stuck.” All of a sudden I had a vision of water up over the windows and having to swim out of the car or die.
As the cars slowly moved forward we got to the edge of the big flooded area and my father gave it one more look. “Well, here we go.” He said.
The little loyal Toyota drove into the water and it kept going while the water came up under the car. Then all of a sudden water was coming up under my feet, lifting all the red Marlboro packs and floating them across the footwell in the back seat over to my brother. There were rust holes in the bottom of the car, which I’d forgotten about. We used to lift the carpet and look at the highway zooming beneath us sometimes just for fun. I thought we were doomed and the engine was going to sputter to a halt, but it didn’t. It kept going and slowly the trusty Toyota drove upward and out of the water while all the cigarette packs returned to their place on the floor. I’ve never seen a flood like that ever again on the roads getting out of New York. To this day when I drive by Flushing Bay, right after the airport on the Grand Central Parkway, I think of that afternoon and if it ever happened again.
On we went with our drive, the old car drying out as we hit seventy miles an hour and sped into the night. It was on that same day that the other thing happened.
We were near the end of the LIE past Farmingville, Medford and Yaphank where the road opens up into the Pine Barrens with endless pine trees on either side, when we could see cars up ahead of us slowing down again. The sun had gone down and now the red taillights of a very big traffic jam was growing as we approached. We started slowing down and then came to a complete stop – all the cars in the two eastbound lanes were stopped and drivers were getting out – craning their necks to see how bad it was. My father got out and then said, “It looks like there’s been an accident. They might need a doctor. Both of you stay here. I’ll be right back.”
While all the other drivers stood back, my father walked up the highway into the distance. We couldn’t see anything and it seemed like a long time before he came back. When he did, his face was grim and he didn’t say anything to us, but got into the driver’s seat and started the engine.
An ambulance and police cars had arrived while he was there. You could see the lights and hear the sirens turning off as they parked, headlights on the collision, where two cars had flipped over on the highway. Slowly cars were moving ahead, routed around the crash and our father pulled the Toyota around and told us not to look as it was a bad accident.
We drove all of the rest of the way to the country house in silence – just watching the signs that normally Oliver and I would shout out as we drove past: Cozy Cottages, The Swamp, Pheasant Antiques, The Hot Doggie….
It was in an awkward silence that we all went to bed that night, but I remember being proud of my dad. I’d just seen a side of him that I didn’t know. While everyone sat in their cars on the dark highway and kept back, it was my father who had rushed into the scene and was able to offer help. Most of the time Dad was funny, relaxed and drove around in his old car with the holes in the floor – he was Dad – but tonight I saw that he was much more than that.
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Maxwell Ryan is a father and was an elementary school teacher in NYC before founding Apartment Therapy. He’d love to answer your question: email@example.com. This piece was created for Cubby, our weekly newsletter for families at home. Want more? Sign up here for a weekly splash of fun and good ideas for families with kids.
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