What My Mother Taught Me About Getting Sh*t Done All By Yourself

by Sarah Cottrell
Originally Published: 

It was 1987, and my mother drove a Renault Encore the color of rust. It was small, ugly and always breaking down. I was old enough to understand that this car was embarrassing, and I would force my mother to drop me off a full block away from school so that everyone would think I walked.

Since we were poor, there was never any money to take that hunk of junk to a mechanic, who probably would have told my mother to scrap the car anyway. So one night after staying up late trying to figure out what to do about this car that never ran when she needed it to, she saw an infomercial and she ordered a set of DIY books for home auto mechanic enthusiasts.

She was going to learn how to fix this car herself.

In the span of one summer, my mother taught herself how to change the tires and the oil. She fixed the emergency brake, jumped the car about a dozen times, replaced belts and brakes and spark plugs and even the clutch. By the time summer was cooling into fall, my mother had saved that Encore from the junkyard so many times that we honestly wondered if there was anything that could kill it.

Just before school was scheduled to reopen for the year, my mother got a call from the university telling her she had been selected for an interview from the temp-secretary pool of resumes. If she got this job it would mean having enough money to not worry about putting food on the table or keeping the lights on. The university was a 25-minute drive north.

Would the Encore make it?

The day before her big interview, my mother sat down at the electric typewriter in our dining room and did speed-typing drills. She quizzed herself on how to take dictation. By the afternoon my neighbor arrived with a fancy navy blue dress and beige pumps for my mother to borrow in order to look professional.

The morning of the interview, my mother hurried us through our morning routine and dropped me off 45 minutes earlier than needed so that she had time to get ahead of the interstate traffic. She was desperately worried about the Encore breaking down.

I spent my first day at school comparing sunburns and growth spurts with my friends. We talked about boys. We showed off how many words to how many Madonna songs we knew. I worried about my mom.

Later that night, back at home, my mother told me about her day.

She got to her interview 15 minutes early and made a good impression on the human resources lady. Her interview was an hour long, and everything seemed to be going very well. They asked her questions about her work experience, where she saw herself in 10 years, what did she think was her weakest skill — all predictable questions that she had practiced for.

When the interview was over, she walked to the parking lot and got into the Encore. It made a terrible noise, and a puff of smoke came out of the back end. The muffler had fallen off. My mom took off her borrowed pumps, grabbed a floor mat from the back of the car, and got down on her knees in the middle of that parking lot. She reattached the muffler enough to get home.

The HR lady who had conducted the interview saw my mother on her knees in the parking lot, fixing her piece of junk car. She walked up to my mother and asked her if she needed any help, and my mother looked at her and said, “That is very kind of you. Thank you, but I can do this myself. This problem just requires some grit and tenacity.”

She was hired on the spot.

That car died for the last time a few months later. I was never embarrassed to be dropped off at school again.

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