I am responsible for causing the lamest car accident in U.S. history. It happened the first time I tried to drive.
My mom was sitting shotgun, my brother Geoff was in the back, one hand on either of our headrests because this was the time before we had to use seatbelts in the backseat. I turned the key, put our 1984 brown Dodge Caravan in drive, took my foot off the brake, and immediately started screaming, “IT’S TOO FAST! THE CAR’S GOING TOO FAST! THIS IS OUT OF CONTROL!”
I remember my mom trying to calm me down, but it was no use. I was acting like the three of us were being shot to the moon. We were going zero. We lived next door to a library. An old lady with a cane could get inside, check out all the Jan Karon books, walk outside, and start her journey home by the time we’d rolled past the library.
At the end of our block was a stop sign and I’ll be damned if I didn’t slam those brakes so that the front wheels stopped to a dead halt perfectly behind the white line like the teachers told us to in Driver’s Education. You wouldn’t think tires could screech when a car is going zero, but they do. My brother fell into the front, and knocked his head on the radio.
“Geoff, put your seatbelt on,” my mom said, and she said it like she was nervous.
We lived on a residential street, but Harrison, the street I was to turn right on, was crazy fast. I think the speed limit was 30. After what I’m sure my mom and brother would say was a half an hour of sitting at the stop sign, I took my foot off the brake, and coasted into oncoming traffic. I made the widest right hand turn going zero anyone’s ever seen.
Things happened at light speed after that, which is saying a lot since even after realizing what I’d done, even after my mom sternly (she never screamed) said, “Callie! You’re in the wrong lane,” I never once stepped on the gas.
I turned that steering wheel like I was at sea, and we sailed on through the correct lane and headed straight for the curb.
“Straighten out! Straighten out!” my mom yelled.
“I can’t!” I cried. “There’s no time!”
There was all kinds of time. Time was absolutely on my side. The old lady who could’ve checked out The Mitford Series? She was home now. The kettle had been put on, and she was just finishing up Chapter One of At Home in Mitford.
I slammed into the curb. Again, you wouldn’t think it would be possible to slam into anything going zero, but I’m here to tell you, it is. It’s also possible for the front part of the car to pop off.
“I’m sorry,” I said to my mom who was looking at me with what I can only describe as pure bafflement. I turned to look at Geoff who looked like he wasn’t sure he was going to laugh or cry.
“It happened so fast,” I mumbled.
“Which part?” my mom asked. “This was the world’s slowest car accident.”
She opened the car door, and stepped outside.
“Where are you going?” I asked.
“Home. We have to find another way to get to church.”
That’s where we were going, church.
“I think I’ll call Nikki. I bet Wes can come get us.”
“Mom, no!” I pleaded. “Please don’t call Mrs. Nicholas. I will DIE if Wes finds out about this.”
Wes was a year older than me, a junior in high school. Our school was big, but he and I had some of the same friends, and while I could attest that Wes was not by any means a gossip, I also knew that once he saw the circumstances surrounding why he was picking us up, the story would be too good to resist telling a few choice people.
“Can’t we call Dad? Can’t we stay home? Maybe we need to go to the hospital to make sure nobody’s hurt.”
“Dad’s already at church, no we can’t stay home, and nobody’s hurt except the car and that curb,” my mom said, and then walked towards home, which was literally a hop, skip, and a jump away. When she got to our front door, she told Geoff and I to get out of the car and stand on the sidewalk. She didn’t even have to yell.
Wes showed up, took us to church, and to this day, I don’t think he ever said a word about what happened.
Wes is one of four kids. He has an older brother, Jay, an older sister, Katie, and a younger sister, Susan. I know them because my mom and their mom, Nikki, are friends. I’m having a problem with verb tense in this part of the story. I don’t know whether to write, “Nikki and my mom are friends,” or “Nikki and my mom were friends.” Mrs. Nicholas died a few months ago. I’m old enough now to know about death’s ability to put a halt on things, like friendship and marriage and parenthood, but I also understand we mourn not just because a life has ended but because of the impact that life had on us. Seems that as long as we’re breathing that impact sticks around, and it doesn’t seem right to use, “were.”
I met the Nicholas kids the summer I was going into 5th or 6th grade. They had a place on Lake Geneva in Wisconsin, and invited my family up for the day. I don’t remember much about that day, but I know I had fun because when it was time to go home, Mrs. Nicholas said, “Why doesn’t Callie stay for the week?” And I thought that was a great idea. My next memory is of me and my mom standing in a grocery store cosmetics aisle picking up a week’s worth of underwear, socks, Hanes undershirts and shorts, a comb, and a toothbrush.
That week could easily rank in the top 10 best summer weeks of my life. I remember sitting with Katie at the end of the pier, our feet dangling in the water, and having long conversations about everything like we were old friends. I remember thinking Susan was the spunkiest, most effervescent kid I ever met. She told a story with her entire soul. She made everything a wild, hilarious, sometimes slightly scary event. Jay taught me how to water ski. “It’s no big deal,” I remember him telling me as he helped me slip the skis on. He was wrong. It was the coolest, biggest deal my 11-year-old self ever experienced. I’ll never forget the pull of the rope, the push of the water, the sunshine and spray on my body, and the Nicholas kids cheering me on.
And Wes? Well, Wes never said anything about the car accident.
It is the memory in the grocery store I keep coming back to, and that I’ve talked to my mom about when we found out Mrs. Nicholas was dying, and now, after she’s gone.
“How did I do that?” I ask my mom, meaning, what in the world came over me that I’d decide on the spur of the moment to spend a week with people I’d maybe known for five hours? Never in my life had a done I done something like that, and never in my life have I done something like that since.
“That’s all Nikki,” my mom said, and she said it in the same way you might explain a miracle—with reverence, and delight, and awe, but with no rational explanation.
I know my mom never made friends with my brother or me in mind. I understand enough about friendship to know it doesn’t work that way. But I wonder about the impact her friendship with Mrs. Nicholas had on me. I always knew my mom had made a true friend because she was uninhibited, vibrant, and rolling on the floor hilarious when her friends were around. Mrs. Nicholas brought that out of my mom, and I wonder if watching the two of them together, or hearing our moms tell their families about what the two of them were up to, rubbed off on us kids. I wonder if that rowdy ridiculousness led to a trust so strong so that when one of their kids causes the lamest car crash in the history of the world, and a mama doesn’t know what to do, she knows she can call her friend and say, “Help!” without that friend saying, “She did what?!?!”
I’m thinking now that my mom and Mrs. Nicholas taught us kids what friendship was, by just being themselves.
Decades later, I am bobbing in deep water, trying to calm my breathing because I am freezing and nervous and mostly excited because in about 60 seconds, I’m going to attempt to water ski.
I am with new friends, women I barely know but they make me laugh, and I feel how I know my mom felt with Mrs. Nicholas—like myself. I am that 11-year-old girl again—standing in a grocery store pulling toothpaste and shampoo off the shelves because she wants to spend a week with people she just met but somehow make her feel at home with her awkward, shy, adolescent self.
“Nothing’s changed,” I mutter to myself as I slip on the skis and take the rope. I feel like the 40s are my second adolescence—I’m changing but into what I’m not sure. It’s scary but it’s exhilarating and for as insecure as I feel most of the time, the real Callie comes out when her friends come calling.
Just like she did with the Nicholas kids.
“It’s not that big a deal,” I say to myself as I watch the boat slowly pull away and feel with a pinch to my stomach as the rope goes taut. I grip the rope and remember to bend my legs as though I’m sitting in a chair. I point my skis up, the motor revs, the water pushes and lifts me up and I am skiing again, laughing and trying to balance and moving out of the wake and feeling the spray and sun on my face and thinking of my mom and Mrs. Nicholas and her kids and I am wrong—this is a very big deal.
And when it comes to friendship, there’s no such thing as was.