It’s Spring and the dogwood is in bloom again.
It’s funny how certain things conjure up memories–transport you back over the years. That a dogwood tree should make one remember a blizzard and a 1960 Plymouth might sound strange, but that is what often passes through my mind when the dogwood blooms.
It was during the winter, and my parents had gone away–I think to my sister’s wedding in Georgia–but wherever it was, I couldn’t go because of school. And I’m sure if I was given a choice, I declined to go. So I was staying at Fran’s.
I always stayed there when my parents were away, and often when they weren’t , since Fran and I were best friends. Her mom and dad were like an extra set of parents (a preferred set), and they treated me like one of the family.
Her mother was a beautiful woman whose creativity was reflected in every detail of the house she had designed, and her father was a gentle, soft-spoken man with a round face and a ready smile.
I was older than Fran by a few years, so I had gotten my license sooner. I didn’t have a car, nor did I have ready access to the family car, but Fran’s dad, who owned a car dealership, would often allow us to use a year-old demonstration model when we really needed to go somewhere. It was great to have that freedom, but it was also a great responsibility to be driving what amounted to a new car that didn’t belong to me. I think I generally lived up to that responsibility, but there was one night that things didn’t quite go as planned.
Fran, I, and another girl, named Martha, had to go to a county meeting of the youth fellowship group from church. Her dad gave us a Plymouth Fury for the evening. It was some car, big sweeping fins in the back and Chrysler Corporation’s most revolutionary technology–a push-button automatic transmission! It was quite a car to drive–no gear shift, just buttons on the dashboard–punch in the “D” and away you go.
We left that winter night for Grasonville, which was about twenty miles from Fran’s home. We stopped along the way to pick up Martha, who lived on a farm up a dirt lane that was surely a half-mile or more long.
We went on to the meeting and everything was fine until it was time to come home. When we came out of the meeting, it had been snowing. And not just a little. There were already a few inches on the ground and not all of the roads had been plowed. I was more than a little apprehensive, having the responsibility of getting us home safely in someone else’s car. Actually, I did very well–until we got to Martha’s.
As we approached her lane, I suggested that she just get out at the end of the lane and walk so I wouldn’t have to worry about getting stuck.
I knew it would be less than pleasant for her to walk that distance, and I guess it was unreasonable, considering the amount of snow and the length of the lane. But I was really nervous about driving up an unpaved lane with what already amounted to about five inches of snow that was drifting in places.
Martha refused. I remembered being a little aggravated at that, thinking (probably incorrectly) that were I in her position, I would have made the sacrifice.
At any rate, I slowed down, made the turn, straightened the car out to start up the lane, and slid sideways into the ditch. So there we were. In my mind, I wanted to blame Martha for the predicament; after all, if she’d agreed to walk, we wouldn’t be in the ditch. I remember thinking, perversely, she just might end up walking after all.
Fran and Martha slogged out behind the car and made a vain effort to push. Knowing that wouldn’t work, they piled back in to warm up, and I proceeded to try to drive the car out by that old standard—rocking it back and forth. I made enough progress to be encouraged, but not enough to get out—so punch reverse, accelerate, punch drive, accelerate, punch reverse . . . .
That continued until the car began to make the most god-awful noise with each shifting. It was only then that my limited mechanical knowledge informed me that shifting the car from drive to reverse with no pause or neutral gear between was hardly wise. Of course, by that time, it was too late for any such mechanical revelation.
Now, Martha did have to walk–up to her house to call Fran’s dad.
He came with a tow truck from the garage and pulled the car out and got us safely back home with hardly a comment. By that time, I was in a state of near hysteria as the situation became clear. I had torn up a new Plymouth Fury and there was no way in the world I would be able to pay for the repairs.
Then the miracle happened. Mr. Phillips assured me that I would not have to worry about a thing. He would be able to take care of it at the garage, and–of all things–he was not mad at me.
In spite of his kindness, I remained upset for the better part of that night and for several days thereafter. Finally, his assurances sank in and I was able to relax. I was sure, however, that I would carry the guilt forever.
As is my usual habit, once a bad experience is past, I avoid talking about it in the hope that it will disappear–not just from memory, but maybe from existence altogether. Consequently, when my parents came home, I could not bring myself to tell what happened. Besides, I figured Mrs. Phillips would tell my mother. And she did, but not for many, many years.
After they came back, my mother gave Mrs. Phillips a dogwood tree in gratitude for taking responsibility for me. That’s how the dogwood tree figures into the story.
It was many years later in the spring; I was grown and gone, as was Fran, and my mother stopped to visit Mrs. Phillips. She remarked that the dogwood tree had flourished and was blooming beautifully. It was Mrs. Phillips’ casual comment that each spring when that tree bloomed, she would think about me and the car. Of course, she had to explain, and the truth was out at last.
Like Mrs. Phillips, I cannot see a dogwood tree without thinking about that winter night and that amazing push-button Plymouth. It wasn’t long afterwards that Chrysler abandoned that transmission—no doubt others made the same error I had made.