Small Hands

For a city girl visiting the country, summer is all about heat and discovery

By Jason Mott

It’s a tradition dating back to my own childhood, when my parents and an aunt in New York would conduct an annual child exchange program. My sisters and I would spend a few weeks in New York and, upon coming back home, my cousin from up North would come down and spend a few weeks running through the sunlight-dappled South. The memory of those times has become one of the defining elements of who I am. I escaped the dirt road I called home for the hustle, bustle and exoticness of the big city. And, to this day, my cousins say the same thing about their trips down here to the low country. Life is a compilation of comfort zones, but we’re defined by the areas outside those zones.

Now I’m almost 40 and, while I have no children of my own, I’ve become the one who’s hosting city children.

My niece is 11 and a notorious city girl. Anytime that I see her there’s an 80 percent chance that her face is buried in her cellphone. And when it’s not buried in a phone, it is buried in a book. That latter one I’m actually supportive of. But that doesn’t change the fact that, like a lot of other city kids, the outdoors is a bit of a foreign concept for her.

Which is not to say that she doesn’t enjoy the country life. When she does happen to make it down here to the hinterlands of Columbus County for a visit, there are few things she likes better than to head over to the lake and plop down on a bucket with a fishing pole and try her luck. She’s still afraid to touch the fish she catches, but we’ve all been there.

Last summer when she came down to visit I decided to try to get her into cars. Her first lesson — Tire Changing 101 — was done in the middle of August. Everything was hot and muggy. We were both dripping sweat from the smallest amount of effort and, though she didn’t complain, we both knew that all she wanted was to be someplace cool and quiet that didn’t smell like motor oil and transmission fluid. But she persevered, even managing the occasional smile when she wasn’t full of the pre-teen nihilistic disdain for everything in existence.

I can’t remember my first time changing a tire and I doubt my niece will either. Given long enough, all memory has the potential to become nothing more than dust and illusion. We collect these moments in life, planning to store them perpetually in the menagerie of our mind, only to pull back the curtain one day to find the memory gone.

I imagine that I first learned to change a tire alongside my father. But, for reasons of longing, I think more about my mother when I think about changing tires. My mother rarely drove. In fact, I only have two memories of her driving: once when she came to pick me up from school, and once when the hood of the car in front of us flew open as they were doing 60 down the highway. I was around 7 or 8 and I remember yelling to mother, “Look! Look!” just as the car ahead of us slammed on the brakes and my mother swerved to avoid the collision.

Everything came out OK that day. The car ahead of us pulled over to fix their hood and we stopped with them. They were a couple of guys from Wilmington. I can’t remember their faces, but I remember the sound of my mother’s laughter as she and I drove home and, now that everything was OK, she finally laughed about how terribly wrong everything could have gone but didn’t. A writing mentor once told me, “Adventure is the tragedy that didn’t occur.”

My mother and I shared that adventure alone.

Now my niece and I are spending summers fishing and changing tires and, every now and then, I even put her behind the wheel on small, rarely driven backroads. The first time I told her to drive it took me 10 minutes to get her out of the passenger seat. She gripped the wheel with small, soft, city-girl hands and almost screamed when she pressed the throttle and the car responded by pulsing forward. When we finally reached home after a half a dusty mile, she shifted the car into park and exhaled and seemed undecided on whether she wanted to laugh or cry.

In the end, she laughed, and it reminded me of my mother’s laughter.

Now it is summer again and she’ll be back to visit soon and she’ll progress from Tire Changing 101 to other car-maintenance endeavors and, once again, I’ll put her behind the wheel of a car and create an adventure that, hopefully, will carry on the tradition of lazy summer days, small hands, cars and the country life.

Jason Mott is a New York Times best-selling author, a UNCW alumnus and current UNCW writer-in-residence.

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