The other day it was raining (again), cold (again) and the boys were virtual (again) and after zooms followed by a lot of other screen time because there was nothing else to do, we needed to get out of the house (I promise a poop story isn’t coming). We got in the car and I started driving aimlessly a bit until I remembered that my front headlight was out and that was a perfect excuse to drive into Old Town to the auto repair shop my grandfather founded over 55 years ago.
I grew up in this shop as my Dad and Uncles took it over as the years went on. As kids, we would play in the parts room on 99 degree summer days while sipping on a Nestea from the coke machine. We went with my Oma to the bank to drop off the day’s deposits (if we were lucky also hit the toy store, Why Not?) and we were allowed to eat Cosmic brownies for breakfast. We counted the employee hours on the time cards with my Opa and learned that 7:59 is “late” when you are supposed to be there at 8. My Dad’s white “Fritz shirt” was easily his most identifiable look, and in that time spending so many hours of childhood watching him work we soaked in a little bit about how cars are fixed and a lot of bit about how business is run without even realizing it.
As I got older, like my brothers and many cousins, the shop became my first job. Washing cars, mopping floors, answering phones, running credit cards, picking up parts – our duty was to be doing whatever we could in the background to help – starting from the bottom and learning how to work our way up. One of my favorite things to do was to drive customers to the metro after they dropped off their cars, listening to their stories and getting life advice from many of their impressive careers. As a 16 year old, it was where I spent many a morning waking up at 5am to help my dad before school to repair the 1988 Isuzu Trooper which would eventually become a car of my own.
It was also a place to learn accountability and owning up to mistakes as we all made them in our teenage years (Sorry Dad for that time you had to call a costumer because I misjudged the tightness of the parking spot and dinged the car. Thanks customer for not giving up on the business).
And then when I had kids of my own, the trip to the shop to burn some time and energy was a frequent one. I used to bring the little boys up there to tinker with Papa’s toys, sneak lollipops he kept in the bottom lefthand drawer of his desk and run around with their uncles. There was a long stretch of time when train obsessed Wells was certain that only Papa’s screwdrivers and batteries could fix trains that would no longer go (I later learned that Fritz was constantly buying AAA batteries to ensure that he was ready at any moment for a drop-in train fix). Then there was that whole husband in Afghanistan thing while I was home with 3 kids under 5 and I would often wearily wander in after preschool pick up but before naptime and leave with a belly full of lunch because Fritz would order in for us and listen to my woes while the boys happily tapped away on giant calculator or used the old check writing machine to punch in different numbers.
But then we were off to Tampa and by the time we moved back to the area, Fritz was 1.5 years into his cancer diagnosis and treatment had made him too sick to work full time. The few times the boys and I tried to swing by the shop, we would find him sitting in his truck on a warm summer day with the heat on full blast trying to get the chemo-induced coldness to go away, or asleep in his big chair, hoodie and hat on because the exertion of sitting up for a few hours wore him out. But of course, because he refused to really believe that his body was deteriorating, he would also startle up and pretend that he was just getting out of his truck or quickly open the desk drawer to reveal that he hadn’t forgotten to keep buying lollipops.
After he died almost 2 years ago, naturally our trips became less frequent. We lived a little further away and the boys were in school all day so even if Marme was there working, we would miss the window to pop in. And truth be told, for a long time I couldn’t go past the very front office because the sight of Fritz’s empty desk and scraps of paper with his handwriting just made me too sad.
So back to last Monday…
We got to the shop and Marme wasn’t in her usual front spot, so we walked through the door found her sitting at Papa’s desk and for once I seemed to forget that I had stopped going back there. I asked my uncle if someone would take a look at my headlight and he took the keys and pulled the car around himself.
Then, like it was the most natural thing in the world, next thing I knew Cullen and Bennett were right next to him, lifting up the hood and peering in. Wells and Griffin grabbed a Nestea from the coke machine and took off to the back of the parts room to climb the stairs while Marme asked if we wanted to drive her to the bank when the car was done and (shhh) maybe the toy store after.
I watched as my Uncle, built so much in stature and in personality like my dad, took time out of his day to patiently explain what tools he was using, the steps to get to the headlight and then sat back and let the boys take over. He gently explained to them what to do, but didn’t step in so that they would learn, and even gave a classic Fritz eye twinkle when he found a Pokemon card stuck inside the hood and teased them for it. We pointed out that in a short two and a half years Cullen would be in high school and could start mopping the floors and washing cars. My cousin, a now seasoned mechanic, noticed Bennett standing under the a car on a lift and began explaining to him how everything was connected. Bennett enjoyed it so much, he asked if he could just hang out there for the rest of the afternoon to “learn stuff”. The phone rang and my subconscious piped up, “Foreign Car Service, how may I help you?”.
It wasn’t until later that night I realized we had a full-circle moment, one in which I neither planned or was expecting in any way.
So much can change and yet, there are so many ways to keep experiencing a life that didn’t go as we imagined it would.
And so maybe like the Fireflies, Fritz – knowing that we are still aching so much without him – had to blow out the bulb in my headlight and give us a little nudge to remind us that he is still here: still teaching, still working, still growing the foundation that was set for us so long ago.
Next time, I’m bringing the Cosmic brownies.