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Broken Car – Opportunity to Strengthen Community

November 14, 2018

As published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, Thursday, October 25, 2018

Inevitably, when I travel for work, something at home breaks. So, in preparation for a recent trip, I proposed a new family agreement. If something breaks and requires my attention when I’m away — unless it’s an emergency — I don’t want to hear about it when I walk in the door; the next morning is soon enough.

Of course, something broke while I was away — and it was an emergency, or at least in urgent need of repair. Actually, the break started an hour before I departed for my trip. While returning home from delivering son Adam to soccer practice, a loud noise erupted from under the car I was driving, the older, but generally reliable, of our two family-vehicles.

It sounded as if I had hit an object on the road and that the object ricocheted up, hitting the bottom of the car, so I hoped. But the road was clear and glancing in the rearview window confirmed the absence of any debris.

At home, I wiggled part way under the front end of the vehicle to grab hold of different parts, testing to see if anything was loose. Standing, I grabbed with both hands under the front fender and pulled up and down. Then I pushed down on the fender, repeatedly rocking the car. Though I could not identify any obvious problem, I had an uneasy feeling about the situation.

It was too late to rent a car and first thing in the morning I was due to start leading a three-day professional training more than 100 miles from home — not something I could reschedule. So, since my wife Lori would only need to make short trips in town while I was away, I headed off in our newer vehicle, leaving the suspect car at home.

The next day, back in my hotel room and before leaving for dinner, I called to check-in with Adam and big sister Zoe about their day. During the call, my wife Lori arrived home and shared that while returning from work a loud noise exploded from under the front end of the car and the steering immediately started pulling to the right.

We decided the vehicle was unsafe to drive and began problem solving how Lori — who works full time and is a graduate student — would navigate life with two kids, and no car while I was away. She and the kids focused on scheduling rides and I focused on fixing the car.

Immediately, Adam, distraught about missing open house at his school that night, sprang into action and asked a neighbor for support. They gladly agreed to fit Lori, Zoe and Adam — along with their family of four — into their mini-van, to and from the school event.

For the next two days, Lori patched together rides to and from work with a colleague and neighbor. Friends with whom we often carpool for gymnastics practice did double duty, ensuring that Zoe and her friend, made it to and from the YMCA.

Zoe, who generally commutes to middle school by bike, rode with a neighbor on the day when heavy rain would have made for a challenging ride, and Adam routinely made use of the school bus, that stops less than one block from our home, to get to and from his elementary school.

From afar, I downloaded an app from our insurance carrier and scheduled a tow-truck to take the disabled vehicle from our driveway to a preferred repair shop. Fortunately, the cost of the tow was covered by our insurance and the driver, who called me to confirm details when he arrived at our home, was timely, friendly and helpful.

From my hotel room, I placed an early morning call to our trusted, long-time mechanic, who promptly made room in the schedule for our car. Hours later I had a message that the car needed struts and springs replaced and that the parts were already ordered. It was not an inexpensive repair, but still better than a new car payment. The car was repaired and, thanks to another neighbor who drove Lori to the repair shop, was back home before my return.

When I walked in the door, there were lots of hugs and kisses. And, just as I had requested, there was no mention of anything that needed to be fixed. Instead, at supper, we raised our glasses and toasted the sweetness of community, and the wonderful support of friends, neighbors and local businesses.

As Lori and I reflected on the experience, we observed that it’s often much easier to offer support than to ask for it. We speculated that if we were more comfortable seeking support from others that perhaps they would more readily reach out to us in times of need, too.

So, I have proposed a new family agreement. When things break — ours or our neighbor’s, whether or not I am traveling — let’s consider it an opportunity to strengthen community connections, and not merely a problem to fix. And while that’s not exactly a new idea, it’s a welcome reminder when I travel for work, or any time.

John Engel of Florence can be reached through his website

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