June 23, 2018
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Power of storytelling comes through at most opportune time

By Rosemary Herbert

My mother was hundreds of miles away when the brakes on my car failed yesterday. Nevertheless, I am certain that she saved my life.

That’s because, when there was no way I could stop my car, I remembered a story she told me about losing the brakes on her car when she was a young woman. That was back in the 1950s, and she was driving the vehicle that was destined to be dubbed the “Hillman Jinx.” In fact, it was a standard-shift minicar called the Hillman Minx.

Mom was driving in Sea Cliff, N.Y., a place that was well-named since it sported a cliff so stunningly steep that geographers named it one of the only fjords in North America. The town, too, was full of highs and lows in the form of steep hills galore. Mom was at the top of the steepest one of them when her brake pedal went to the floor, and she found she had no brakes whatsoever. Having grown up in that area, she knew that at the bottom of that hill was a concrete sea wall. There was no question that she had to stop her car before reaching that too-literal-for-comfort dead end.

Mom tried using the emergency brake, which was useless as the car sped on. Next she tried downshifting and then shifting into reverse, all to no avail. As a result of this, she stripped the gears and lost all control of her car except for steering. Even in this crisis, Mom was worried about hitting a child, so she had the presence of mind to lean on the horn to warn children and others out of the car’s rocketing path.

Finally, knowing she had to stop her car somehow or meet tragedy at the bottom of that hill, Mom looked for a driveway leading uphill from the road she was on. She steered her car up that driveway, jumped out, and watched the car fly backward across the street and slam into a hedge.

Thanks to having this story on tap, when I could not stop my car yesterday, I had everything I needed to know to rescue myself and prevent tragedy down the road. The problem began when I was making a slow turn at an intersection. When the brakes would not stop the car, I lifted my foot off the pedal and tried again, using a slow, steady, firm pressure. Still the car moved on. Of course my car was not standard shift, but I knew from my mother’s experience that downshifting was likely to be iffy and I thought throwing the car into reverse would send me backward into a line of traffic that was building up behind me, forcing me to steer backward. That was not an option.

I wanted help. I waved my left arm wildly out the window yelling, “Help me!” at the top of my lungs at every passing motorist, hoping they would alert the police. Briefly, a sort of “Hi-ho, Silver” image flashed into my mind of a police car driving up alongside me with a man or woman in blue telling me how to take the reins of my car, so to speak, and directing me how to stop the thing. Knowing that was unlikely, though, I hoped someone would report a crazy woman heading for downtown Rockland, so the police would clear the streets of pedestrians.

I kept hoping the car would finally stop, but instead it seemed to have a mind of its own, powering itself forward regardless of my pressure on the brake pedal. “I have to stop this thing,” I told myself. “I just have to stop it somehow.”

When a slight incline presented itself, I knew it was time to combine this advantage with using the emergency brake. But when I applied the brake, the car did not slow down in the least. And I was approaching the crest of the hill.

Certain that I could not afford to gain more momentum, I knew it was time to follow Mom’s lead. Seeing the steeply sloping front yard of a house on my right, I angled my car across that yard and plowed the front right headlight area into the front wall of the house, finally bringing my car to a stop.

Later, I called Mom and told her, “You saved my life today.” She pointed out that I saved my own life and the lives of people down the road, too. When she said she was very proud of me, I realized that I had always been very proud of my mother’s intrepid driving skills, too.

In the end, this was a clear case of the power of story and pride to guide us out of disaster. That’s because Mom’s story not only gave me the lifesaving strategy of driving uphill to slow and stop the car, but because her story was one of a woman being level-headed and even caring about others’ welfare when she was in crisis. I am convinced that I survived my own life-threatening episode because underneath it all, my pride and confidence in my mother made me believe that if she could save herself, I could save myself, too. After all, I am my mother’s daughter.

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