Tires, Weddings, and the Vortex

Flat Tire

The Semmens wedding was the perfect excuse to celebrate surviving this hellscape of a year, and I was more than ready. John Semmens, the groom and now grown-up that I’d started babysitting when I was fifteen years old, was getting married. Although the Semmens had moved from south Georgia years before, our families had remained friends. We were thrilled at the idea of seeing them again. 

Mama and Daddy, Ginny and Josh were all invited, too. So, giddy with the idea of being happy for someone else – someone outside our little circle – we all traipsed up to north Georgia. Mama said, “Country come to town,” but I knew better. 

Barnsley Gardens in Adairsville, GA, was the chosen wedding venue, only about 45 minutes away from Jamie’s parent’s house. So, it was a perfect opportunity to visit Jamie’s folks, too. We decided to go up Friday and spend the weekend – a win-win for us. 

I’d always wanted to visit Barnsley Gardens after reading about its ghosts as a middle-schooler. I was hopeful that I’d see the ghost of Julia, the lady of the house, strolling out in the boxwood gardens. The invitation promised dinner and dancing afterward. 

Dancing? That’s the Sanders’ jam. I couldn’t wait! I prepped the children to prepare themselves for lots of dancing and lots of fun. I told them there was a possibility of a ghost-sighting and regaled them with stories about my babysitting adventures when the groom was a little boy.     

When you have man-children, getting ready feels like an exercise to see who will be the last man standing. It takes patience, grit, and determination. I feel like a drill sergeant. 

“Yes, you have to wear a tie.”
“No, you cannot wear a normal t-shirt under a dress shirt.”
“Did you brush your teeth? Your hair?”
“Do you have on underwear?”
“Where are your dress socks?” 

I mean. C’mon. I was sweaty before I’d even gotten started, but Jamie and I were so happy about being out and together, it didn’t even phase us. 

“Yes, you have to dance with your Mother.”
“No, you cannot chew gum during the service. Get a breath mint.”
“I can’t remember what I chose as your entree; you’ll eat what you are served and be thankful.”
“You absolutely have to tuck in your shirt.” 

All dressed and ready to go; we made a dashing foursome. Clean and polished, scrubbed and wearing our very best, I felt like a mama bird with my feathers puffed out, proud. Excited to be going somewhere different and seeing people we’d loved a long time, my heartbeat fast in my chest just thinking about it. We turned out of The Cantrell’s driveway with 90s music playing on the radio. My heart was full. 

We were only 10 minutes from the venue when I heard it – a distinctive, rubbery-sounding wooolumph, wooolumph. “Huh,” Jamie said, “the tire sensor just alerted. That’s weird. Probably just a sensor failure.” 

Oh, dear, sweet, baby Jesus. You’ve gotta be kidding me. I didn’t say a word. Jamie kept driving. I clenched my teeth, and in my gut, I knew, the way all women do, we were in for it. 

The “wooolumph” got louder. At this point, we were on a twisty-turny, very backwoodsy, two-lane road. Jamie’s face was slowly turning purple. 

“Hey, babe,” I said with my most hopeful, optimistic Mom-voice, “at least we aren’t on the interstate.” Through his teeth and with a gravely, quiet voice, he responded, “Please – just don’t talk to me.” 

My heart sank. This was it. The breakdown I’d waited for. The Clark Griswald-style freakout I’d sensed was riding just below the surface for months. I figured the best I could hope for was that the children didn’t learn any new cuss words. 

Side roads were limited, so we pulled in at the gravel construction driveway we found 3.5 miles from the entrance to Barnsley Gardens. We’d almost made it. 

We all piled out to see what was what. The right front tire was completely flat. “Holy hell, Jack,” Jamie asked, “What did you hit last week? It’s cost us two tires, boy.” 

Jack didn’t answer. He’d already sprung into action. He’d tossed his suit jacket into the backseat, rolled up his sleeves, and was popping the liftgate to get the spare tire out. 

Working in sync, Jack and Jamie were like a NASCAR pit crew. Jack was confident in his new skills and began taking the lug nuts off the flat while Jamie started jacking up the car. 

“If we keep up this pace, we can still make the wedding,” Jack was hopeful, determined. I called Mama to let her know we’d be late – at best. They were almost at the venue. “Daddy wants to know where you are and how we can find you?” I had no idea. 

I’d just gotten off the phone and was trying to help Jack situate the spare when I heard the gravel start to shift. I pushed Jack back just as our jack gave way, sending the tire rotor plummeting deep into the gravel, sandwiching the jack underneath the car, and popping the front fender completely off the front. “DAMN. DAMN. DAMN it,” Jamie threw his hands up and walked away toward the woods, his suit pants dirty and his dress shirt soaked through with sweat. 

Colin looked up at me and whispered, “We aren’t gonna get to go to the wedding, are we, Mama?” His face was saying what my heart was feeling. Washed in disappointment, frustration, irritation, I had no encouragement to offer. “I don’t know yet, baby,” was all I could say. 

Jamie had walked far away from us but was already on the phone with his Dad. I couldn’t hear what he was saying, but I knew he was trying to figure out a plan. Hanging up, he returned to us, “I know you’re not gonna like this, but it’s the best I can do. Call your folks and have them come get you guys. Dad is on the way here with a shop jack. Our jack just can’t cut it on this gravel – even if I could get it dug out. I’ll wait here for Dad. You’re gonna have to go without me.” 

I didn’t want to leave him there. It felt like a team effort – success or failure – didn’t matter. We were in it together. He wasn’t having it. “Dad’s on the way. It’s just timing, Liz. You’ve gotta go.” 

Jack jumped into the car with Mom and Dad. Colin and I jumped in with Josh and Ginny. All of us were going to be late now. All seven of us knew we’d never make it in time for the ceremony. It was the reception or bust. 

We parked and walked/ran to the venue in time to see a beautiful bride and a stately groom standing at the top of a hill in front of brick ruins. We’d missed it – all of us. To be thoughtful of the ceremony, we waited at the base of the hill. 

Jamie texted that his Dad had gotten to him, and with three pumps of his shop jack, they’d been able to change the tire in about ten minutes, but he continued via text, “I’m a hot mess. My suit is trashed. Driving the car back to Mom and Dad’s. Dad following. Think your folks can bring you home?” 

I felt like a girl jilted at the prom, but I understood. I really did. I’m not sure how you recover enough from all that excitement, even to try to put a fresh face forward. So, I explained to the boys; it’d be just us.  

Just then, we heard a loud cheer. Knowing the ceremony was over, we began to make our way up for the cocktail hour. Steep and gravely, the path wound its way up to the stately brick ruins of the old manor house, tastefully lit with tealight candles and tiny white lights. 

Jack quietly offered me his arm, and as I wound my arm around his and placed my hand on his forearm to steady myself, I looked up into his clear blue eyes that have always reminded me of his namesake, my grandfather. I knew we were at the precipice of a defining moment. 

He didn’t notice, but I knew. Down deep in my Mama’s heart, I knew. Whether or not I had ever recognized it before – he was a man. A young man, to be sure, but a man all the same. 

Clear-eyed, determined, he smiled at me and said nothing, although our disappointment that Jamie couldn’t be there was palpable between us.  

In that split-second that the casual observer would’ve missed completely, I felt like we’d stepped through a vortex. As clearly as though I were looking through a picture album, I had quick – snapshot-like – glimpses: a red-haired baby with those same clear-blue eyes, looking through books on a pallet, smiling up at me as we fed the ducks at the pond, holding his arms up to me to be lifted onto my hip while I cooked supper. 

And yet, suddenly, here we were: a man helping his mother maneuver down a gravel path. 

How does it go so fast? 

Weddings. They get me all in my feelings anyway, and this one was no exception. Among lots of things, it was a reminder that Jamie and I are on some whizzing, fast-track, speeding time machine that’s hurtling us toward the day Jack is the graduate, the groom, the new father. 

Jack, who just the week before had learned how to change a flat tire, had jumped into action to help his Dad when this one blew. He was quick, resilient, self-assured. 

He handed Colin, who wanted to help so badly, the lug nuts with a reassuring, “Don’t drop ‘em, Buddy. They’re a big deal.” 

He seemed so tall, so confident when he offered me his arm. On our way back to the reception area, he’d offered it again, without a word – just a silent reassurance that I was not alone but protected, seen about. It was nice and awful – at the exact same time. 

After we’d enjoyed seeing old friends, a delicious meal, a champagne toast (which I let both boys participate in – because what is a wedding but a glorious celebration of firsts,) we cut loose on the dance floor.  

Jack and I twirled and two-stepped first to a song that’s not a favorite of mine, but the words sure seemed to fit, 

“Well I’ve seen the sunrise
See the love in my woman’s eyes
Feel the touch of a precious child
And know a mother’s love…” 

Maybe this is all there is to life. Tiny little pieces all fused like some eternal mosaic. It’s the fragments of beauty and love in the middle of the hard and difficult that we take with us. 

Maybe this is the secret that Lazarus couldn’t speak of – the sensation of twirling and twinkling tealights, recognizing clear-blue eyes, and the joyful sound of clinking champagne glasses. These are the most important things. We better not miss them.