Mother and the Air Conditioned Car:
Kathryn & Leo McManus, circa 1934
First, you must understand that my mother was always cold, or there will be nothing wonderful in the story I am about to tell you.
Mother could take a chill from a cool gust of air on the other side of town during an August heat wave. One family member claimed that if you put mother into a tent on the Sahara Desert, at mid-day, and after several hours went to ask if she was all right, she would reply, “Yes dear, I’m fine, but close that tent flap, I feel a draft.”
That may be an exaggeration, but she really did once ask my wife, Judy, on a hot summer’s afternoon when there wasn’t a breath of air to be found in the neighborhood, “Dear, do you feel a hint of fall in the air?”
I graduated from the University of Massachusetts in 1959, the youngest of five children, and promptly married Judy and went into the Army. At last, my parents experienced a bit of the empty nest syndrome. My father decided to celebrate. He bought a brand new car: a 1960 Ford Station Wagon with all the options – including air conditioning. He had never owned an air conditioned car.
Now, Mother did not believe air conditioning was desirable in an automobile (or anywhere else, for that matter). Four wheels, an engine, some comfortable seats, a radio, and a heater summed up her expectations for an option-loaded, motorized transport. However, when she saw it was important to my father, she dropped her objections and they became the owners of their first air-conditioned automobile.
She hated it. She never mentioned it to my father, but we grown children heard how cold and uncomfortable it was. It was like sitting in a meat locker. You couldn’t talk over the noise. It wasted gasoline – which was already up to $.23 per gallon. She took to draping a car robe across her knees on the hottest days of the summer. And yet, even as things escalated, not a word on the subject passed between them.
A few weeks after the car arrived I called my father and found him upset. “All that money,” he said, “and the air conditioning doesn’t work properly. The light lights, and the motor hums, but not a breath of cool air. Then the fuse blows and the power goes out. I took that car right back to the dealer today and told him I wanted it fixed promptly.” I agreed that was the right thing to do. I called him back a few days later to see how the matter turned out.
“Did they fix your air conditioning?” I asked.
“So to speak,” he answered reluctantly.
“What does that mean?”
“It means I was embarrassed,” he said. “That’s what it means. The dealer called and asked me to stop in. He had something to show me. On his desk was a shoe box full of neatly cut strips of Kleenex. Every vent on the passenger side of the car had been stuffed with Kleenex. They were tamped in there with the handle of a comb or something. You couldn’t get a breath of air out of that system, so the compressor would overheat and blow a fuse. The whole process had been sabotaged.”
“And what will you do about it?” I asked.
“Do about it?” He asked. “There is nothing to be done about it. Your mother has made her point.”
And so, an unspoken accommodation was reached between them. My father used the air conditioning when he was alone. When driving with my mother, he rolled down his side window and used the crank-out vent like he had for years before.
Mother’s window and her vent remained closed, and she no longer needed the car robe across her legs.
Thus was the problem resolved by an unspoken compromise, based on a mutual understanding, that came with a long-term relationship, that didn’t require confrontation, and sometimes didn’t even require words.