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An Accident, Grace, and Turning Over a New LEAF

Mommy had an accident this summer. A three-car accident, my fault, with my four-year-old daughter in the backseat. It was traumatic, humbling, and also profoundly soul-soothing because of the loving response of so many people who rushed to help.

On my way home from visiting family, I had a weird sun glare and didn't see a traffic light turn from green to yellow or to red.

Earlier this year, my daughter had started to ask questions--maybe from scary things she had heard at school, or from other adults, or with whatever mysterious radar system preschooler brains seem to have. "Are some police officers bad guys?" "How do you know if someone is a bad guy?" "Does our town have bad guys in it?"

I've tried to respect her healthy and age-appropriate sense of caution while trying to soothe her anxieties because strangers on the street--including police officers--are not likely to be dangerous to her. We read the Trouble with Strangers Berenstein Bears book. But it took Mommy's big mistake to show her that our community is a good, kind place.

The red light I ran was in a neighborhood some people avoid, on the corner of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, near the heart of downtown. Sure, we have seen drug deals along the road, and maybe prostitution. But more often we've seen dads walking their dressed-up children home from church, moms pushing baby strollers, families visiting on porches, and young men running out into traffic to help old people cross the street safely. So what is a safe neighborhood, anyway, I wonder? Should we ask if it's a place where we are least likely to be mugged at night, or is it a place where a dozen bystanders will run out into the street to help you in a time of need?

Two of the three cars in the accident were spectacularly totaled--mine and the car that struck mine, which was driven by a woman who apparently lives in that neighborhood. From what I heard, many of her friends, neighbors, and family were quickly on the scene.

Half a dozen people ran to my car, too, before I had figured out that I couldn't open any of the doors. I don't even know where they all came from, because the accident happened near a freeway interchange, with nothing around but a sleepy gas station. They just descended like a fleet of angels in tattoo-arm shirts and hoodies. People must have stopped their cars and gotten out. I remember three men and a woman, pushing the airbags out of the way so they could reach into the car and talk to us and gently look us over for injuries. A man lifted my daughter--surprised but completely unscathed--out of her car seat and held her until I could get to her. A woman leaned through the window to help me find my glasses, and she and another man pulled me out through the window and helped me walk to the curb with my daughter. They needed repeated assurances from me that we were both uninjured before they would leave us; one young man stayed on the corner with us, checking in every few minutes about whether we needed anything and reporting on the status of the other woman and the emergency services that were coming. Meanwhile, cars driving by kept slowing down and asking if we needed more help.

Nobody asked me what was wrong with me. Nobody made any comment or even asked any question with regard to my running a red light. Nobody expressed anger toward me that I had just caused a car accident. Even the police officer practically apologized for having to write me a ticket. I've never felt so ashamed over a big, stupid mistake, or so terrified about how badly I may have hurt another person. Several people told me, "She's fine," but she did go to the hospital, and it makes me sick to my stomach wondering whether she is "fine" or if people were just being ridiculously nice to me. I fervently hope that she is well. It made me feel like I could never drive again, just that sick feeling of knowing I could have killed someone.

But I do have to drive, because I have a little girl and a job in the next town over. Before I had my daughter, I was tough enough to get by without a car. I'd take a two-hour bus ride to work, sometimes hopping off for 15 minutes along the way to let the motion sickness pass before hopping on the next bus. I'd ride my bike 10 miles through the city, even after the trauma of getting kicked off my bike into an intersection by a drunk one time. But now that I have a little one who needs to go to preschool and Oma's house and doctor appointments and home by bedtime, I'm a lot less badass in my transportation options.

I bought a stupidly heavy, over-engineered new car seat, to make myself feel better--the Graco Nautilus with the reinforced steel shell, which could probably survive space reentry--and my parents, far from expressing the disappointment I felt I deserved from wrecking the car they had given me five years ago (kind of, ahem, as part of an informal "deal" that I would produce a grandchild), immediately offered me money to buy another car. And I had to take it, because of that beautiful grandbaby. Our little Nux Gallica is blessed with more than two parents--my parents have been a big part of her life since her birth.

The amount they gave me was incredibly generous, but because I have no room in my budget for a car payment, it had to be all I could spend total on a vehicle. A couple visits to grimy used car dealerships later, and I was feeling pretty glum about spending so much of my parents' (truly) hard-earned money plus every last penny of my emergency savings on some smelly, beat-up old Chevy or Ford that might very well break down in the road or need expensive repairs right away.

My husband and I did some research online about used cars available within 100 miles of our home in our budget, which was both overwhelming and depressing.

Until I discovered this one used car dealer with excellent customer reviews waaaayyyy out in the boonies selling... hybrids and electric cars? Including... a 2011 Nissan LEAF almost in our budget? Obviously, it was too good to be true.

Except it wasn't.


Without paying for gas--even cheap gas--and oil changes and engine maintenance, we realized we could pay for collision insurance and save enough money to cover the cost of a new battery in a few years. And meanwhile drive an impossibly cool vehicle that looks like a sky blue spaceship, has marvelous safety ratings, isn't as much of a menace to others as some junker that could break down at any moment on the road, doesn't emit pollution into the neighborhood, and is 95% recyclable. WHUT.

After thoroughly investigating the realness of this situation and calculating the feasibility of driving a fully charged LEAF 60 miles home, we traveled out to the dealer and took it for a test drive. The car seemed almost brand new, having been driven less than 4,000 miles when it was piloted as a rental vehicle in Florida (obviously a dumb idea) and promptly abandoned to a warehouse to be auctioned. Then the boonies dealer purchased it and brought it up to Michigan, where it sat around for a good long time, unwanted by the local farmers. (Obviously.)

I negotiated a few hundred bucks off the top, bought it on the spot, and said some prayers to all the gods of electricity in the heavens. The display told us we had about 75 miles in the battery, and home was 60 miles away.

Then we forgot to put it in eco mode.

Then we discovered there were no charging stations between boonies, Michigan and our home. We stopped at a gas station with a super friendly attendant (accompanied by my dad driving his regular car) and plugged the LEAF into a wall socket for about 40 minutes, until we were about ready to fall asleep on the pavement--we had stayed up late to travel out of town after work, and it was already past our bedtime.

When we left the gas station, the display told us we could go 15 miles, and the GPS told us our house was 18 miles away. My dad, who is a bit of a sporty driver, suggested that we draft off his larger vehicle at 60 mph down a long, dark country road.

My husband and I sweated completely through our shirts on that drive home, tailgating my dad along a dark country road traversed by raccoons, with the friendly computer controls blinking at us in quiet panic as the miles ticked down through the single digits. But we made it!

There is now a recharged Nissan LEAF in my garage that is the same age as my baby child!

I'm still reeling from the shock of all this, from the realization that I can cause a terrifying car accident just by not paying close enough attention--even without being distracted or in a hurry--to the immense, undeserved kindness my family and I received after my accident--to the fact that I now own an electric vehicle that looks like the love baby of a spaceship and a golf cart.

Life is weird.

My daughter is absolutely thrilled. She has learned: Everybody makes mistakes, even Mommy. Our town is full of "good guys." Oma and Opa are better than Santa Claus. It feels good to have the sweetest ride in town, something we never expected to experience.

I feel very humbled by all of this, and a part of me fears that people will resent me more than the Hummer driver down the street just because my car looks so damn pretentious. But I'm incredibly grateful to have this beautiful thing that reduces some of the pollution around my home and in my city. To the gods of electrons, to my parents, to engineers, to rural used car dealers who believe in green energy, to the earthly angels of my city. I hope, more than anything, to pass that gratitude along to my daughter. I'm feeling a boost of motivation to work as hard as I can at my nonprofit employer, which channels energy and funds into improving the lives of people in this beautiful community and beyond. This is all a lesson in taking nothing for granted. Our lives have gained new perspective. Amazing!


  1. There is a crack
    A crack in everything
    That's how the light gets in.

    -Leonard Cohen


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