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Cheney: How to tell your spouse you dented the car

My wife has many great qualities. Bringing me breakfast in bed isn't one of them.

So when I woke up to a fresh-brewed cup of coffee and a plate of toast recently, I was a little surprised. Then again, I had just returned from a business trip – maybe Marian was simply expressing her delight at seeing me.

The ulterior motive was soon revealed. "I might have a good story for you," my wife said. "Do you remember talking about doing a column on parking damage? Well, there's a little mark on the front bumper now."

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I did remember talking to my wife about writing a column around the subject of parking scars. Our long-suffering old Honda has been hit so many times I lost count, and the kids added to the carnage when they were learning to drive. For a guy who prides himself on maintaining machinery, it was tough to take, but such is the lot of the family-man car buff.

Just a few months ago, I put the Honda in the body shop and repaired everything. I installed new front and rear bumpers, pulled out half a dozen dents, and had it all painted to match. The car looked great again.

Now my wife was telling me that there was a mark on the new front bumper. An hour later, I was in the alley, surveying the damage. Now I could see why she'd brought me breakfast in bed.

The new front bumper I'd installed just months before now looked like the mouth of an NHL player who'd stopped a slap shot with his teeth. The corner was shattered, and an entire section had ripped away, creating a gaping hole. I peered through it to see the windshield washer tank, and what remained of the fender liner. Characterizing this as "a mark on the bumper" was like describing the Nanking Massacre as "a bit of a scuffle."

It would have been easy to get angry with my wife, but I knew this had been an honest mistake. She'd been rushing to get to work, and as she turned around in our alley, the bumper snagged a steel pipe hidden in a snow bank.

My wife had hoped that the damage would be minor, and that I wouldn't notice. No chance of that, so it was the breakfast-in-bed, full-disclosure route. This got me thinking about marital politics and the ethics of automotive damage.

In the seven years that we've owned our Honda, it has been damaged more than a dozen times, yet only three people have taken responsibility for their handiwork – my wife, my daughter (who sideswiped a pole), and Jennifer Thompson (a woman who left a note on the windshield after running into the Honda in a Leaside mall parking lot). All the other dent and scrape inflictors simply rolled on, leaving us to pay for the repairs.

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I was also fascinated with how we deliver bad news to our spouses – and what we omit telling them. (My wife, for example, has no idea that my Snap-On digital torque wrench cost more than $600, or that I have bought a new parachute for the upcoming gliding season.) A damaged car presents a special case. I thought back to my high school days, when one of my friends damaged his father's VW Beetle. This situation was tough – my friend's father was an intimidating, high-ranking U.S. military official who ran his life with Swiss watch precision, and the Beetle was his hand-waxed pride and joy.

My friend and I spent two days repairing the Beetle's dented hood, hoping to erase the damage so completely that his dad would never know when he got home the next week. I pounded out the creased metal, smoothed it with body filler, and repainted the hood with a spray can of official VW enamel. But as it dried, we could see that the hood didn't quite match the rest of the car – the paint had a different gloss, and our bodywork was far from perfect.

My friend was grounded for two months. (Owning up to the damage instead of trying to hide it would have probably yielded a lighter sentence.) Some revelations need the right occasion to be divulged. After wiping out the passenger doors on our Mercury back in the early 1970s, my mom parked it with the good side out, then made my dad a spectacular dinner that was followed by dessert, several tumblers of his favourite Scotch, and the news about the car.

For some, bluster and denial are the preferred tactics. Back in the day, my mom's black-sheep cousin Ed crashed his Volkswagen into the back of the Wolfville, N.S. police chief's parked patrol car, then staggered home to sleep it off. Since Ed was the only citizen of Wolfville who owned a VW, the chief's detective work wasn't complicated. The next morning, he knocked on Ed's door and told him the VW was impaled on the back of his cruiser. Ed gave give him a cool stare, and replied: "That's too bad. But what's it got to do with me?"

There are disclosures that call for unusual techniques. A journalist I know confessed about a sexual liaison with a young woman during a long motorcycle trip by writing about it in a book about the journey, then asking his wife to read the pre-publication proofs. (That particular chapter got his wife's attention, needless to say.) As I looked at our Honda's shattered front end, I reflected on the irony of human existence. Never in history have we been able to make more advanced industrial objects than we do today. But we still destroy them with our mistakes. Our Honda is not just a car, but a rolling dissertation on error – behind each and every dent there is a story. The front bumper is merely the latest one, authored by my wife.

To err is human. To forgive, divine. Breakfast in bed makes it easier.

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About the Author
National driving columnist

Peter Cheney launched his driving column after 25 years as an award-winning feature writer, investigative reporter and news correspondent. His writing steers clear of industry jargon to focus on human experience and the passion of driving. More


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