DC widow blog writer Marjorie Brimley's article on Nora McInerny in the Washington Post
New Perspectives

First Rental Car

I went to Minnesota in February this year.

I know.  It probably wasn’t the BEST time to visit that part of the country.  But I had an assignment:  I was going there to interview Nora McInerny.  (As a note, this post is not about that interview – that’s not for my blog. This post is about my own experience of being in Minnesota.  If you’d like to read what I wrote about Nora, click here.)

A few months prior, I had pitched the idea to write about Nora’s new book.  I spent about 20 minutes telling my editor how interesting Nora is, and all of the work she does for grieving people.  At the end of the conversation, my editor said, “I don’t think you should do a book review.  I think you should do a profile.”

So I emailed Nora’s publicist, who was excited about the idea.  Then I wrote up a proposal to do a profile of Nora.  It was accepted.  I got plane tickets and hotel reservations.

And then I realized that I had no idea how to do a profile.

So I met with my friend Greg Jaffe (he’s the Post reporter who wrote Shawn’s obituary) and he gave me some profile-writing tips.  I read at least 50 profiles that I found online.  I bought a tape recorder and a fancy notebook.  I re-read both of Nora’s books and created dozens of questions.

I still didn’t really know how to do a profile.  But February came, and I packed my bags to fly to Minnesota.

I landed on one of the coldest weekends of the year.  As I got off the plane, I thought, “Shoot.  I didn’t bring any boots.”

I didn’t have time to dwell on this issue.  I had to get to my hotel, which meant I had to get my rental car. 

The rental car counter looked like every other rental car counter.  It was mostly empty, staffed by only one woman.  It was not intimidating.  But I paused for a long time before I went to the counter.

It was the first time I’d rented a car.

I know that this is totally unbelievable.  But I’ve wracked my memory and I’m pretty sure this was the first time.  Of course, I’ve been in a number of rental cars, but they were almost always with Shawn, and he always rented our cars.  (When I traveled without him, it was to visit family and friends who either picked us up or served as the main rental-car driver.)  I have stood at many a rental car counter, but I don’t think I’ve ever actually talked to an agent there.  That wasn’t my job.

So there I was, almost 40 years old, renting a car for the very first time.  I was a bit frozen by the idea.

“Can I help you?” the woman behind the counter said to me.

“Um, yes,” I said, “I need to get my rental car.”  I showed her the reservation.  Then, because I cannot keep any thoughts to myself, I said, “I don’t know if you need anything else from me.  You see, it’s my first time getting a rental car on my own.  My husband always did those type of things but he died.”

“Oh,” she said, looking right at me, “I’m so sorry.”  Her face was truly concerned.

“Thanks,” I said.  “It’s been a year since he died, but it’s strange that things like renting a car make me feel so anxious and sad.  It’s a reminder that he’s not here, I guess.”

We finished the check-in, and she bumped me up to a nicer car.  “You’ll be fine,” she said as she handed me the keys.  She gave my hand a little squeeze when she did that.

There was a foot of snow on the ground outside and I couldn’t decide on the car I should get.  I texted a friend that I was having a hard time making a decision.  “Just pick one, they’re all the same,” was the text I got back. 

Right.  Don’t overthink.

I can’t remember the color of the car now, but something makes me think it was red because I’m pretty sure I chose the car based on its color.  Which is a ridiculous way to make a decision but I know zero about cars.

Anyway, I got on the road.  There was a lot of snow, so I drove about 5 miles an hour and didn’t turn on the radio.  I had to focus. 

I made it to the hotel, checked myself in, and prepped for my interview.  The next day, I set out in a blinding snowstorm for Nora’s house.  As I pulled out of the parking spot, I reached to turn on the windshield wipers, and realized that I didn’t know where they were.  I fumbled around for at least 2 minutes before I got them on, cursing the whole time.

And then I remembered a million times when Shawn had been driving, trying to figure out how to work the windshield wipers or parking break or air conditioner.  He’d fumble around for a few minutes and figure it out.  I never helped him.  I always sat back in my seat, comfortable knowing that he’d deal with it.

I was never frustrated in those situations because I knew he’d take care of the problem.  I knew he’d take care of me.

Now it’s just me.  Just me driving in the snow that blew sideways.  Just me pulling out the tape recorder and asking for another quote.  Just me trudging through the snow (without my boots) back to my hotel and staying up until midnight to take notes.

“Just me,” I said out loud that night.  I wasn’t sure if I felt intense grief or some strange sort of pride when I said it.

I spent the next day with Nora, and then I flew back to DC and worked on the profile for the next few weeks.  Like the car rental, I really didn’t know what I was doing.

But I had gone up to the rental car counter by myself and used the keys to start the probably-red car.  I had driven through more snow than I’d ever seen in my life.  I’d told my life story to the rental-car lady and the man behind the hotel bar.

When I rented the car, I’d done something that was not really monumental for most people.  But it was for me. Writing the profile was easy in comparison. 

Yes, it was my first profile.

But it was also my first rental car.


  • Ian

    This is a great story, and I hope it counts as one of those little moments that flamed up and that cheered you up in what seems to have been a tough first leg of the year. Small victories, my friend! Keep them coming.

  • Francine

    I can so relate to that. It’s only 8 months today since I lost the love of my life, he was my everything and managed all those things like rental cars. I read your words everyday and you help me start the day with “just me” thank you

    • Marjorie

      Oh, thank you so much for reading. It makes me feel so much less alone in this world that people are reading my words. Truly.

  • Shatnes

    If you look at the rental agreement, it may have the color of the car. I had a similar problem with a foreign car, as the sun was setting, I was unable to turn on the headlights. I finally drove into a gas station for help.

  • Jeff

    Funny, I have picked my Zip Cars based on whether I know how to work their gas latches, and I also possess the typically male aversion to stopping at gas stations and asking for help (despite having worked at one)!

  • Greg

    What a horrible time and place to revisit that feeling where you’re made aware that you’re basically missing a limb. Not to go all Hallmark cards on you but, take heart, your new independence is emerging in moments like those.
    That ever-evolving division of labor is such a wonderful part of a healthy relationship! Losing that, to me, seemed like what it must be like to lose a limb. I remember, in my dinners with divorcees phase, that I would listen to so many variations on the theme “he never did his fair share,” nodding my head because it was probably true, while at the same time feeling like I was conversing with someone on the far side of the abyss.
    My new wife tells me that I didn’t just grow more independent in all my lonely single years. I was going feral, to the point that I don’t NEED anything from her. It’s true. It’s been a real a struggle-maybe the biggest one- to settle in to a new role in a new relationship.
    Finally, don’t give up on Minnesota. Just stay away in February. Where I am, we had three and a half feet of snow that month. Even we snow lovers were pretty disgusted by March.

    • Marjorie

      Yes – I think I’ve become more independent for sure….mostly for good, but I can see how it might be hard to someday get used to another person’s help! And I won’t give up on Minnesota….I went there once in the summer and it was GLORIOUS!

  • Bets

    Loved seeing Nora’s profile come to life after we talked about it! Just as honest and fun to read as I’d anticipated. I’ve also shared her podcast now with quite a few friends based on your recommendation.

    Thanks for doing you! You’ve got an inner resilience made of iron, no matter what challenges come your way there’s never any doubt that eventually all will be well again!