I always thought my dad was pretty handy.
When we built our house in South Carolina in 1986, he was there almost every day at some point during construction — it helped that his office at the church was right behind the house — and spent plenty of time with a hammer regularly helping out our motley crew of builders. He and Mom did everything they could themselves to save money, painting the house themselves, planting the yard themselves, and building the deck with some people from church and who knows what else. (A pattern we’re certainly imitating out of the same necessity.)
He had what I thought was a pretty awesome workshop in the garage when I was a kid in Thomson, Georgia, loaded with wood and cool tools and his trusty green toolbox, still sitting today on the workbench at mom’s house in Atlanta, filled with many of the same tools that five-year-old me would recognize.
My brother and I spent countless hours in there fighting over the use of the Dad-required safety goggles and grabbing the hammer and spare wood to build bicycle ramps or pinewood derby cars or whatever other contraptions we could think of. (His parents heard the safety goggles story and gave us safety goggles for Christmas one year. Hardly a hit with young boys hoping for toys but we’ve gotten far more mileage out of that story than we would have a new toy. Fast forward 25 years later and I asked for and got safety glasses for my birthday. Go figure.)
I can think of dozens of handyman projects that dad took on, and I always wondered exactly how he knew what to do. Especially in a day without the internet, which has been my saving grace in all of this work that we’ve been doing.
Mom told me that “he would have said that he wasn’t that handy, and by “handyman” standards, perhaps he wasn’t.” But that didn’t stop him from tackling projects with gusto and turning out pretty terrific results that impressed all of us. Our kitchen in Atlanta lacked a pantry when we moved there in 1990, so he took a bare wall next to the fridge and built a new double-doored, framed and drywalled pantry still standing today.
When my brother Carter wanted a skateboard ramp, Dad built him a halfpipe in the backyard for Christmas, one of 3 ramps in our subdivision and a draw for neighborhood kids that were still showing up to enjoy the fruits of his labor after he died just before Christmas in 1992.
Before I even got started on this project I thought about my dad, who would be 67 and retired or close to it at this point were he still alive, and how much he would’ve loved to drive up here with a station wagon (yup!) full of tools to help his youngest son work on the house for a week. I’d have someone experienced to teach me things I don’t know, and most helpfully, someone to bounce my ideas off of as I try to figure out what to do and how to do it. That seems to be the thing I need most often — someone to just run my crazy plans past to find out if I’m on the right track. And talk me down from things like “putting in 3 rooms of drywall myself,” like my father-in-law did two weeks ago.
Since the first week of November, I’ve been over at the house working pretty much every night after work until midnight or so. I usually have my ipod blaring, but sometimes I forget to bring it or sometimes the playlist ends and the house goes quiet and I’m left all alone with just my thoughts and the sound of my toolbelt rattling in a echoing empty house of hardwood floors.
In those quiet moments by myself working late in our half-finished house, I always end up thinking of Dad.
I think of how mysteriously handy he was and all the great little projects he accomplished through the years in all of our houses. I think of the pantry he built and the ramp that he built and the workshop that was always well-organized and maintained. I think of trips with him to Ace or Lowes or Home Depot as he gathered materials for another project.
I look up and wonder if I’m putting this insulation in right and I wonder if these studs should be 12 inches or 16 inches apart and I’m trying to remember if Dad also put holes in the top of the paint can rim to let the paint run back into the can. I have questions and grope in the dark for answers that are never going to come as directly as I’d like.
I think of how much he would have enjoyed to do just what Rachel’s family did two weeks ago and come up for a whole week and help me build shelves and frame out walls and mud drywall and paint rooms throughout the house. And how he’d come up without me asking and work without complaining and let me feel like I’m in charge and leading all the work. I imagine the phone call where he’d let me know he’s driving up and what it would be like for that week as we toil away together in the late hours on the house.
And then somehow in those quiet moments where I am completely alone in a city of 600,000 and weighed down to a standstill by my questions and memories, I feel like he’s right there by my side in the quiet rowhouse, helping me find my way as we turn our first house into a home. Questions and tears fade as a small smile curls across my face.
Thanks for the help, Dad.