Growing up, my dad never sat still. Or if he did, it was only because he needed to be sitting down so he could finish sketching out the dimensions of his latest obsession. When we were building our house in Semmes, even before the house foundation was started, he’d built a shed for his tools. Later, that shed would become more of a storage unit than a shop, but I believe he would have spent more hours there than in the house if he knew he wouldn’t catch hell for ignoring the family.
When my dad got sick back in 2018, we all put on a brave face and told ourselves that he could get better. He had a great bunch of doctors and nurses and for a man in his early 80s, he was amazingly spry and active. But, deep down, I think we all knew the odds were against him.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become more like him. Despite my being adopted, his “always stay busy” attitude, coupled with an innate need to create, are alive and well in me. If nothing else, of that I think he’d be proud. And I too have my own shop-slash-storage unit, but unlike his, mine is in the basement of my house and habitable throughout the year, impervious as it is to the heat of summer and the frigidity of the winter months. There are also a lot fewer cockroaches, which is nice.
Forty years later, I can tell you almost exactly how many steps it was from the door of my dad’s shed to his toolbox; I made the trip enough times. I can also tell you which drawer of my dad’s old toolbox he kept the screwdrivers in. It was the first drawer. Beneath that, his pliers. Beneath that, his electrical tools, such as his meters and soldering iron. I know because I organized my own toolbox the same way. If it works, and you remember what’s where because you had to “go fetch” tools from it a thousand times while working with your dad, why change it? Most of the memories I have of my dad involve some kind of work–either us working together, or me doing something he’d tasked me with. So, to say that I have a more than passing interest in preserving those memories, is a fair statement.
As dad got sicker–and my relationship with his girlfriend followed suit–I realized that unless I took preemptive action, when he passed, I wasn’t going to get any of these things. I even told him once that I would be surprised if she even let me in the house after he was gone, to which he agreed. Most of his “things” I couldn’t have cared less about; but, his tools were something else entirely. I grew up using those tools. I watched my father build our house and two dog houses with them. I can still remember trying to anticipate where he needed the flashlight or which screwdriver or pair of plyers he’d need next. I can still remember how dark it got on us the night he helped me rig up my car stereo amp (that was the days before they had prebuilt harnesses). And I can still feel the smooth surety of the hickory handle of that old ax I swung a million times while clearing out the back-five acres behind the house (btw – If you haven’t read that story, here you go). I have a million memories of those times working with him and I couldn’t stand the thought of losing it all to his girlfriend’s early-onset dementia and her paranoid belief that I was trying to take my father away from her.
And to be fair, my father had told me that he wanted me to come up and take some things back home. I think he too realized the truth about his partner, but was just too sick to care to do anything about it. So one Saturday morning, I drove up to his home in Mills River, NC and we went through some of his old tools. I didn’t take much really, just some odds and ends hand tools and some fishing poles. In truth, I left 10x as much as I took home with me. He’d become a bit of a packrat in his old age; finally able to afford the tools he’d longed for in his youth. And so, of a weekend, he would visit garage sales and pick up random tools, even if he had two or three of the same thing at home already.
I think we both understood the finality of my coming up to go through his tools. Up to that point, I would never have even broached the idea of him sharing some of his handyman largess with me. It would have been like asking to drive another man’s motorcycle–you just don’t do it. But as he so bluntly put it that warm Saturday morning, “I can’t keep up this place like I used to. I don’t have any need for most of this stuff now. I want you to have it.”
I made the trip in one day. I refused to stay in the house with his partner and, while her northern upbringing wouldn’t allow her to say it out loud, it was clear I wasn’t welcome anyway. He would pass about two and a half months later. It was a messy death–misunderstood and incomprehensible–like much of his life was to those around him.
His tools now reside in my own matching red and black Craftsman toolbox. His old claw hammer with the dark brown wooden handle, made nigh impermeable from decades of sweat and heat, now hangs from a nail inside my shop over the door. It watches over me with a critical eye, a reminder of a legacy of an insatiable desire to tear down and build anew, and a need to create from nothing. Every time I see it I’m reminded of how short my own accomplishments have fallen compared to his.
At 48, I still have a lot of good years ahead of me; though maybe not as many as I like to think. My manual labor Saturdays end earlier and my joints ache more every year. All of these tools and memories I have will one day be someone else’s to make decisions about. And as it stands now, none of my own kids seem headed in my “handy” direction, so it will probably be the Estate Sale for most of my stuff; a headache for my wife and children. They will disperse it to someone else, never understanding how much I loved the ache and bone-tiredness resulting from many a Saturday and weeknight’s work.
All of this busy-ness is fleeting. Those projects I skipped soccer matches to finish, which seemed so important then, will be nothing more than part of an aggregate dollar amount on a real-estate sales contract when I’m gone–if I’m lucky I’ll be gone.
But the work made my dad happy, and when I’m busily working on a project, particularly one that will improve our house or the yard, I’m at my happiest. Maybe that’s all any of us can really ask for once we’ve had children of our own and our reason for existence changes from satisfying self, to providing for others. In many ways, my little projects offer a bit of both.
Towards the end, my dad expressed regrets. Regrets about the way he raised me, the things he said and did, or didn’t. He never talked specifics, but I always figured he knew how hard on me he was. There was only ever one way to do something–his way. There was no “down time” and had it not been for my step-mom, there would have never been anything but school and work, which was how he was raised, as was his father before him.
I’ve probably gone the opposite direction with my own kids and I wonder if it’s too late now to course-correct. Only time will tell, I suppose. But, if any of them find their inner handy-person calling late in life, I hope my tools–and memories–are still here for them.