John’s a talker and can tell a story that keeps you laughing, but on this day I could see how tired he was when I went to drop off my daughter. It was only 10 in the morning and already he looked worn, well-worked leather gloves on, work boots a constant on his feet, his shirt sticking to his back from the South Florida heat. A stack of bricks shoulder high to create a winding walkway had appeared in front since the last time I was at the house dropping off my 11-year-old daughter to her best friend’s house. A set designer by profession he had completely gutted and was remodeling a house. Pine floors were recycled, the nails removed one by one, the boards sanded, refinished, and installed. Tile laid with care. Handmade kitchen cabinets waited to go in.
I looked at the bricks and looked at him.
“Make them help you,” I said. He looked at me and laughed.
I turned to my daughter and her best friend and said, “You can’t stay unless you agree to help John, both of you.”
John said, “It’s o.k. It’s not their job.”
“It’s not o.k. They need to help you. Some of my best memories of my dad were of me helping him.”
Although John and I had known each other going on five or six years and had had many a conversation about politics, the school system, how to get his toddler to sleep better, how to parent a teen . But somehow the fact that my dad died when I was 18 had never been mentioned. John said that suddenly I made a lot more sense. The psychologist in me wanted to ask more but the girls were off running around and I was on my way to pick up my blue haired teen.
Like John, my father could build and fix anything. He and my mother grew up during the Great Depression. They married the day after high school and were the first in their families to go to college. Soon after they earned their graduate degrees, they moved to central Africa to live as missionaries for a decade. I only have vague memories of that era since I was born at the end of it, but I do know they had to be the handyman, the cook, the teachers, and the engineers. They had to do everything themselves.
They returned to the states when I was still in pre-school, the youngest of four children. Some of my best memories were of my dad making me help him. I would whine and protest sometimes, but he would always stay positive. “E’beth,” he would say. “Let’s get going on this project! You have to help!” A minister by calling and profession, when he wasn’t at the church or visiting someone in the hospital, he was working around the house. He would often make me tag along and help.
My dad put up with increasing pouting and eye rolls as I became a teenager, letting me take longer than necessary to get him a drink of water inside or find the tool that he needed, staying positive the whole time. As a child and teen, I didn’t realize that he was teaching me a work ethic. He never left a project unfinished, sitting for weeks, waiting forlornly to be completed. If it was started, it was completed in a timely manner.
He built corner shelves in my room, made dog houses with electricity, and built connecting shelves of a deep redwood color of all different sizes and shapes in the living room for all of the African curios he and my mother collected over the years. He completely re-did a rental house, dragging us kids along to help, that eventually my older sister would live in with her daughter when her husband disappeared.
The first time that I had to repair something after his death I had to replace some mini-blinds. A project that can frustrate anyone, I sat in my bathroom crying that my dad wasn’t there to do it, for me to help him do it. I had to do it alone. Eventually my senior year in high school passed and then college and by the time I went to graduate school in a different state I had my own toolbox that went with me wherever I moved.
Eventually I married an engineer who could also fix anything, who also remodeled a kitchen and laid bamboo floors. But he would always shoo me away, not understanding that I loved to help. “Go take care of the baby,” he would say as the projects often sat unfinished for months that sometimes turned into years. If I dared to take them over, I would often be met with anger.
As a single mom for almost a decade now, I ask my kids for help. I have to sometimes, but I also want to.
“Get me the Philips head screwdriver. No, that’s a flat head. See? It’s flat. Go back and get the right one. Now you screw it in. Doesn’t that feel good?” when tightening up the front door lock plate.
“Come help me hold this up! I need both of you! We can do this!” when installing the hood over the stove.
“Turn on the circuit breaker but NOT until I say so,” when replacing a plug.
In an age where kids live in their heads and on their screens, I want my kids to know the value of doing, of making, of feeling like they accomplished something tangible that they can point at and ay, “I did that,” even if it’s just small ways to help us live easier. They may or may not be creating memories, but whenever I make them help me I know that, like my dad, I’m creating values of work, togetherness, and helping each other.
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