I thought about writing this essay as I was trying to figure out some mechanical problem. At home, I happily tackle nearly every problem—plumbing, electrical, digital–despite not ever knowing what I am doing. This attitude distinguishes this part of my life from most of my other experiences where I don’t try my hand unless I am nearly an expert. I think I picked this up from academic training where you learn to deny your interest in anything but your own area. Friends ask my opinion about all sorts of things and I can always defer, “I am sorry to say that is really outside my area.” This doesn’t work when we are trying to figure where to go for dinner but it works in lots of other areas, especially with other academics.
In hacking the repair of a broken ceiling fan, I was thinking about all the wisdom and know-how that my father may have passed on if he lived past the age of 45. When he died, I was 14 years of age and he was right in the middle of teaching me to be a caring respectful and contributing adult. For me, his oldest daughter, he held high expectations for my character. He could have cared less about other things I could have achieved. I wonder if I would have held the same ideals in place for my own children.
Lesson #1 Fix things
So, my willingness to tackle these projects can be traced, I think, to playing around in our cellar where my father’s tools were randomly gathered. He never had any nicely arrayed selection of screwdrivers, saws and hammers. In fact, I don’t think we ever asked permission to use his tools, or take odd pieces of pipe and plywood. We were never asked to put things back where we found them as well and I am imagining that my father must have run over plenty of these tools when he was mowing the lawn. But certainly as I think about it, had he lived and had I asked, I am quite certain he would have taught me how to fix a washing machine agitator. He already taught me how to build a motor and to understand the armature and the magnetism of the electric current through the metal bars.
He has also taught us how to mount an old lawn mower motor on a chassis so we could make a go-cart. I remember playing with the spark plug. This was all great fun. I don’t remember my mother ever warning my father that we could hurt (Our first go-cart didn’t have brakes.) This all makes me think that I would have been miserable under this current regime of parenting.
We also build a miniature golf course, digging up holes in the lawn and adding sand traps and water features. We used saws and hammers and nail and string and whatever we could find. We would regularly send divots sailing through the air, borrowing my father’s clubs and ripping up the lawn, Once again; he seemed not to mind at all—the lawn or the golf clubs. It was as if we could do anything we wanted as long as we were busy and learning things and not just hanging around. He was at the heart of him, a hacker. Someone who would apply a temporary fix and be happy with it. So from him in observation and in instruction, I learned to work with my hands and to fix things that I could. Part of this, I am certain, were the requirements of being working class. Calling in a repairman to fix the toilet is out of the question. It compromises your manhood and working class resilience.
Lesson #2 Being a man
My father was a veteran of World War II. He was a lace weaver early in this working life. I recently learned from the Census data that his birth year was estimated to be 1919. We thought it was 1917 or 1918 and his birthdate the 17th or 18th of August. It seems odd to me that much of this is unconfirmed. As a man who married late (30 years or so) maybe because of the war, maybe because he didn’t want to settle down, he was a father quickly About eleven months after they married I was born, a baby girl, when maybe a boy would have been more welcome, although I never felt like that. I think in his expectations for his children, my father couldn’t tell his sons from his daughters. We could all play baseball and drive the go-cart. He could all be good in school. We could all be crazy and silly.
My father taught me how to be a man. I considered that he was out in the world, doing things and fixing things and helping people and making money and I wanted that. I had no interest in cooking and sewing and being in the house when all the action was outside. He was to me what people in the fifties would call a “stand-up” guy, the sort of man who did the right thing, who honored his obligations and kept his word. I wanted that, too. I didn’t want to be liked in school but I did want to do the right thing. From an immigrant family with a tradition of working the fields, he distrusted money made in other ways. He urged me to save my money to buy a house as quickly as I could and to avoid the rigged rich man’s game—the stock market. He was constantly busy. I never recall him sitting with a book, except when we were on his lap and he was reading a story. As a man, he was different from any of the men on our block. He obviously loved children, loved their play, and admired their imagination. That went for all kids. While it may have been a manly thing to assign all of this to older siblings or to the women, my father dove right it. What kind of man did that? When I think about his tools, his golf clubs, his ceremonial sword from the Philippines, a cellar full of the body of washing machines, tubes of mercury and vials of oils and grease—all were available to us. In retrospect, I think, my gosh what a generous adult. What an embrace of our creativity and curiosity. What sort of dangers did he leave for us to discover? Did we need more protection?
Lesson #3 Being a stand-up guy
And, he was the rare individual who could find a lonely person in a crowd and seek them out for company. Even though, he could be the life of the party and the center of attention—which he never sought. In this part of this personality, he was everything I wanted to be. A few months before he died, we went to the 9th grade father-daughter dance and he made a point of dancing with all the girls whose fathers were sitting things out. I asked him about this and he told me—in a moment that I still see in my mind’s eye, that like him, I could spot loneliness and sadness and when I did (and because I could) I was obligated to do something to ease that pain. I don’t know how his friends regarded him but I know he was a good man, always willing to lend a hand. I see much of him in my brother and his generosity and in this kindness to his children and to people in general. I remember as well how many times aunts and uncles would tell how much I would miss him and how much he loved us. Maybe, that is what one says to children whose father has passed away suddenly. I read it, however, as a sincere concern because he made it clear how much we loved us.
Lesson #4 The excitement of the tiny
I cannot look back and take an honest look at our income and expenses. I really don’t know how much my parents struggled over money. I know that my mother would have imposed a budget on my father’s spending and drinking if she could have. We lived in a house that they owned but it constantly needed repair. That wore on her; he was more relaxed about that and everything else. I share his tendency to put off addressing issues until I have to and her anxiety about things precipitously falling apart. He dreamed of living on a farm and for a while he had rabbits. I think he had other dreams for us as well. My mother, I think, dreamed of not having so much to attend to and not carrying so much of the burden of feeling not up to any of the tasks that presented themselves. Whenever we asked her what she wanted for Mother’s Day or Christmas, she always said, “Peace and quiet,” which we could never give her.
But the dreams of a farm, the possibility of a great vacation, like trips for ice cream—everything was more fun when my father was around. We would bring us snacks when he came home from the bar he used to frequent. He would be inordinately excited about this. He would buy the latest toy and happily try it out with us. I am doing my best to remember that lesson. With aging and aging friends and anticipating the next few decades, I find my mind more occupied by my mother’s perspectives than my fathers—more about loss and anxiety and less about fun and possibilities and living for today.
Lessons #5 Lessons about lessons
One could note that all of these lessons may be seen through rose-colored glasses. Maybe, I would have fought with him. Maybe, he would have placed obstacles in the path of college or VISTA or graduate school. Maybe, my coming out in my thirties would have been delayed until he passed away. None of this is knowable, of course. So, I do my best to piece this all together with remnants of memories, like any storyteller, fashioning one plot or the other. It seems that we would all be better off if parents would write letters to their children to answer questions that the children won’t raise until after they are dead. This wouldn’t have to be long detailed accountings of their lives but they would set forth the big questions and the big answers. To know so little about our parents and their parents is to showcase the unfortunate and existential fact of generational developments. We can hardly make sense of the present and can scarcely understand the generation that follows us, even though we were just so recently in their shoes—in the midst of building a career, carving out an identity, obsessed with raising children.
So these lessons that I am taking from my father are my own markings of his legacy. I am quite that there is plenty left on the cutting room floor and even more that I have so incorporated into my core identity that I can tell his influence apart from my own thoughts.