Archive for April, 2002

Home Repair and Family History

April 26, 2002 Comments off

The metal storm door was sticking last week, and when I ignored it for a few days the lower panel popped out and dropped onto the ground. I took the whole door down and reassembled it and tightened it with corner brackets, but I figured I would have to trim the wooden door frame to keep it from sticking again later. This got me into uncharted territory. However, I drew courage from a dim memory of some upscale PBS home repair show, and pretty soon I was back from the hardware store with a wood chisel, ready to work.

I placed the chisel blade against the frame, and when I struck the handle with a hammer a slice of wood curled away beautifully from the blade, just like on TV. It was very satisfying, I have to say. But after a few more strokes of hammer on chisel I could see that my finished job wasn’t going to be pretty. If I tried very hard I could chisel sections that ended up somewhere between corrugated and rippled, but definitely not smooth or square. I had to admit that I was plainly a novice, chewing up the door frame with this fancy new tool.

I felt a little embarrassed, as if someone was watching me, and suddenly I knew who it was – my grandfather, my mother’s father, the carpenter and family patriarch who died a few years ago in his late eighties. I wished I could have called him on the phone and asked him to teach me how to use a wood chisel. He would have been glad to oblige. Not that he wouldn’t have made some comment when he saw the zigzags I carved in that once respectable piece of lumber. Oh, he would have had a word or two to say about that.

I remember helping him tie a tarp over a trailer once when I was a teenager. He quickly finished his side of the trailer and came over to lend me a hand, or maybe just to see what was taking so long. He had been a Boy Scout troop leader for decades, and many summers he spent more than a month taking various troops on week-long canoe trips down Ozark rivers. I had no doubt that he knew every knot in the Scout manual by heart. When he saw my sad, spaghetti-like entanglements, he shook his head. “You were never a scout, were you?” he recalled. He was disappointed for me, with maybe a hint of pity in his voice when he said, “You missed half your life.”

Why do I remember that moment more than thirty years later? I think it’s because I knew, even as a teenager, that he was a person who said what mattered to him and who knew how a job was supposed to be done, and he took the trouble to do things right. When he turned sixty-five his company was nearly a year away from finishing a 40 story building, so he asked permission to work past retirement age, even though it cost him some pension money. This was the biggest construction job of his life, I believe, and he wanted to finish it. He was proud of doing good work.

And that’s who I felt looking over my shoulder as I mangled the door frame the other day. I remember the last time I drove past the old house where he and my grandmother lived for most of their sixty-seven year marriage. The place was empty, and one window was boarded up. This was a shocking and tangible sign that they were gone, because neither of them would have let a day pass with a broken or boarded window on their property. They were never rich, but they knew better than to live like that.

It was natural, I guess, to think of them as I took care of my own old house. But I was surprised to discover that even a bit of home maintenance is so tied up with family history and carries its own psychic weight. And instead of taking my usual competencies for granted, here I am in middle age with a chance to be a beginner again, to recall the good example set by a family elder, and to be ready to learn.

A Michiana Chronicles essay by Ken Smith, aired April 26, 2002 on 88.1 WVPE. Archived original and other radio essays by K. S.