I come from a long male lineage of ‘Do It Yourselfer’s’. The men in my family were (and are) apt to spend an entire day, risk major blood loss, and use words that would make a mechanic blush trying to do something rather than make a phone call and pay the skilled professional for 30 minutes of his time. Learning these time honored traditions of rotary sawing, pipe tightening, and rewiring has become a rite of passage for us. Instead of being handed a spear and being told to go kill a lion, you got handed a socket wrench and were told to take the head off of the flat head V6 in the garage that hadn’t run since Carter was in office.
As a kid, I stood in silent awe of my father’s aptitude for being able to fix things. The man didn’t know how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich without my mom’s help but if the washing machine needed a new belt for the motor, he could have it torn apart in a matter of minutes. If our car needed a new carburetor, if the downspout was down, if there were a leak needing to be contained, my Dad was your man.
I found out he learned much of his domestic mechanical engineering prowess from my grandfather. My grandfather was a mechanic by trade but moonlighted on Saturday and Sunday afternoons as a general contractor for his family. My Dad would stand behind my grandfather, staring over his shoulder, watching and learning how the red wire meant the wire you didn’t want to touch (why they didn’t turn the electric off first I have no idea). It was apparent that all of these lessons my Dad learned from my grandfather were best taught by my Dad looking over my grandfather’s shoulder.
By the time I was old enough to hand him an adjustable wrench or wire cutters, my Dad had long mastered just enough to be quite handy and be able to avoid electrocuting himself, though there were times when he told me to hold on to a piece of wood just in case I had to “disconnect” him from the ceiling fan and 400 watts of electricity.
“Dad, why am I holding this 2×4?”
“Because wood doesn’t conduct electricity, so swing hard.” Sounded logical to my 10 year old ears so I choked up on the 2×4 and got ready to swing.
While he was alive, my Dad taught me a lot of things even though he wasn’t much for poignant phrases, motivational quotes, or quiet times of reflection. He was more of a walk it off, you aren’t working if you aren’t bleeding, where’s my duct tape sort of Dad. He was also the most patient and most open to having his kids next to him as he soldered a copper pipe or tried to fix a squeak in the stairs. He was the first to hug you and the first tell you to use electrical tape to wrap up a cut. So instead of listening to my Dad wax rhapsodic about the meaning over a cup of Earl Grey tea, I learned lessons from my Dad standing over his shoulder like he learned from my grandfather. Occasionally I handed him his tools or got summoned in to hold something down or tear off a piece of tape or tighten a screw. It was all very Mr. Myagi/Daniel LaRusso except instead of learning waxing on and off we were learning lefty-loosey/rightey-tightey.
They were lessons I took with me when I bought a house and my toilet leaked for the first time. When the light switch wouldn’t work, a fuse blew, or I needed to use the rotary saw. Like my Dad, I have grown handy enough to sidestep calling a tradesman who I’ll pay time and a half (because everything breaks on a Sunday) for every little thing and been able to avoid electrocuting myself. I am still taking on projects, whether I wanted to do them or not but it has been a long time since I looked over my Dad’s shoulder.
Even though I miss being able to do just that, today, as I am in the middle of figuring out where to ground the motor to the dryer or trying to keep the range microwave level as I screw it in to what I hope is a stud in my wall, I have helpers passing me a screwdriver. My daughters watch me with the same sort of fascination in their eyes as I had at their ages.
As they stand next to me, I can see their look of hope that I’ll ask one of them to tighten a screw or grab me a tool from my toolbox. I can see myself in my daughters’ eyes and I realize it’s my time now. It is my time to take what my Dad gave to me and what my grandfather gave to him and pass it along to my kids. And just like my Dad and grandfather, I’m going to do it the way I was taught and the best way I can think of, making sure they know how to swing a 2×4 and by letting them look over my shoulder.