I was going to write a list of memories I have of my father. Today is his birthday, and I was going to put together a list of one memory for every year he’s been alive. Besides being a fairly daunting task, which is a polite way of saying that he’s old, I realized that one line quotes or off-beat excerpts of thought just didn’t do what I wanted. That, of course, says nothing of the fact that you can’t distill a man like my dad down into fifty-six short thoughts. His spirit is too big for that.
Maybe I’m a little guilty of hero worship. To me, my dad is a legendary figure of mythological proportions. I think that’s the way it should be. I hope that if I am ever a father, my kids can look at me as a legend as I do magical dad things, like unplug toilets and hang drywall.
Who am I kidding? I will never again hang drywall if I can avoid it… but I know how, because my dad taught me.
That’s the memory I’ll share today, because it is one of those life lessons that seems to exemplify my dad.
I can’t remember how old I was, but I think it had to have been when I was in fifth or sixth grade, maybe a little earlier, but I don’t think so. We had moved to Belton when I was in forth grade, so it had to be after that. It was definitely before I started High School. Quite a few memories in my head have all blurred and bundled together in the way that they do. I couldn’t even tell you if the project took us a couple of weeks or several months. It might have even taken us a year or more. I just remember that in my head, it was Dad and I, working side-by-side.
When we moved to Belton, the basement of the house was “unfinished.” This is a pretty misleading term. It doesn’t mean that the floor is made of mud or anything like that, it just means that the basement is a basement instead of a rec-room or bedrooms. The floor is concrete. The walls are concrete. The ceiling is open joists with wires and pipes visible. In short, an unfinished basement is exactly what you should visualize when you think of the inside of my mind.
For some reason, likely that it was a 3 bedroom house with six people living in it, my parents decided that the basement needed to be finished. I’m not sure what really made them decide that, but to me it meant that I’d probably get my own room. I’d shared a room with my little brother for as long as I could remember and didn’t actually have my own room until my older brother went off to college. I don’t want to get too heavily into details, but Zach once clocked me over the head with a baseball bat for shutting out the lights before he was ready, so getting my own room seemed like a pretty big deal.
I’m sure that other people in my family helped with the work, but I don’t remember any of them. I do remember my dad and I working in the basement, what seems like every night and every weekend. He taught me how to measure wood and use a drill. I remember it being dusty and chalky in the air most of the time. I always liked that smell. I probably should have gone into the sheetrock industry instead of pretending to be a writer… if it wasn’t for how much work actually goes into the whole thing.
I remember watching my father as he rand wiring for light fixtures and thinking to myself that he had to be a god damned magical genius to know how electricity worked like that. Sure, I had an understand of the physics of electricity, but this was engineering. Despite what any pretentious bastard with letters after his name might tell you, there is a whole world of difference between knowing the science of something and knowing how to use it. I’m still not entirely sure I could wire a new light into a circuit box, but my dad made it look easy.
Most of my precious memories of my Dad involve conversations and arguments. We’re talkers, he and I. You’d think I’d be better with dialogue from as much time as we’ve spent blathering at each other. This memory has no real words too it, though. The entire experience is cased in this warm fog of action. It’s wrapped in a need, a function. I’m not even sure if we did talk back then. Well, I am sure. We talk. It’s what we do. I can’t remember us actually talking about anything, though. I remember us working. I remember screwing together boards, and holding things in place. I remember the bitch of putting drywall on the ceiling. I remember ducking out about the time it came to puttying and painting to go and do boy things.
Thanks, Mom, for taking that duty!
I remember bottles of Diet Pepsi, the big bottles, mind you, sitting and sweating. The dust sticking to them as we worked. My dad loves Diet Pepsi. I remember being proud to have been part of building that room, even if the door had to be moved because we hadn’t left enough room for the dryer to go through it, or that the entire thing bowed in the middle.
When I eventually lived in the room we built, years later, I remember being extremely proud that I had been part of building it. I was prouder still that my dad could build things so well that he could show me how to build them.
Sadly, I haven’t successfully built anything ever since.
There are times, though, when I find myself needing to fix a hole in a wall, or attach the strike plate on a door that I suddenly remember that I have the skill to do that. Some deep, shadowed corner of my mind knows how to use a drill and tie off an extension cord. I know how to measure and balance and grout. The actually memory of learning those things is gone to me, probably forever, but my hands still know those skills and a dozen others.
That’s because I spent some time in the basement with my father.
Learning by osmosis.
And that, is what fathers are for.
Happy Birthday, Dad.