My father’s father was a handyman. So was Dad. I’m fairly handy myself, and I have a son who is handier than all of us. Nature or nurture? Who knows? Maybe a bit of both. But surely not any longer an exclusively male preserve. My oldest daughter recently remodeled her kitchen. She taught me how to use a sledge-activated nail gun to lay a hardwood floor. What is the difference between a craftsperson and a handyman? The craftsperson does it for a living. The handyman does it for a life.
I wouldn’t say that what my father was doing on his deathbed was a barrel of monkeys, but he was clearly enjoying what he was doing. His engineering-style drawings have a kind of whimsy about them, a spontaneous parody that would make Thomas Ewing French and Rube Goldberg smile. Surely, one of the infelicities of our age is that we take our machines too seriously. We let them squash our sense of fun, turn us into mere appurtenances of their own inscrutable workings. I couldn’t repress a smile when I saw my daughter wrestling that massive nail gun into position, whacking it with the hammer, grinning like a demented fool. Handygals have fun.
When I was about twelve years old, my father gave me a hand-held electric jigsaw for my birthday. It was a clever tool. You held it like a pistol. The blade was like the straight side of a stretched-out letter D. A little 110-volt electromagnet pulled the blade down and the springlike upper side of the D pulled it up. Bzzzzzzzz. My first power tool. I made a few little toys out of bits of balsa, but for all of its cleverness the jigsaw was not very useful. It labored through anything thicker than an eighth of an inch. The flimsy blades kept breaking. I’ll give this to Dad. He picked up pretty quick on the unsatisfactory nature of the tool. On my next birthday I was rewarded with a proper jigsaw, a real tabletop power tool, driven with a powerful one-quarter horsepower motor, the same motor that with a flip of a belt drove his drill press. Together, we had entered the age of the power shop.
In all of this he was a distant angel, keenly interested in my jigsaw projects, but unlikely to reveal much of what was going on in his own life. Not much happened to us kids that he didn’t proudly record on film, but a surprising number of his own professional accomplishments were unknown to me until I read his curriculum vitae after his death. He never stopped tooting our horns, but he was reluctant to toot his own.
My biggest jigsaw project was a chess set, thirty-two pieces enameled black and white, hollowed out and weighted with solder, the bottoms then covered with green felt. To display this grand production I made a coffee table with a tiled chessboard built into the top. It was the first thing I had made without hints or help from Dad, and I was inordinately proud. Too proud, in fact, for my Catholic guilt. I was then in the throes of a bout of religious fervor. We are called—so I believed—to keep our eye on the prize, and the prize is not in this world but the next. Kneeling in the darkened nave of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church I resolved to chasten my pride by destroying one of the chess pieces, the white king. I laid the poor fellow on the cement basement floor. I raised the hammer. Then, in a change of heart, I substituted a more easily replaceable pawn for the king. Smash! As you can see, I was neither a very good sinner nor a very good penitent.
The pawn was quickly replaced, the Deadly Sin forgotten. The coffee table and chess set ended up gracing my first apartment as a married graduate student. It’s long gone now, I don’t know where, but it lasted longer than my Catholic scrupulosity. That cringe of guilt was not something I picked up at home. Dad took pride in my handyman projects, and hoped I would take pride in them too. Pride is an essential ingredient of the handyman’s craft. Somewhere among his many reels of 8 mm home movies there’s a sequence of me crouching by my chess-setted coffee table grinning with practiced self-satisfaction. Pride is the motive and the polish of the handyman.
He loved us. His love was vouched by his pride in our accomplishments. How did I show my love for him? By trying to live up to his expectations, by being as handy as he was and his father before him. Love is in the genes, of course, a biological imperative to cherish one’s offspring and revere one’s parents. Like the handyman talent, love is funded by nature and nurture. It was there in those backyard swings and seesaws my handyman grandfather made for his kids in Mount Pleasant, Tennessee, and in the Buster Brown suits and frilly dresses stitched up by my grandmother. Dad was nurturing love when he stood waiting with his Cine-Kodak at the bottom of Ninth Street hill as my soapbox racer with the unaerodynamic axles sped towards the finish line. I know now that the jigsaws were tokens of his love. A handyman takes pride in his work, and if the design of a soapbox racer or a repaired toaster can be a token of love so much the better.
Remember the model Spanish galleon my father built just before his marriage, the one my mother relegated to the basement? There was another sailing ship, a tiny one, that he made for my mother while they were courting. Its hull was a walnut half-shell, bowsprit and all, to which he had glued a cardboard deck. Above he fashioned three-masted rigging with billowing paper sails. For as long as I can remember, that little ship resided in a corner of the china cabinet in the dining room. In a funny way, it was as inspirational to me as the infinitely more accomplished Spanish galleon. One evening at dinner, when I was about eight or nine, for a reason I cannot recall, my father took the little walnut ship out of the china cabinet, pried off the cardboard deck with a dinner knife, and there written on the underside in his neat engineer’s hand was the message “I love you,” hidden all those years. The message struck me as terribly romantic, but I have a recollection of something unsettling in the air at table that evening, an ironic tilt to the atmosphere. I was too young to pick up on the subtler complexities of matrimony, but wise enough to have remembered the token of romance and forgotten the cause of those flickering sparks of discontent.
At the end, in his hospital journals, he seems a little baffled that she is still there, at his side in the hospital room, attending his whims, after thirty-eight years of sometimes uneasy marriage. He also seems a bit surprised by his own happiness when she is in the room. He writes: Mom (God bless her) got dressed and went after an ice cream for me! So glad she is going to stay with me tonight. It is not the afterlife that looms large in those last pages of his deathbed journals, but this life—this infinitely mysterious life with its ineluctable entanglements of love, parents, spouse, children, grandchildren, this life that was ebbing away. He wanted desperately to fix it, to repair whatever was broken, to mend all of the frayed bonds of love. He thought the journals contained something valuable, something that should be shared. And perhaps they did. What was it he always used to say, the mantra of the handyman? With a little ingenuity, anything is possible.
(THE END. Many thanks to Anne for her lovely illuminations. They are an affectionate record of Dad’s final days. And thanks to Tom for photographic illustrations. Without Tom this website would not exist. To all of you who stayed aboard for Mr. Fix-it, your presence of on the porch has been warmly welcomed and we are grateful for it. Stay tuned.)