I spent much of Father's Day rooting around in the grey metal toolbox my father put together for me when I left home for grad school a decade ago. Project Exodus continues apace, and because I'm moving my things into a place where my flaming-sworded friend will live with them part-time next year, I find myself eager to do nice things at each turn in my process of relocation. And so it was that I packed up my screwdrivers and my measuring tape and my heavy-duty industrial stapler and my spirit level this afternoon and headed off to be handy.
Walking the aisles of my local Lowe's, in search of all manner of small things I needed in order to undertake my day's projects, I mused on the fact that I've learned much of what I know that's really worth knowing from my father. For instance: my father has taught me the importance of Ziploc bags. When he was working in Japan for long periods of time several years ago, he discovered the vast array of sizes in which he could get resealable bags. It revolutionized his way of packing and organizing. He will, I hope, be happy to know that when I took down all of my curtains and curtain rods last night, I put each room's curtain rod hardware in a separate Ziploc bag containing a label so that I'll know what goes where if I ever need to put these rods up again. I haven't embraced the science of bagging quite to the degree he has, but that's partly because...
My father also taught me not to embrace others' answers and solutions automatically. From him I learned the art of inquisitive modification, of studying systems and processes and mining them for their most useful components. When I was very young--maybe ten--my mother said to me one afternoon, "Your mind works the way your father's mind works. He can see the big picture and the very small details at the same time and can go back and forth between them to figure out how to get the details to make the big picture he wants." For a long time, I didn't believe her. I knew she was right about my father, but I wasn't sure she was right about my being like him in that regard. But, unsurprisingly, I now do believe that she was right after all. I spend almost all of my time with big pictures and their tiny details. The fact that I question every little thing that comes my way--well, my father teases me about it, warns me not to overanalyze everything, but he helped wire up this brain.
No doubt because my father is an engineer and a quality control specialist, I learned from him very early on the necessity of getting things right in their smallest details. I learned about the kind of integrity that pushes back against shortcomings and deficiencies even to the point of exhaustion. I learned how to get on a task and pursue it with utter absorption. I also learned about distinguishing tasks that deserve this kind of devotion from tasks that simply don't.
When I moved to Ithaca, my landlord tried to tell me that I wasn't allowed to move furniture into my apartment. Because my parents were, at that moment, stuck in traffic south of town in a Ryder truck containing most of my worldly goods--and because I knew there was no way I'd have signed a lease with that kind of provision in it--I teared up, fast, in frustration and exhaustion. Within about three minutes, we'd resolved that my landlord (actually, my landlady's husband, a crucial distinction) was wrong. But then he tried to tell me that I couldn't bring a toolbox into the house. Here, too, I stood my ground, without tears.
When I moved to Ithaca, I didn't know how to use many of the tools in that box. Screwdrivers and the hammer, sure. And the tape measure, check. The level, check. The others, I started using pretty soon, though: the little saw (for some project I don't recall), the wire stripper (for a misstep in the process of putting a new electrical plug on an old lamp--that was also how I found out about how my apartment was wired, since I blew out the fuse for my whole side of the building). The drill: that one I didn't mess with until I moved back to Gambier and needed to hang curtain rods. I'd never really used a drill. Within minutes I was so glad to have dared it.
And that's the thing about my father: he has been utterly, unflaggingly determined to help me be daring, always. When I was about five, he brought home from work a couple of pairs of aviator goggles. In my memory, we wore those for days while I sat with him in his big rust-colored leather chair and we watched television and played Space Invaders. My mother took a picture of the two of us in these goggles, and what I see when I look at the picture is a man the same age that I am now, suiting his daughter up for her future (a future in which she will learn to use a drill and he will promptly buy her a new one, believing that she should have the best of everything).
And we're also looking mighty weird. I have always had the funniest, most bizarre father of anyone I know. It's an offshoot, I think, of the creative genius he brings to his professional work: my father is one of the people who designs and builds the machines that make the parts that make your cars work. His brain invents and inquires and draws unexpected connections for a living. It's not so surprising that it does so in his private life, as well.
When I was four or five--before the aviator goggles, I think, though I can't be sure--McDonald's put happy meals in plastic spaceships for a little while. I don't remember what the promotion was. I do remember that I got dinner in a bright blue flying saucer one night. When I got up the next morning, I found that my father had rigged up my spaceship for flight. That was when I learned about things one can do with washers and magnets and a bit of brown cord. I flew my saucer all around the room for hours. In 2001, he designed and built an adult-sized Sit 'n Spin for me for Christmas. It produces another kind of flying around the room, one even more necessary now than it was when I was a child.
Most importantly, my father (with my mother) taught me what it's like to know a person I never have to doubt. My father isn't perfect, and I don't always agree with him. But his love for me and for my brother and for my mother is so full and true that it is beyond question. And--in keeping with the fact that he taught me years ago that people are what matters in life, period--he has always let me know that that love is there, steady and inviolable. It's even there in every drop of fluid in my spirit level and every tooth of my hacksaw. My father taught me what it means to love, plain and simple. And so now I'm trying to give back--not because he's outstanding, generous and fair and kind to those who need him, but because he is himself.
I love you, Papa. I don't know how I got this lucky.