Thursday, April 3, 2014

A Torque Wrench Named Excaliber - Tools for Life

In his garage is a big fishing net; one that once held a mighty steel head, now laying like a spent spiders web.  In the corner, a gallon jug, full only of dust, on which is a homemade label that says "Geritol", a gag gift when one of my parents turned 50,  I was in grade school, their adopting me late in life, but I recall, a big glass jug full of some pink liquid and my Mom holding it up and laughing, the sound of her voice like drops of rain.

Around his shop, I sweep up for him, seeing so many little bits of my childhood here, the leveler, the paint chipped away, as if it had been in some sort of fender bender with the awl.  Big Bro digs in one cabinet and finds a cane from my tap dancing days to show to Partner, both them now able to tease me, the top hat hopefully mercifully in hiding. Underneath the work bench, is a small can of pink paint, the color of salmon, that makes up the rainbow on my wall, the paint long dried up, the can a vacuum of the sharp smell of  childhood dreams.

As we left my Dad's a couple of weeks ago, I did some general straightening up in his garage/shop, Partner busting into laughter when he saw an old can of aerosol "BS Repellent", there on the shop desk.
What tools and machines lie in a garage speak a lot about the person that lives there, as well as their skills.  In my childhood home, if something electrical went south, it was usually Mom who fixed it.  It was the same for plumbing.  It started when Mom was annoyed that the cold and hot water faucets in the wall for the Maytag in the laundry room weren't seated well and would drip water down the paint, leaving a small puddle on the floor.  Dad was enlisted to fix it.  He did so by making  little troughs out of foil in which the water ran away from the faucet and dripped into a bucket.  Not on the floor. When the bucket was brimming, the water would be poured out, thereby re-setting the system. Red Green would have been proud. Mom, not so much.

But Dad could make anything out of wood.  The fences around our home, the storage shed, cabinets and shelves, even a perfectly proportioned A-frame play house for me in the backyard. Later, there was a deck, which covered an area as big as two rooms, built when he was in his late 70's. It rose up around him, as if a challenge to his age, strong as he still was, able to support the weight of the remainder of his life. He didn't use instructions, like anything else he made, he designed it on paper and made it himself, everything  perfectly tight, smooth and proportioned, with a variety of wood to fit both form and function.  His shop reflected those skills.
In most neighborhoods, the subdivisions anyway, walk down the road and you will see dozens of two and three car garages, most filled with junk and possessions, to the point there is no room for a car, even one car.  There are few work benches to be seen. Instead there are "things", those factory made affirmations of deceptive immortality, that one soon becomes bored with or break.  If something breaks one doesn't search for a tool, one searches for a mall to go buy another one.

To many people, including a a number of women I've met,  that garage shop is simply something to be tucked away, a noisy, sometimes dirty place to which one can close the door to. To me it's the houses most expressive feature, the tools of which measure the depth of its owners true nature, the things crafted there, the design by which one perceives their life.
For some it's a way to be self sufficient, to learn to build and repair, and restore, skills that can demand top dollar, for which a budget may not allow.  Such repairs are often done with tools purchased for the job, with books or a computer from which to learn the skill.  The joy is not in the task itself, but simply the affirmation that one can provide for the home, the family, with the work of their own hands.

For others, it's more than that.  Walk into such garages, such shops, and it's a bit like an archaeological dig.  When you walk in, you don't go back hours, you can go back  generations  On the wall, a calender from a year that is long gone, the pictures of trains on it, the only reason it remains. On the floor, wood shavings and the occasional bit of metal, usually found when one makes that first and only mistake of venturing out there in stocking feet.
On the wall there are tools, so many tools, that press upon your brain like whispered words, telling you their stories,  of old pasts and new eternities, of what they have done, what they can do. Some people pick up such a tool, and it's the same feeling they get when they pick up a firearm.  Uncomfortable, cold, a necessity perhaps, or rather something to be discarded as soon as possible.  To others, like myself, when they pick up such tools, it is much more, that which presses in your hand a weighted pressure, the heaviness of responsibility, the firmness of purpose.

For such people, the shop is more than a little space tucked away behind closed doors. One some days, there in that place, one's hands join in sensual dance with those hardened instruments, transforming rough materials by mind and imagination into some wonderful creation warped out of all experience.  On others, you simply end up with a new door stop.  I'd not sacrifice either day for one spent watching reality TV.
On the  Range work bench there usually sits  a piece of wood, saved from becoming ashes to form something useful.  On other days it's something metal,  a piece, a part, one small component of something from which speed or safety can be derived. On another table, a large torque wrench simply known as Excalibur.  If you can't bend it to your will, at least you can beat it into submission.

The skills, involved, like anything of value, take time to learn, take patience.  There will be mistakes, some hopefully no more than a misplaced hammered blow, the hand curling up in pain like a leaf tossed upon a fire, perhaps a piece of wood or metal ruined due to your inattention or inexperience. There will be those projects where a friend or family member comes in and says, without thinking "is it supposed to look like that?"  But then comes that day, when with the swing of that hammer or that hand on the lathe, timidity and  inexperience fall from your hands and what you can make, is not only recognizable in form, but serves a purpose, one that's unique to your life.

I enjoy hard work so the thought of making my home in a place a hundred years old was not daunting. With all the changes that have gone on around me, diving into a house whose final vision would require a bit of labor has taught me valuable things, and not just about budgets and planning, wood and nails and drywall.  As I swung a crowbar one evening,  working side by side with it, tearing out the damaged to replace with the healed, the sweat from my face tasting like what I am, I realized it  Dad didn't just teach me to use tools.  He taught me to use the things that would teach me about myself.

Dad and I talk each night, but each and every week, a bit more of him slips away from me, his mind best functioning on a routine of days. I've found that when he is tired, that interrupting him sometimes confuses him, the phone taking him out of the place familiar to some imminent colorless dark he'd rather not think about.  But then he recognizes the voice, though the name escaped him for a minute, and then he's my old Dad again, if only for tonight.  It' just part of being almost 94, but it reminds me of how little time we will have left.

So tonight, I'll say a quick hello, and let him get back to his shows on TV, the same ones they always watched.  For him it's the routine of sameness that makes his night seem eternal, as if from the kitchen window that looks out onto the family room built on the old patio, he could hear Mom say "I'd like to buy a vowel!" Then, I will pen him a letter, those notes he loves to get even more than the phone calls, for he can read them when he first wakes up, his mind clear, the world, new.  I will tell him how much the years had brought me, despite the struggles. I would have told him how I've learned to live on what is important, not some yuppified version of life, hollow and high priced. I'm satisfied, be it with the salty tang of a simple meal honestly made, or the sweat on my brow from hard work. So many times I thought I should tell him that, as my tears mingled with the sweat of my task. I think now is the time.

Truth and salt.
I know there will come a time soon, when I will have to clean out my Dad's garage shop, that place in which we played with trains on sheets of wood he made and placed on sawhorses, painted green to be the landscape of our childhood.  I will have to open that door, into the space that is no longer used, peering into the shadows with eyes now silent with tears.

From a garage window, one that Mom covered with brightly covered vinyl to let in light while not allowing others to look inside, comes a ray of light, a stained glass hand upon the workshop.  I'm reminded, for just that instant, of entering a church, the light of saints and angels held there in etched glass, looking down upon me, their faces young, because they all die too young.  I can only stop for a moment, and bow my head in humility before proceeding inside.
Tonight, I am away from my own home but I can dream of it, for I have no task than to do otherwise, studying  a book of Mission style furniture designs, selecting the form of a small writing desk which will be crafted to be placed in a quiet corner. I search for just the right design,  my form bent over the table like a question mark, the lines of the drawings like invisible threads that hold me to the past.

I know my Dad can not travel this far to see it when it is done, but I know he will smile at the thought. On the walls of the shop, are tools that have seen three generations, tools, that are still used.  I pick up a household hammer that was my Mom's.  Even with remembered pain, I still can swing it strong.
My Dad would like our home, I think to myself, as I pause from my task, a door to the outside world swinging shut in the wind,  dark clouds gathering above. From the window, a shaft of twilight, particle by particle borne by the rain and released within, the pale silvered blue of silk or sword blade.  I study in silence, the light both vision and benediction.

From outside there is only the muted sound of that brief rain shower, a soft plop plop plop, like drops of water falling into a brimming bucket.

 - Brigid


  1. My father's garage still holds the 1929 Ford that we restored when I was in school. He has been dead 30 years but tools and parts are still laying there, many where we left them. I had to go out into the work world so it is kind of a time capsule. He would be 91 this year, so hard to believe.

  2. My step-mom has left my dad's workshop just like it was when he died a few years ago.
    There's tools in there I don't need (and some war mementos) that I won't get til she passes.
    I like it the way it is.

  3. Bit dusty in here now. The garage here and at my Father's holds generations of things. They speak loudly to me still. I hope and pray I will be a good steward to the things and skills that came before me.

  4. This always sounds so simplified, but all a parent wants to know and hear is that their child is happy. That the inner turmoil that's known as growing up isn't so tumultuous any more. Have reached that part of life where knowledge bumps into understanding and the peace that comes with it. Parents may have done things differently but deep down what counts is the child has found THEIR way in the world. A child can thank their parents a million times but it's not the same as proving to them they will be ok on their own. Let the parents know that when the hard, sad, times come along the child has what it takes to make it through. Sometimes a parent knows this time has arrived sooner than the child does, it's still nice to hear them say so.

    Life is short, there's so much to do and accomplish regardless. Life is one big building project :)

  5. There is something to be said for being able to beat it into submission! My mom laughs about it now but at some point I forgot how to take the beaters out of her old kitchen aid mixer. I would just grab those puppies and pull until they came out (I was supposed to turn the handle and then they would slide right out). You're right about the garages in suburbia too. It kind of cracks me up that whenever my brother in law has a project to work on not only does he ask my dad for help but tools as well.

  6. You know, I reread that several times. I don't have the words to describe the feelings it evokes.

  7. "On the wall, a calender from a year that is long gone, the pictures of trains on it, the only reason it remains."

    I hate to break this to you, but while most workshops have a grossly outdated calendar up on the wall, and while the picture on the calendar is most certainly the reason it's still up, the picture is generally not of a train.

  8. You do have a way with words. I grew up following my Dad around his shop. A fascinating place where engines came back to life, guns were made,and good times were shared. I had no clue that I was learning....something. Some of the tools he used are now in my shop. I hope my sons will value some of those tools when I am no longer around.....


I started this blog so the child I gave up for adoption could get to know me, and in turn, her children, as well as share stories for a family that lives too far away. So please keep it friendly and kid safe. Posts that are only a link or include an ad for an unknown business automatically to to SPAM..