“When my father said, ‘You descend from kings,’ he was reminding us that though we did not have the money of the powerful, we were powerful nonetheless.”
When I was born, my dad, at age fifty, had already lived many lives. In his early years, he traveled to every one of the continental United States and had more than fifty different jobs, including running the fireworks show at the 1939 World’s Fair. He met my mother in an office there and married her when he was thirty five. He went on to have seven children, of whom I am the youngest. My friends’ dads were fifteen to twenty years his junior. My dad did not play ball with me; he waxed philosophical. He didn’t move at an ambitious pace, but rather with the slightly melancholic grace of an older man.
My father came as a baby to New York from Scotland, which his father had left in order to avoid fighting for the British in South Africa. Dad was raised on Long Island when it was still frontier, when houses there had outhouses and were heated with wood. They kept a pig, who ate all their scraps and was offered up annually to feed the family. Paper packaging was used to start the fire along with “the morning sticks,” which my father and his siblings would collect from their yard. The concept of garbage barely existed. You used everything you had. Growing up in this time and through the depression gave my father the conservative streak that was a hallmark of his generation. You conserved not out of ideology, but because there was no other way to live.
Craftsmanship was what people would call today a “core value” for my father. My grandfather, whom I knew only briefly, was a molding carpenter who worked on buildings like the Waldorf Astoria during the construction boom at the early part of the century. Moldings today are usually much simpler: a few grooves are cut from a piece of wood with an electric router. My grandfather’s molding planes were ornately shaped and scrupulously sharpened knives that he used to carve an elegant shape in a raw piece of timber with fine-tuned brute strength. In my family, therefore, tools are regarded with awe and care. When my father handled a saw or a hammer or a wrench, there was something more than expedience at work. He didn’t use it. He wielded it.
That’s among the great things I learned from him, in the arena where he was most comfortable, his vast shop in the basement, a repository of more tools and hardware than a country store. It was there that he took most solace and it was there that he was king. I am not handy, like most of the rest of my family, but I absorbed the deeper meaning of what he had to say to me about how to work. With a hammer he showed me how to use a loose and flexible grip and let the head of the hammer do the work, propelled forward by the releasing action in your wrist, rather than stiffly pushed toward the object you’re striking. With a handsaw, he showed me how to cut with vigor on the down stroke and rest on the backstroke. I learned how a larger wrench provided a larger leverage. I now appreciate that these lessons—somewhat tedious at the time for a teenager with parties to go to—were about conserving energy and learning to enjoy your work rather than struggling.
Outside of his shop, though, my father struggled. Through pluck and ambition he worked his way up from being a parking field attendant at Jones Beach to being a business executive, but he always hid the fact that he had no more than an eighth grade education. His upbringing dictated that he begin to support himself early, but his lack of formal education weighed him down like a hidden millstone. It needn’t have. He was a brilliantly educated and erudite man who read voraciously. But he was an immigrant existing among people who knew several generations of college degrees, and it made him feel lesser. When the last company he worked for forced him to retire at sixty-five, while I was still in high school, he felt discarded and useless. He became sadder and sadder in later years. The aspirations of his youth—to invent things and build his own business—had slipped through his fingers. Work for yourself, he would always say to me.
Although there was a sadness about my dad, he was never gloomy. He had a great infectious laugh and smile and a sense of humor that was always at the ready. When I was young, he still had a volcanic temper. He rarely erupted, but when he did, it was like the roar of Zeus. He could be sentimental and proud of his highland heritage, declaring as he did many times to us, “You descend from kings.” It was his way of reminding us that although our parents did not have the education or money of the powerful, we were powerful nonetheless. It was a joy to be hugged by my father, who was never reserved about his love. His power also held great gentleness. A few years before he died, my mother found a mouse in the basement and she asked him to get rid of it. Surreptitiously, he began to feed the mouse, whom he named Herman. It kept him company in his shop. When my mother found out, she couldn’t believe it. He wouldn’t kill it, so he put it outside. One day, I saw him crying at the window. He’d found Herman’s frozen body.
I lament that my children never had him as a grandfather, because I know what that would have been like. He was a bit of a grandfather to me. Right now, my girls’ are laughing at me, because—as my father would have—I am taking delight in reading a history of the screwdriver and the screw. But secretly they admire it a bit, the curiosity about simple things. At times like these, a little of my dad is there for them, and together we are father and grandfather all at once.