Friday, February 17, 2012


He was a quiet man, a carpenter, a builder of houses and maker of furniture. I grew up in the house he built and live now in my own home surrounded by the furniture he made for me: the tall grandfather clock in my living room that chimes every quarter hour to the delight of my young grandchildren, my bedroom suite of lovely Honduras mahogany, scarred over the years by my careless spilling of perfumes, the ranch oak twin beds my boys slept in, the spinning wheel that actually spins. All of this and more my quiet father made.

He built the basement of his house, patiently, one cement block at a time, and we lived in that basement as he built the rest of the house, slowly, paying for building supplies as he went. Aunts, uncles, cousins would gather every weekend to help with the house. The men held nails in their mouths, taking them out only to smoke Camels and Lucky Strikes. The women carried pitchers of iced tea to the men and made sandwiches with thick slices of home-made bread. At the end of the day of labor, my father would build a bonfire and we would roast corn on the cob in their husks. The corn was from my father’s garden, planted in long arrow-straight rows. I remember the sweet-charred smell of that corn and the warm, wet feel of melted butter on my fingers.

After dinner, I would settle in to read my Trixie Belden book but would lay the book aside to watch and listen to the adults discuss, debate and – finally - loudly argue who was a better president, FDR or Truman, the chances of the Pittsburgh Pirates to win the pennant and the quality of Chevrolets versus Fords. The conversations grew more intense, more animated, swirling around the table, little tornadoes of sound. My father sat at the head of the table, quietly whittling a piece of wood, rubbing his thumb on the surface, smiling, a crooked little grin that turns just the left side of his mouth up. He listened to the debates but stayed outside of them, on the fringe of the noise and the laughter. Even when my mother would demand his opinion, he would just smile and shake his head. 
I remember sawdust in his hair, on the backs of his hands, on the top of his shoes.  I remember the smell of wood like an aura around him. Pine. Oak. Maple. But what I remember best and treasure the most is the gift he made for my son.

My son, born with congenital heart defects, suffered a head injury at age thirteen and a subsequent cardiac arrest.  He was resuscitated but was in critical condition in Intensive Care with an intracranial pressure monitor screwed into his head.

His prognosis was poor, we were told. Even if he survived, he would suffer brain damage, “Diffuse cerebral edema,” the doctors said in mournful voices, shaking their heads. The nurses swabbed his shaved scalp, cleaning the skin around the intracranial pressure monitor screw and then patted me gently on the back.

My father refused to visit him in the hospital. Quietly but stubbornly he refused, shaking his head, simply saying he would wait until later to see him.  There might not be a later, I wanted to scream. I didn’t, couldn’t understand. I was angry and hurt by his refusal. It wasn’t until later that I was filled with awe at the faith of my father.

My son, indeed, did recover. The barbaric pressure screw was removed from his head.  His blonde hair began to grow back, stubble covering the scar. The respirator was slowly weaned away. He came home, thin and weak, but alive and alert.  He came home to sleep in the bed my father had made for him.

When he came home, my father came to visit him.

And he brought the most amazing gift, a testimony from my father to my son. While my mother, my husband and I hovered at the bedside of my son, my father had labored in his work shop. He had measured, cut, constructed, sanded and varnished a desk for his ill grandson. Sawdust in his hair and hope in his heart.

A desk of golden oak and a matching chair.

He carried the heavy desk with ease, into the house, smiling, this quiet man in his bib overalls and flannel shirt. He carried it up the steps and into my son’s room and then carried the chair.  He helped my son from the bed to the desk chair and knelt beside him to hold him steady.  My son has blue eyes, the same clear blue as my father’s. They smiled at each other, the same crooked little grin. I then understood why my father would not go to the hospital.  He had better plans, in his workshop defying the prognosis, defying despair, defying grief.

He believed his grandson would be able to sit at that desk.  He turned that belief into a testimony. A desk. A chair.

My father. My hero. A builder of houses, a maker of furniture. A man of faith.

The above was published in My Dad is my Hero anthology. I have also been published in Voices from the Attic (a Carlow University Anthology),Pittsburgh Magazine and the Tribune-Review, I also received an honorable mention from an Atlantic Monthly, fiction contest.

No comments:

Post a Comment