My Father’s Closet

toolsOur house in Dennis is an old 1920's beach cottage, built on a stone foundation with a tiny alcove excuse of a basement.  In lieu of a proper workbench setup, we have a single small closet in a seldom used room on the first floor that serves as our storage area for all things related to home maintenance.

As we go about our time up here we pretty much ignore the closet unless we need to go in to dig for a three prong to two prong electrical adapter, or find a screwdriver to put the screens up in the spring.  The closet is dark, musty, and holds things that haven't been seen by man or woman since the 70's. But today was the day I finished up everything else on my home improvement to do list and was left with the final task of getting it cleaned out and organized.

I have always felt that this closet was my father's domain.  Most everything in it he had put there on his weekends and vacations with the family decades earlier.   Even though he had a very busy professional life he would make time to get to the Cape and tend to the property as a gardener, painter, and handyman.  Even today, as a 90 year old retiree, he is extremely active and engaged, but now delegates the Cape chores to others.

I helped my father with some home maintenance tasks, but mostly he did them on his own without complaint or assistance while I focused on my one job of keeping the lawn mowed and tidy.  As I look around the property today there are signs of his handiwork everywhere; the basement door he made by hand, the trees planted as backups to our old frail locusts, and the sail locker expertly built to house our endless supply of blown out Dacron.  All completed while I was probably playing tennis, sailing, or mowing the neighbor's lawn.  So it was with a little reverence and guilt that I proceeded into the darkness to mess with "his" stuff.

One of the first items I noticed were the old military khakis dating back to the Korean conflict that he wore when doing yard work or painting. They were all lined up as if awaiting orders, and bore the paint and stains of projects long ago completed; a Jackson Pollock of colors that were on the walls and furniture I walked by every day.  Seeing my dad in those duds knocking about the property  gave him an air of purpose; so even on a hot July day far from his suits and his medical practice he had a formality about him.  As his second son, the happy go lucky ADD one, I was always aware, and somewhat envious, of his ability to effortlessly focus and execute whatever task he set his eyes it patients or painting.

In attacking the closet my cleaning process was to simply take everything out and assess it once it was  all spread about.  The tools were first. Out of the great pile were multiple screwdrivers, pliers, and wrenches of varying vintage and condition. Plus many saws, box cutters, caulk guns and planes; acquired because it was often easier to buy a tool than to find one.  Also the roller thingy you use to put screens in aluminum doors, and a carefully crafted  handmade device for fishing out items from small spaces made of spliced wire, rope, and a small hook.

Digging down deeper at floor level I find various brooms and brushes, an electric heater that glowed like a toaster oven and dramatically dimmed the houselights when tested, and an artfully engineered folding contraption for drying clothes indoors. Also an item I originally thought was some kind of wire whisk, but which was actually a folding clothes hanger; an elegant design and practical item that surprisingly isn't in every home today.

Moving up to the eye level shelf, I unearth every shape and variety of screw and nail; in Pyrex bowls,   Cool Whip containers, and a tall Planters Peanut tin.  The hundreds of metal bits on this one small shelf included, hooks, glazing points, screen repair items, cabinet handles, pull chains for lights, and pushpins.  And also some things that were kept just in case;  the faucet to our old claw foot tub, and extra bathroom wall and floor tiles.  I conclude there is no way my father could possibly have done anything except repair work caused by a house that was in a constant state of entropy.

There were old cans of paint, useless after many years of annual freezing, both oil based and latex.  I remember latex paint was a big deal at the time it came out.  My father made a point to school me on how easy it was to apply, how good it smelled, and how you simply cleaned it up with water.  I was convinced that every father must be talking to their sons about it. No more turpentine. Wow.

I don't recall many lighthearted casual conversations with my father back then. It just wasn't our thing. Unlike my mother who always seemed to be engaging us in an effusive, hands on way, my father and I were more formal with each other.  Our relationship and personal interactions solidified early and have remained largely unchanged, despite many years and supposed maturing on my part.  It works for us just fine.  There was no need for lots of kidding around, wrestling on the den floor, or joke telling.   His being there, with a willing ear when called upon, and no agenda, was much more than enough.

The closet was unfortunately not a treasure trove of valuable goodies. It just contained ordinary "stuff", accumulated over the years, taken out and put back for one little project or another, or simply kept on speculation it might be needed again.  But there were a few things I was happy to find. An old rusted bell on a bendy scrolled metal  wall mount that you would have outside your backdoor, some classic depression era glass ashtrays, and most importantly my old fishing kit; a rusted old tackle box repainted gray with some lures, lead weights, and hooks jammed into a wine bottle cork.

One of our annual rituals when I was very young was to go fishing in Orleans.  We would leave before  sunrise, rent a little boat with a tiny Johnson engine, and putt-putt our way out to a saltwater inlet where we would fish for flounder.  Using nastily fanged sea worms as bait we would lower our lines until the lead weight hit bottom, take it in a few clicks, and wait as the daylight filled in.  I don't recall any conversations, and perhaps there were none that deserved to be remembered, but the warm feeling remains of times spent waiting for fish to bite, and a father who knew the value of getting up early in the morning to go on an outing with his son.

We had other father/son rituals, some simply extensions of our weekly chores. We would take regular trips to the town dump where he would let me reach over from the passenger side of the car and steer our old Pontiac down the mile long straight-as-a-runway entrance road.  No parenting class will teach you the confidence building value of that practice, but my father knew it wasn't a bad thing, and was kind of fun for us.

It isn't too often that you get to go back in time. Cleaning out an attic or an old closet is a messy job, but invariably gives you some kind of perspective, unleashes memories, and lets you consider how life has changed since the "old days".

For me it brought back my first taste of beer from a can of near empty Ballantine Ale as my dad was gardening in those khaki's, the early morning fishing trips,  and the occasional projects we worked on together to keep our place from falling apart.

Also, an awareness that my father gave me everything a man can give a son.  Despite his insanely busy medical life, and the small fraction of the time he had to give to me, there was, amidst the chores, important times together where I was greatly enriched.  Our little interactions, unpredictable, and unplanned, were more than enough.

As it turns out, we didn't need a basement, or a father with tons of time on his hands. The closet held what we needed, and with an old picnic table as a work surface, and a couple of vacation hours to kill, we were able to accomplish just about any task we were called to take on.  The screens got fixed, and furniture painted, and if something dropped behind the stove we knew where to get the device to fish it out.

And when the work was done, and it was time to play, we knew where to go for the lead weights and corked hooks, and looked forward to the next sunrise.