Wednesday, August 4, 2010


A friend was considering tiles for a bathroom floor. Since it was such a small square footage and my recovery needs exercise in many different ways, I happily volunteered.

Not a fluid and flawless artisan of tile, but a trader of jacks to get jobs done, I was good enough in my days of making hay to still have a small saw, some left-over supplies and the experience to recommend tile and grout combinations to compliment the space. I was eager to test my stamina and see if my calluses would reappear.

In these years after bankruptcy and divorce, failures and disappointments, despite growing confidence that other skills and blossoming relationships might be all the better, these months of couch-sitting have been just as fraught with depression as excitement. The cup can seem bottomless and emptying ever more rapidly, way to deep at certain times to imagine any semblance of full.

My father’s letter to his lawyer expressing his disappointment in me only seems to confirm the one of just two letters he ever wrote to me, this first as I was entering a college not quite covered in ivy and he worried if I would ever truly apply myself. His pride and approval so lacking all these years, I had no clue they were missing any more than I understood that I needed them.

Having given myself all this time to think about it since my accident, I remember my own pride, looking at the picture in the family album, of the four year old boy who white-washed the entire exterior of the living room addition before I knew anything about Tom Sawyer. Perhaps some solace can be found in that my Dad at least was pleased enough to take the picture.

There is not a single one of the little boy in tears struggling under the weight of the heavy canvas tent on the long path up to the campsite. Plenty of photos in the album show our tents and tarps—bigger and heavier every year despite my growth—all set up in complicated comfort at wonderful sites around the country and Europe.

Likewise, my mother always emphasized the beautiful harmonies of voice my four sisters managed while doing the dishes and I never questioned that I was allowed to remain at the table to learn chess from my father. My stacking the winter wood, mowing the lawn and packing the car seemed a justifiable balance.

He pushed me down the front yard hill, figuring the speed and the will to avoid trees would teach me to ride a bike. He pushed me off a mountain top to learn how to ski and I followed him along blithely for years after that until we noticed instructors skied with their uphill ski forward, not back, and it was a lot easier to make turns.

My father was not brutish and insensitive, cruel or malicious. When he got rolling, his jokes cracked like the best of them. He constructed elaborate toboggan runs with banked turns and tunnels that brought the neighborhood to play in our front yard. He jumped in the ocean waves and roared down mountain slopes with us. He built a tiny New England model village and a huge dollhouse, both heirlooms and museum worthy.

Much of his quiet demeanor and reserved affection, we now understand, was the product of the relationship with his own parents. So intent was he on my not following his footsteps, he barely took me to the office where he worked with his father and brother. His anger erupted out of nothing, apparently like his mother, and a hammer would be thrown close and violently enough to make me fear the expectation I could help him with his projects.

My mother painted our childhood rosy and idyllic, the next generation of Trapp Family singers and I grew up believing this picture was not posed, but a wonderful truth. I remember clearly the cold, blustery day in March, when we picnicked in the New Jersey turnpike rest stop parking area and Mother exclaimed about how perfect it all was while I envied strangers heading inside for burgers, but it has taken me this long to realize how close some of those thrown hammers came to hitting me.

As I clean off the excess grout on my tile project, I see my own hammer neatly placed in the bucket of tools. My natural tendency is to leave them lying scattered, the rubble unswept, the project nearly complete, but I force myself to be better organized than I learned. It is easier to find the tape measure in its place than to run to the store for a new one. I invite my son to help me, but respect his preference to learn the same skills at school, proudly support him with his own set of tools and smile with satisfaction to see he already knows so much.

My grout lines are not perfectly straight, the intersections not totally smooth to the bare foot. The project took me longer than it should have, and I regularly winced along the way. Still, I think my friend will be pleased. I know I am. It’s great to be reminded that there are some things about construction I can do well.

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