Thursday, December 11, 2008

If I Had A Hammer

My father will be 70 in April. I had to write it down and look at that number because of the unreality of it for me. It has this ethereal quality when you put it in the same sentence with "My Father".

I am not one whose annual birthday has bothered him over the years as an adult. I've never cringed at admitting my age to anyone. In fact, when I turned 40 last March I felt no middle-aged flutter of the ego. No desire to buy a sports car or jump from a bridge. I remember thinking "Okay, it's just a number. A nice, round, even figure."

But my father turning 70 is bothering the hell out of me.

I could wax maudlin about "The Man Who Raised Me," or "My Dad, My Hero." There are a million words to be written about one's father and I won't lay them out here for you. There's too much histrionics involved between Arthur Ralph Turner and his youngest son to do any justice to the impact he has had on my life.

There usually is for anyone talking about either parent or grandparent. Mom or Dad or Nana or Grampy. An essay is a cruel sort of injustice, I think, to a doting parent. The high school "What Does Your Father Mean to You" kind of sap is a worthless endeavor.

But why 70? Why is my father going to be 70? Why can't it be 60 and stay there? Or better, 50, when I was 20 and out of my acerbic, confrontational teens and on the verge of becoming a father myself? When our conversations were constructive and friendly again, the way they were before I became Mr. Know It All.

This past summer he came to our house with a toolbox, perhaps the single collection of objects I will always associate with him forever. My father's lifelong occupation was as a public educator, first as a teacher of science, then a principal, and finally as a curriculum director. He ended his career, happily, one step away from superintendent, a position he swore against pursuing because of its political entanglements.

But his affinity for fixing things is what I like about him. He was raised in Farmington, Maine, and grew up on a dairy farm throughout much of his youth. He would rise early and milk the cows, go to school, play sports, and return home for more farming chores. A real, honest-to-god, uphill both ways in a snowstorm to get to school kind of childhood.

So, by association or familial osmosis, he learned how to use a hammer, and other tools of carpentry, from his own father. He also learned how to fix motors and to diagnose most household mechanical anomalies.

So he showed up this summer at our 1850 farmhouse to repair the decrepit front porch. The part of the porch that suffered the most footfalls and whose boards were rotting away.

And with him he brought his toolbox, along with a collapsible table saw and a couple of handmade sawhorses. The familiar sawhorses he's had kicking around the house forever.

And for the better part of the muggy summer day he measured and cut, hammered and leveled, fitted and refitted until, at last, we had a new porch floor and a healthy pressure-treated substructure beneath to absorb the heavy traffic.

I, as ever, stood by dumbly and watched, every so often handing off a tool the way a nurse hands off a scalpel to a brain surgeon.

I loved this, to be honest. It's been a long time since I stood by my father and watched him work like this. Not since I was a kid, frankly. I hovered and paced and asked questions and he answered patiently, even when a certain joist wasn't fitting properly or he had to crawl in the dirt beneath the porch to hammer a queerly angled nail into a two-by-four.

At nearly 70.

Do I regret not ever learning how to do these things myself? Sure. Of course I do. It would be handy to have, given that we live in a house built by Moses himself. But I have to tell you, had I known, then I would not have needed to ask him to bring his toolbox.

70. Jesus Christ. That's a heavy number.


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