Learning From Pop

Hold the end of the hammer and swing hard in one continuous motion. If you don’t want to hold the nail because you’re afraid you’ll hit your finger, tap it in a little and then swing. If it’s too heavy to carry by yourself, flip it end on end until you get there. Sand with the grain of the wood while you add oil. Cloisonne, gold leaf, impressionist, ball and claw feet, silver on the back of glass makes a mirror, use a diamond tipped glass cutter to make the line then flip to the ball side to tap it out. Put it on your shoulder, carry it on your head. Use what’s around you. Measure once then measure again. Being strong is good. Pop taught me so many life lessons. From bargain-hunting to making old things new again, he taught me how to see things not just for what they were at the moment, but for their potential. I’m grateful for those lessons.

Each summer when we were young, my brother and I had two weeks of vacation with Pop. The first week we usually spent doing some kind of project and the second we would go somewhere. He took us to Cape Cod, Tenessee, Florida, anywhere within driving distance. One year we went on vacation on possibly the rainiest week of the summer and ended up entertaining ourselves by going to a different movie each night – one day we even went to two. Going to the movies was a big deal back then as we very seldom went with our mom, and Pop really loved them.

Seeing the shrunken heads or violin made of matchsticks in The Ripley’s Believe It Or Not Museum, watching Pop strike up conversations with complete strangers who would invite us to their homes for some random adventure, or exploring shops in Provincetown was exciting and memorable, but they aren’t things that keep coming back to me as an adult. What I find myself remembering and using most is ingenuity or drawing on the history he told us. I still think about how Pop talked about history. He made it sound like adventure stories. The Swamp Fox, the Desert Fox, the Red Barron, Eddie Rickenbacher, The Cherokee, The Nez Pierce, Sitting Bull, King Tut, Ancient Mayans, whatever caught his fancy at the moment, Pop made it come to life.

I think about it now because he knew something about every historical event or place. My kids are older now, and they love history, they would have gotten a kick out of talking to him. He would have had a blast telling them stories. He came alive when it came to antiques, places, archeology, or history. He had books lining every wall of his study, books about any and everything; he was a voracious reader. If he wasn’t in the house reading, he was playing solitaire on the computer or reading jokes over email. If he was outside, he was usually in the garage working on restoring some piece of furniture or painting, sometimes basic upholstery.

He fixed things himself a lot, that meant that he rigged a lot of things, “figured it out” on his own. There are countless examples of his electrical, plumbing, or construction work in his old house. He did not like paying other people to do a job if he could do it. He built two entire stone walls by hand rather than call a mason. Before he made those, we all built an enormous deck one summer, rebuilt my aunt dock, built multiple railroad tie retaining walls, backhoed the backyard, refinished antiques, hung sheetrock, put in insulation, and so much more. He’s the reason I feel confident to try stuff I have no idea how to do, even if I shouldn’t.

I replaced my car radio when I was 17 because it was broken. I didn’t know what I was doing, but I figured it out. I’ve sealed up cracks and holes in the basement with chicken wire, steel wool, and rodent foam to keep mice out. I refused to hire someone to hang a new door when ours broke. It was a terrible first attempt. I made the handle hole too big, so it just slid through. I wasn’t deterred; I just cut open a large can on both ends, poked holes in the centers for the locking system, used them to cover the holes and put the handles on top. You can’t even tell the difference. I can paint, spackle, mix and pour cement, and do basic carpentry. I owe that in large part to him. At 16 I went on a missions trip to the Carribean. I spent the summer constructing a building, laying blocks, digging holes, and painting an orphanage, among other things. My carpentry came in handy. I built all the forms for the concrete corners because no one else knew how to do it.

Even if we didn’t have the closest relationship, I am thankful for him because I learned so much that has held me in good stead to this day. He was very close to his sister, and he used to tell my brother and me to look out for each other. If we spent the evening playing a rousing game of Risk, he’d encourage us to team up against him. He told us countless times to take care of each other because your siblings are there for you when you need them. I’ve passed that on to my children. I too think it’s essential. Long after we are gone – they will have each other.

That’s not the only thing of Pop’s I’ve passed on to them. He loved two kinds of music: Irish folk and 50s/60s rock and roll. My kids are as likely to listen to Patsy Cline, Kenny Rogers, The Coasters, The Platters, The Supremes, Dell Shannon, The Wolfe Tones, or The Chieftans as they are to Drake, K-Pop, or Cardi B. Mix in their inherited love of music my mom adored, opera, classical, folk, and Irish music, and our house sounds like an eclectic vinyl listening party.

Parents don’t have to be perfect to be able to teach their children valuable lessons that will last them a lifetime. Thank God for that! My husband and I try not to make the same mistakes our parents made, but I’m sure we’ll make others. The blessing is that if you hold on to the good stuff, it can impact you forever. Happy Father’s Day to all the dads out there.

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