I always thought of Dad as the Fix-it Man; he could mend anything. His motto was “Use it up. Wear it out. Fix it well or do without.” With three little girls and an old house, he had a lot of fixing to do.
In the small town where I grew up, the hardware store was the hub of village life. My Saturday morning trips there with my father were a weekly ritual.
Our first stop was the lumber yard in back of the store. I held tightly to my father’s hand as the buzz saw whined sharply, cutting the wood to the proper length. The smell of the newly cut pine, was pungent; the huge piles of golden sawdust were as good as sand at a beach. Inside, Dad would work down his list while I spun the nail bin. It was like a giant lazy susan; each of the three levels was divided into many compartments. I would pick out one nail from each one and lay them out on the worn wooden floor, carefully arranging them from smallest to biggest.
All the men in the store always wore plaid flannel shirts. On Saturdays, my Dad did too. That’s how you knew it was Saturday – the plaid flannel shirt.
In the paint department, the smells of turpentine and linseed oil were more exotic to me than any perfume. The paint chips were arranged from pastel to brilliant; they made a sunset on the store wall. I stuffed great fistfuls into my pockets…mostly pink.
Dad’s workshop was in our basement. After our Saturday morning trips to the village we would descend into the cool mustiness and carefully put away our morning’s purchases. His tool box was like a treasure chest. Exploring it was better than playing in Mother’s jewelry case. Although her bracelets and earrings were pretty, tools had a purpose. With tools you could make things.
Dad’s hand drill was like an egg beater except it made holes; little snails of pinewood curled up around the bit as it drilled into a board. His screwdrivers ranged in size from as big as my forearm to tiny enough for my doll. The levels, with their beautiful crystal bubbles suspended in bright yellow oil, were wonderful to tip this way and that as I tested the trueness of horizontal and vertical surfaces.
Father had a heavy,leather tool belt that looked like a holster. After he put each tool in its place and buckled it around his waist, he would push the hammer into the large loop at his side. He looked just like Roy Rogers. I wanted one too.
Some tools could be played with: the C-clamps were fun to tighten on your fingers and Dad’s folding ruler could be arranged to make all manner of geometric figures. But the noise of Dad’s power tools were enough to keep me at a distance. I didn’t need to be told to stay away from the table saw. His careful preparation for its use–the rolling up of his sleeves, the tightening of all its screws, the adjusting of his goggles–were clearly justified as I watched, hands clamped over my ears, while it ripped huge 4 x l2’s in half in a blink of an eye.
Dad let me “help,” putting goggles on me while he cut lumber then gave me the short pieces to “build” with. He would start the nails and I would sit happily for hours pounding them into the designs he set: happy faces, little houses, dogs and trees. At first, most of the nails bent. Finally, I actually made something. A little block nailed on top of a rectangle became a boat; a high nail, its smoke stack.
Together Dad and I built a bird house. Crude though it was, a chickadee actually set up housekeeping in it, singing a happy song from the peak of its lopsided roof.
As I grew older, I delighted in the order of the workshop. It seemed like a wonderful laboratory where solutions to problems were found and new discoveries made. Every tool had a special purpose, and a special place.
In junior high the boys took shop; we girls took home ec. When I walked by the shoproom door and heard the whine of the lathe or smelled the varnish, I wished I could bring home lazy susans and napkin holders instead of aprons and corn muffins. But I mastered Basic Pie Crust and discovered boys; went away to school then got a job; was married and began a family.
Our first house was old and needed repairs, but my husband was a student so I was the one to go to the hardware store. Our tool box contained only the screw driver, hammer, and wrench we had used to put our son’s tricycle together.
I opened the door of the hardware store and was greeted by familiar sights and smells. It was all there: bright shiny tools, hung neatly on the walls, bins of every imaginable sort of nut and bolt, lengths of rope hanging from the ceiling–all intermingled with the perfume of paint and linseed oil. The clerks even wore plaid flannel shirts. I came out with eight different tools, nine packages of nails and screws and a wonderful white canvas carpenter’s apron to put them all in. The bill was over one hundred dollars. I’d spent less in the grocery store.
Several years later, careful observations of a few repairman, the right tools, a growing library of home fix-it books plus memories of watching my father helped me conquer tasks that once seemed daunting. I was no longer at the mercy of the plumber, the handyman, the mechanic. I didn’t have to wait days for their appearance. The independence was liberating.
Like my father, I have become a hardware store connoisseur. I avoid huge complexes with names like “Hardware City” where screws only come in a box of three dozen and all the tools are shrink-wrapped in plastic. I’ve learned that cheap tools break quickly and are tiring to the hand. Now, I ask for proper ones for Christmas.
My father’s legacy is not just the creation of a proper workshop and a love of hardware stores, it is the pride of a job well done, the pleasure of fixing something so it will last.
As I master new skills, I recall Dad’s calm assurance that practice and patience would result in success. Last week, as I rummaged around the cluttered bins in the back of our local hardware store store, I found just the right gadget to keep Dad’s screen door from slamming. Little did he realize that the result of all those Saturday morning trips to the hardware store would be that someday I would be fixing things for him.
Now, when he stops by on a Saturday morning I’m apt to answer his knock with “I’m out in the shop. You want to go to the hardware store?”
A version of this story appeared in the June-July 1999 issue of Mary Engelbriet’s Home Companion.