Sometimes, I think my dad is an accidental feminist. What choice is there when you have five daughters? With that gender distribution, it’s inevitable that you will witness your female progeny carry out multiple acts of intelligence and feats of competency. Practicality alone will lead you to avoid “traditional” paths wherein each daughter must find a man to provide for her before she can leave your care.
Maybe that’s why we were building rockets to launch in the park at age 6, and driving the riding lawnmower around the yard at age 10, and filling out the bubbles of standardized tests in the middle of summer in order to go to “nerd camp” at age 12. Dad, like any good parent, felt good when his kids did well, and he and mom gave us lots of settings to achieve in.
Often times, though, this meant that spending time with dad felt a lot like completing a chore. Sure, it was nice to finally solve the physics problem, and I was so lucky I had someone to ask for help, but that doesn’t mean it was fun. My butt left the chair as soon as I made my last pencil stroke. Thanks and byeeeeeee!
Dad didn’t lay it on too thick, but there was something about the way he would say “Excel today!” when I left for the school bus that embedded itself deeply in my mind in such a way that I wanted (or needed) very badly to make him proud.
When it came time for college, I went to engineering school, just like him. I chose mechanical engineering as my major, just like him. I was succeeding at making him proud but that didn’t make me happy. I remember thinking longingly about all the other classes in the college that I was actually interested in and staring blankly at my own schedule. I wanted to switch majors but my dad’s mostly-unstated expectations were a powerful gravity.
I graduated, I got married, I got my dad’s blessings at every step of the way. I think he was mentally checking off the boxes for each of us kids and, after no small labor, he was done with me.
Then, I got divorced. I quit my job and moved to Detroit. I didn’t want to be an engineer anymore, and I didn’t want to be married to the person the engineer married and I didn’t want to stay on the path that attempting to impress the men in my life had led me down. I quit.
I could see the worried look on my dad’s face, like he was taking out that pencil and erasing one of the answers he thought he’d gotten right. “Shit. Michele still needs me.”
A lot has changed since those years. I have let myself explore the broader dimensions of my interests and abilities, and I am now a housing counselor, a writer, a singer, and a political aspirer. I bought a 100-year-old house in Hamtramck, and it was good enough to live in and be comfortable but it needed a lot of work too. I needed my dad.
Almost every Saturday this winter, Dad would take the hour-or-so drive to my house, sometimes dragging a trailer full of lumber or meeting me beforehand at Home Depot. We reinforced sagging beams in my ceiling, pulled out ancient electrical wiring, laid the tile I found on the side of the road, hung drywall, and built a brand new tiny bathroom for my ground floor. Then we took a saws-all to the stupid wall that separated my stupid kitchen from the stupid nothing-room next to it and created a magically larger space.
We were a good team! There was none of that sharp frustration I used to feel when dad and I did homework together. This time, I actually wanted to learn what we was teaching me and I was extremely grateful for the chance to do it together. I didn’t expect him to be a patient as he was, or as eager to explain the What and the Why. We worked things out together and I knew I was actually contributing. I love the way he said “Michele” or “Micheleabelle” or “Michellio” to draw me back into conversation when we’d been silently working side-by-side for awhile. He was surprisingly patient with my mistakes but would berate himself every time he misplaced something or screwed it up. You idiot!
When I was in engineering school, I used to feel ashamed when people automatically gave me respect as soon as they learned what I was studying. I didn’t think I deserved that credibility because I could solve the problems on paper, but I really didn’t know how to build or repair anything. What happens when you run out of story problems and it’s time to do the work?
One day, dad showed up at my house with his bags of tools, as usual, and something else. It was a circular tin that looked like it was left over from an office Christmas party. On the outside, a taped-down note said “wire nuts.” I was grinning to myself about this rather interesting manifestation of my dad’s quirkiness when I told me that tin actually had belonged to my grandpa- my mom’s dad. He was an electrician and this was the equivalent of his spare change jar. Every day, when he got home from work, he’d empty his pockets of un-used wire nuts.
As I pondered that new detail of family history, I remembered some of the family folklore that I’ve heard from my grandma over the years of clipping and painting her toenails. When she decided that wanted to marry my grandpa, her father (my great-grandpa) decided he would have to teach this man a useful trade. So, great-grandpa, who was a teacher at Cass Tech, took it upon himself to educate my grandpa how to become an electrician. I barely remember my great grandpa, but I do remember seeing the stacks of “Popular Mechanics” magazines piled up in great-grandpa’s garage in Detroit’s eastside when I was a little girl. It seems like something my dad would have.
How strange it is that the knowledge and practice of electrical work had twisted like a wire between the generations, linking hopeful fathers-in-law to their new sons in series. When dad cracked open the tin, the smell was instantly nostalgic, though I don’t know if I’ve ever smelled it before. It was old, and metallic, and potent. We set up the lighting for the new bathroom that day and rummaged around in that cookie tin for a wire nut that was just the right size. It’s a part of my house now.
Nothing about this chapter in my relationship with my dad was inevitable. I went 32 years without learning to do home repair work from my dad, I’m pretty sure I could’ve let more pass by until dad was too old or til I found a new partner who might’ve slipped into my place on the receiving end of those lessons. If my house was farther away, or if my dad still had other kids at home to take care of, or if I was ever so slightly busier or wealthier to be able to pay someone to do the work, maybe this never would’ve happened. I never would’ve been able to smell the generations wafting off of the spare parts in my old home that my new life is building. Instead, I got a lesson that I actually wanted to learn.
Get your pencil out dad, I think we got it right this time.