As Father’s Day arrives Sunday, I felt that the brief piece below would be fitting for the occasion. My stepdad, Jerry, has been gone from this world now for just over a year, and his impact is still being felt by all of us. Here’s a small vignette that provides what Anne Lamott would call a “one-inch picture frame” into a portion of his time here on earth:
Toward the end of his life, my stepdad realized that he and I had something in common. A woodworker, he often retired to his tin-roofed shop at the far side of our back yard to craft bookshelves, magazine racks, lecterns for the teachers in our family, and even a bassinet that every grandchild slept in over the years.
But his pet projects were tiny replica buildings – not dollhouses, but simple blocks he stuck together and then painted to look like homes, stores, or other landmarks he admired. There was a white church with ornate stained glass he’d painted, an old country store featuring a rectangular, red-worded sign, and lots of small rural cabins and farmhouses. One of these homes was adorned with a front-facing “window” in which he’d painted a dangling small yellow light bulb accented by short, equally yellow lines.
I should have detected his nearly hidden affinity for art sooner. In college, although he was a football player preparing to be a coach, he majored in art. When he and my mom were first married, the room I was assigned was once his study – a room adorned with sketches and paintings he had created during his time as an undergraduate. There was one of a boy who was finishing a soapbox derby racecar, another of a coach helping a male cheerleader with a ladle full of water after the football team (reveling in the background) had won the big game, and smaller portraits that have now dissolved from memory.
These pictures were soon stashed, however, as I started hanging posters of baseball stars, musicians, and movies from that era. I suppose he boxed up his college efforts and shelved them somewhere in his workshop, though nobody has bothered to look for them. After all, his functional furniture and happy houses were the essential pieces composing his legacy, and he used these to connect himself to me during his twilight years.
“When you write a poem,” he asked, “do you fit the words together just so, or do you let them just kind of fall onto the page?” The parallel to woodworking was clear: He wanted to ensure I was “measuring twice and cutting once,” just as he would. I did my best to explain how I parsed my diction over multiple drafts, chose verbs and images selectively, and was always certain to pick the most fitting word. This satisfied him. “The right tool for the right job,” he said, grinning.
Over the course of several visits, he asked about rhyme, meter, and even concepts like scansion, symbolism, and line breaks. Although he didn’t have the “literary” vocabulary to accurately name such things, the notions were nonetheless expressed in his own way. He began to see words like fresh slabs of white pine: trimmable, designable materials that could be stained or assembled in myriad configurations. When I wrote about notable places from his part of our state, he nodded heartily. He absorbed each description and visibly considered why they were chosen, his finger on the page and his eyes intense behind his glasses. He developed a new relationship with language: Parts of speech as wood, as tools, as art.
By the time he died, he had read all of my books and anything of mine accepted by magazines. He looked at poems like tiny houses – finely detailed creations, complete with painted windows on the world and tiny light bulbs. The builder boy, the old coach, and the master craftsman gained peace from the arrival of understanding. He left this world content, not simply with his own history, but with the bridge he’d established between himself and the one son-by-marriage who seemed most different – a wordworker.