My father never had a real home as a child. His mother died when he was five, his father never remarried, and by the time he was eight he had lived in three different countries.
Perhaps that’s why he liked building things so much: His creations gave off a feeling of permanence. “A doctor makes a mistake and outlives it,” he used to tell me. “A builder makes a mistake and it outlives him.”
He was always tinkering. When he was six, a round-faced Russian kid living in Turkey, he sawed the legs of the dining-room table in half so he could sit at it more comfortably. He got punished for that one, but he learned the value of tackling a problem with his own hands.
By the time he was ten, living in Brooklyn, New York, he’d fashioned a bicycle from discarded parts. He did the same in his 20s with a used Packard. He worked on it night and day, his thick, callused hands gently oiling and tuning the parts until the car cruised along as smoothly as the rich boys’ jalopies.
My father is a practical man. He can’t explain calculus, but he can tell you how much pressure a boiler needs. He can’t draw an architect’s plan, but he can tell you if the pipes and wiring will sustain the structure. He put himself through night school to become an engineer, but that was only after he worked as a plumber, electrician and mechanic.
Dad is proud of the buildings he’s put up over the years. To me, none of these can match the little things he made just for me with his two hands.
I was almost seven when my family bought a gambrel-roofed white colonial in New Jersey. To my mother, the house was in move-in condition. But Dad insisted he replace the heating system, insulate the porch and put in new bathroom tile and plumbing.
By Christmas of that year, drop cloths still covered the floors, and most of our furniture was in storage. Mom, determined to celebrate the holidays in our new home, sent my father and me to buy decorations.
On our way, we walked by a toy store window. There in the corner was the most unusual dollhouse I’d ever seen. It was shaped like an upturned log. Little oval windows were cut into it, draped with calico curtains and framed by tiny balconies.
“Oh, Daddy,” I said, “isn’t it beautiful? Do you think Santa Claus will bring it to me?”
My father looked at the $100 price tag—an exorbitant figure in those days. “I think even Santa couldn’t afford this house,” he joked, hiking up his belt as he often does when he’s nervous. “Maybe one day, sweetheart.” Dad probably hoped I’d forget about the dollhouse, but I drove my parents crazy talking about it.
On Christmas morning, I awoke early and raced downstairs. In the faint light, I made out an assortment of wrapped boxes under the tree—but none large enough to contain my dollhouse. Dad could see my disappointment. He pulled me onto his lap, and gently told me how, as a boy, he had wanted a red wagon, but his father couldn’t afford one.
“What did you do?” I asked.
“I made my own from wood and old wheels I found,” he said. “You know what? That wagon meant more to me than any store-bought wagon.”
“But I don’t know how to make a log house,” I said.
“Then we’ll make one together,” he assured me. And right after Christmas, despite all the unfinished projects at home, we started in. First, Dad cut leftover plyboard into strips and nailed them in a circle on a wood base, showing me how to sand down the rough edges. Then he sawed the base in half and attached hinges to one side so the “log” would swing open and shut.
Night after night, Dad would come home from the job dead tired, yet he’d always find time to work on the log house. He gathered scraps of wallpaper, matching patterns as carefully as if he were doing my mother’s kitchen. He streaked the exterior with shades of brown, examining it from a distance to make sure he’d gotten the right effect.
Characteristically, he improved on the model. He even added a tiny path to the front door—crafted from real concrete.
In all, it took four months of hard work by my father. But that log house was the greatest gift a child could ask for. Long after I gave up playing with dolls, I would still occasionally bring it down from the attic just to admire it and remember those months I watched Dad bring my dream to life.
Years later, I went off to college in Illinois. I suddenly had to rely on myself to change a light switch or glue together a broken vase. At first I longed for Dad to be around. But as I became proficient at small projects, I came to wonder how much I really needed him at all.
That March, when my parents drove out for a visit, I walked them around the campus town, pointing out my favorite restaurants and stores. I had an opinion on everything—in eight months, I had managed to become so sophisticated.
We stopped in front of a shop window filled with hand-painted wooden knickknacks. “That’s the Salzburg Shop,” I told them. “It has the most beautiful piece of furniture you have ever seen.”
Intrigued, they followed me inside. At the back of the store stood a large oak armoire. Painted red hearts and flowers trailed down the middle of each door; the large bottom drawer sprouted an elaborate bouquet. My father studied the piece of furniture carefully. “I could build a cabinet like this for you,” he ventured.
“Oh, Dad,” I said, “it’s not a ‘cabinet,’ it’s an armoire. Besides, you couldn’t make anything like this. It’s a work of art.” Dad’s hands dropped from the drawers he was examining. Silently, he closed the big oak doors and stepped back, the way a teenage boy might from a beautiful girl who has just declined a date. I knew I had offended him, but I couldn’t bring myself to admit it. By the time my parents left, the incident seemed forgotten.
Three months later, my freshman year over, I went home. Everything there was just as I’d left it, and yet not quite. My parents had moved the Oriental rug from the living room to the den. A new brass bowl of silk flowers decorated the dining-room table.
I raced up to my room at the top of the stairs. And there, bathed in the honey-colored afternoon light, stood an almost exact replica of the Salzburg Shop’s armoire.
I say almost, because in many ways it was better. The front panels and sides were made from scrap lumber, not oak, but the wood had been rubbed so delicately with different shades of paint that it gave off the patina of an antique. Painted flowers trailed up the doors, and they led to little doves.
I turned to find Dad watching me hesitantly, hiking up his belt.
“Oh, Daddy,” I said. I hadn’t called him that since I was little. “It’s beautiful.”
He came over and put his arm around me. His knuckles bore the partially healed cuts and scrapes of many days of hard work.
“Your old dad’s good for something after all,” he said with a smile. Then he eagerly opened the armoire to reveal the extras that always make my father’s creations so special. Inside, he’d hidden a secret drawer. “For your jewelry,” he explained. He also proudly revealed a lever that could disconnect the large bottom drawer from the rest of the piece. “So one day, when you leave, you can move it easily,” he said.
“Dad, I’m never going to leave you,” I said reflexively.
“But I expect you to,” he countered. “I can build a lot of things, but I can’t build you a life. All I can do is help you to build your own.”
My father doesn’t write me letters. And he doesn’t always remember my birthday or wedding anniversary—or even how old I am sometimes.
But I need only look around me to be reminded of his love. He restored a 100-year-old rocking chair after I told him how much I wanted one. When I moved into my first apartment, he spent his weekends in a crawl space replacing pipes. And when I lost a blue stone from a favorite pair of earrings, he worked his magic with putty and a splotch of paint.
The four greatest words I know are “Dad will build it.” He’s spent his life creating, mending and improving the most valued parts of mine. He’s given me the greatest treasure a father can give—a piece of himself.