Thanks, Dad: Notes from a DIY Daughter

DIY woman tools

There’s this dream I have of one day being able to buy back the home my parents built. One of the saddest days of my youth was in tenth grade when I learned that a by-product of my parents’ divorce meant we were selling the family home.

They built it from foundation up, the largest home in our neighborhood. It was an American-style rustic country home that kept improving every year, mostly at the hands of my father, who did the heavy construction around the house.

Mom did the decorating, but it was Dad that built the bones. Retired now, Dad was a teacher who had a contracting company on the side for weekend jobs and summer income. He would  rumble off in his crappy, dented Ford F250, tools banging around in the back of that old brown truck. He’d build decks, do roofing, do anything it took to bring in a little extra.

The gift of resourcefulness

It’s only now that I’m older I realize how lucky I was to grow up in such a large, beautiful home. I remember being in tenth grade and visiting a friend’s home, shocked to see them so crammed in. It was the first time I ever knew that whole families could live in tiny apartments. I grew up just thinking everyone had a house. Ours, of course, wasn’t just a house. It was a magazine spread.

Despite how good it looked, my parents didn’t have money or my dad wouldn’t have had to work as hard as he did. Anything we had, we had because they had great taste and had creativity about how to make it happen. My mother sewed, my father hammered.

A scrapper

Dad was a scrapper. I remember him hearing about a demo and ripping all its hardwood out. He salvaged it all, restored it, installed it in our parlour, and resealed it. Wow, what a finished project, and all gotten through the old gritty way, a throwaway wood from a throwaway house, turned into a model living room.

Mom and Dad both used their resources that way. In their eyes, the house was never done. It kept getting better. They saw mistakes and improved them, like changing which room the bathroom door opened into, putting it on the opposite wall so it’d no longer open into the kitchen, but instead the living room. Or enclosing the giant balcony with windows so it could become a year-round bonus room filled with light and comfortable couches.

I remember him out in the yard, making a giant two-floor clubhouse for my brother and me, with a ring-enclosed roof we could climb a ladder to, for the coolest highest kid view in the area, since our lot was at the top of the local hills and the view was unimpeded.

The do-it-yourself dad

Tools and my dad seemed synonymous. Something was always getting built, fixed, or tweaked.

It made sense, then, after my mother’s death, when I got my first apartment alone as an adult, that Dad wanted to help with any work I needed doing. The end result were bookshelves he built from scratch. Rustic, chunky bookshelves that, 15 years later, are still the very first thing anyone compliments me on when they enter my home. They even look like they’re custom-built for this apartment, my third since he built them. Wherever I go, whatever I do, I suspect those bookshelves will stay with me till my dying day. My Dad doesn’t build now, so I cherish them more than you can know.

Always room to improve things

I can’t really imagine a father lacking DIY skills. I know they exist, but the DIY theme is so dominant in my life. It’s part of who I am, it’s in my DNA. My parents taught me resourcefulness. They taught me that there’s always room to improve things, and that you’re never necessarily done because your perspective about what you need can change dramatically.

My dad taught me to try fixing things before replacing them. I learned from him how to look for opportunity in unlikely places. He schooled me on how to hold a hammer properly, how to make corners flush, how to get a finely-sanded surface. My mom taught me to paint, wallpaper, and clean windows.

Maybe these aren’t the big-picture life skills we really need to learn, but they sure became pretty big-picture for me.

I’ll forever value my home, my space in the world, elements of design, fine woodworking, a job done well, and a little elbow-grease, because that’s what my parents taught me.

My DIY life

When it comes to my do-it-yourself life, it’s hard to know where the line is between what my dad taught me and what my mom did, and in the end, I don’t really care. I’m proud of the way I’ve used all those lessons I’ve learned from each over the years.

I’m glad I can fix a loose towel-rack in the bathroom with a butterfly drywall anchor, like they should’ve done when it was installed by “professional”. I’m glad I can look at a poorly repaired wall and scoff, knowing where they went wrong. I’m thrilled I’m more likely to find solutions than problems. I’m super-proud that I can take $25 and outfit a closet with a desk I’ve made from scratch.

Gift of resourcefulness

The gift of resourcefulness is a huge thing to inherit, and I know I’ll always be grateful for receiving it from my dad, and I’m really glad he’s still alive so I get to tell him so. Happy Father’s Day, Dad.

Here’s hoping all the fathers out there realize their can-do, Mr. Fix-it ways have more influence and appeal than they might realize. I applaud all the dads who turn off the power tools and take the time to explain what’s going on when their kid wanders in and goes, “Whatcha doin’, Dad?” You never know when it’s an explanation that might start a life-long passion, just like DIY is for me, even as I enter my 40s.


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