He was “Dad” to my brothers, “Daddy” sometimes, Henry to most and Hank to his co-workers. How could one average sized man carry so many aliases? To me, one on one, he was “Pa”. It wasn’t tradition nor a moment when as a child I could not pronounce something. The term of endearment came after watching Gerald O ‘Hara, the raucous, poker playing, horseback riding father in “Gone With the Wind, take charge of his property. Henry was, when his wife allowed it, the master of the house. I liked the sound of it and it stuck. “Pa”.
My father was not loud but I hope this story is. My mother generally received my accolades and admonishment. It wasn’t that she loved more or nurtured more, she simply talked more. No one could accuse my father of talking too much unless the topic caught his interest. It was clear whose son my brother Randy was. Not one person ever came up to me and said, “Your dad is the life of the party, he never shuts up.” There was no condolence card after losing him which read, “The thing I’ll miss most was his boisterous nature,” or “The world will be a quieter place without him.” That honor, when the time comes, is reserved for Dennis, more our mother in that respect. Several words did however resonate—gentleman, friend and master craftsman.
“Pa, why do work so much?” It seemed a fair question. Normally my father would leave the house around six in the morning, well groomed and tidily dressed, then return around five-thirty. There were those Saturdays when he would leave us, usually when the company had “a big job” to finish up. He’d look at me, Raisin Bran in bowl, spoon in hand and simply say, “Because.”
Because? That wasn’t an answer and defined nothing. It wasn’t until today, nineteen years after his death, that simple, single word defined everything.
If you need to fix a flat tire don’t call me. I’m not the one to install a railing or build an outdoor structure. If your kitchen needs renovation or table needs refinishing delete my number. The man you wanted was Henry. There was nothing he couldn’t do and no one he wouldn’t do it for, though to my mother’s dismay it all would be done “gratis.”
“Your father’s a fool,” she’d say, “He gives his talent away.”
During my impressionable years, statements such as that left an impact. Could we have lived better had he been less generous? Did the fact he gave of himself make him weak or strong and what was the litmus test for that? Money? I’d never known him to publicly want more. Cars? He preferred his Ford pickup. Clothing? That wasn’t his “thing”, it was my mother’s and mine. So what motivated him?
“Pa, why don’t you charge people when you build them stuff? Why give it away?”
“Because.” He never hesitated. Because.
Again with the one word answer. It was frustrating. Did he not think himself to have value? Did he not think of the Cadillac I wanted him, and ultimately me, to drive? It seemed a weak trait. There is, after all, value in your skill and with value comes compensation. And then one day…
I was 30 years old when my parents renovated their swimming pool. The old deck and filter house had been torn down and a new pool house was needed. Taking pencil to pad I sketched. “This is what you need, it should have columns and a changing room. Maybe a kitchen. Yes, a kitchen.”
“Slow it down, we don’t need the kitchen. But a changing room would be nice.” She saw herself continually prepping meals poolside. It was unappealing.
My dad, a carpenter, agreed and my mother thought it a good idea for me to be part of the process. I’d never built anything in my life except model planes, some rockets, Lincoln logs and LEGO houses. Not exactly an impressive resume.
“Your father will guide you. Listen to him carefully and he’ll show you all you’ll need to know.”
She had been my mentor. I could sew, put together a smart little cocktail party, cook a spontaneous dinner and even give a crackerjack manicure if necessary, but carpentry? That was more Dennis and Randy’s schtick with our father.
He handed me the hammer. “Strike it like this,” he said, hitting both metals together with accurate precision. He was a sharp shooter. “Once, twice, three times. And watch your fingers.”
It was as if he’d cursed me. The first strike caught my thumb. With the second it would bend to the left. “No, watch me.” I studied the rhythm carefully and caught it. After five more attempts I could “tow” the nails and it wasn’t long before we used a level as God, or Stanley, intended. I never knew the satisfaction of corners that were plumb. Sweat and a tan came under the hot summer sun while shingling the roof. Together we installed the glass front door and side windows and did it all with only minor skirmishes. It was while working to fortify the walls, when he held up two different fasteners.
“This is the female and this is the male.” In his voice was great seriousness.
“You’re joking.” The day had suddenly become awkward.
“Are you going to take this seriously or not, because I’m not going to waste my time.” It was the most he’d said to me in six months.
I looked at my mother who shrugged her shoulders and pointed toward my dad.
“Listen to him.”
“So you put a little Vaseline on the male.” He was lubricating the long piece between his fingers and I wanted to run. “Now, slip it into the female. There. That’s how you do it.”
He looked at me smiling. Had I just watched my father engage in construction foreplay? I’d never even seen him leave the shower. I looked to my mother who looked mockingly at him.
“You know Henry, twenty years ago that kid came home because Parker Johnson told him you put your penis in me and babies came out. Where were you then? NOW, when he’s 31 years old and it’s too late, you finally step up to the plate.”
It’s amazing what you can do when you must. After one year of staring at the peeling paint of the pool house we’d built, I gathered my “Pa” motivation. From the garage came two paint rollers, a brush, a pan and one gallon of pure white paint. Along with them a ladder, rag and pruning shears for the wisteria which climbed vigorously over the trim. It had been a gift to my mother. I set up and began to work, dipping the roller in the paint and feeling the smooth sensation as it glided along the wood.
Bit by bit, roll by roll, the pool house seemed to come back to life. Each column was renewed, gleaming and seemingly thanking me, though my skills are at best mediocre. I looked at each board, the glass front door and window trim and remembered putting the entire puzzle together. But it wasn’t until I looked at the nails, driven superbly into the wood, that the greater puzzle took shape.
Stepping back I looked at the small, modest pool house. There were many times, even recently, when the thought of tearing it down and having a new one built arose. The wisteria, wild and twining, should be replaced with something less invasive and more maintenance free. Suddenly, while gazing at my slightly sub-par painting, the full sentence comes to me. Why do I keep this as is and waste my time repairing it?
Because. Because I love it. Because I loved him. Because it gives me pleasure. Because it respresents who he was and who I hope to be. I do it because he loved doing it. Because helping others is compensation enough. Because he was generous. Because like so many other times in life, we don’t always see what we have. Until we have to paint it.