In the arrogance of memory, I had come to think of my Dad as not being able to do things, to fix physical things. My father was an intellectual, a Mathematics professor, a reader of Thomas Aquinas. He was a photographer, and a pretty fair piano player. For recreation he played chess, and hardly watched TV except for the news or other special occasions.
My memory was shaped by the end game in the old house on Pleasant Street: the panel missing in the ceiling of the downstairs living room, the poorly constructed second floor joists exposed, and the drain pipes that ran flat and uneven below the second floor bathroom and dripped whenever a bathtub full of water was released. Toward the end my parents kept a large pan in the living room, and the pan, placed just in front of one of the worn couches, would catch the drip.
1958. Our family moved back to Massachusetts, to my father’s new job at Merrimack College, and the massive rambling farm house on Pleasant Street in West Andover. Farming in West Andover was ending. The last family to live in this house was the Dixon’s, who retired from farming, left the house in a state of disrepair, and built a new modern house around the corner. So maintenance was an uphill battle from the start. My parents were 35.
The first work on the Pleasant Street house was repair of the L-shaped two story shed attached to the back of the main house. With the help of friends, my father replaced the large beam at the base of the wall. Our family had little extra money, so a full restoration of the interior remained a dream, The ground floor remained a storage shed for successions of bicycles and other tools, and the two dusty rooms in the top floor were stages for numerous children’s projects and fantasies.
The main part of the Pleasant Street house sat on a fieldstone foundation, the top of which was a couple of feet above the ground level. The house was two stories, each ceiling somewhat higher than modern construction. Above that was a full attic, with a steeply pitched roof at the top. The roof leaked, so early on my father, with the help of friends, re-shingled the roof. The tall, skinny ladders seemed dwarfed against the side of the house. Standing close to the walls, craning my head back to see the sharp edge of the roof cutting across the sky, the ladders seemed to ascend forever. Working from those ladders, they fastened brackets on the roof, much like the metal shelf brackets that you would fasten to a wall to make book shelves. Long boards were hauled up the ladders and rested across the brackets. These boards kept the men from sliding off as they worked their way along the length of the roof and up toward the peak with row after row of new shingle.
Another summer. I was fourteen. The grass grew unkempt on the edge of the gravel driveway. The left rear spring of the black hand-me-down DeSoto had begun to sag dangerously. It was morning: the light slanted across the front yard and the dew sparkled on the grass. My father and I got out the bumper jack and jacked up the left rear really high. We blocked up the frame and rear axle with cinder blocks and an old beam from the barn. Our shirts were damp with sweat, and gravel and grass ground into our jeans as we wrestled the rusty nuts, shackles and U-bolts with breaker bars, hack saws, and a bit of cursing under our breath.
When the long, multi-layered leaf spring was finally free, we headed for Lawrence in the rusted out Plymouth. We waited through the afternoon at the spring shop, a dark barn of glowing ovens, dirt floors, light sifting through a haze of rust that floated up from wire buffers and grinding wheels. Men in grimy coveralls and damp gray skin disassembled our spring. Then they heated each leaf orange in a glowing oven, bent it back across a vice just so by eyeball and instinct, and quenched it in a tub of oil and water to harden in its new curve.
By the next afternoon we had the DeSoto back together again. The left rear sat a little higher than the right, but good enough for a couple more years. I learned to drive in this car, up and down the driveway, kicking up gravel from a spinning rear tire and stomping on the brakes to cause a small but satisfactory skid. And I learned from my father the feeling of physical work, the satisfaction of changing things. I feel like a fool for forgetting all this. The lesson my father couldn’t teach me, for there are some things that a person can’t learn from their parents, is that after a while we all get a little tired. I am having to learn that lesson on my own.
© Frank Kearns 2015