I am without parents these days, it would appear. And, for better or worse, they are always with me. I have just moved into a new home, and although I have not unpacked any family photos yet, on this Father's Day I am very aware of my Daddy, Harry Skolnick, as he lives on in my memory and DNA.
The floors of my spacious new closets are now lined with shelving from my former apartment that I don't dare attempt to do anything with. I'm completely useless when it comes to installing shelves...or hooking up or troubleshooting most electronics...or putting together anything marked "assembly required." I often try to do these things myself, because I think, as a woman living alone, that I ought to be more self-sufficient, handier, hardier. So I don't often call for help until I make a large hole in the sheetrock, or tear a ligament.
When my Daddy was alive, it was another story. It's not that he was the most capable handyman around; he didn't read directions, and aesthetics mattered not a whit to him. I'll never forget the bookcase he constructed for my first apartment. I was going to buy one, but I was practically penniless, so he insisted, "Daddy will make it for you." (He loved to refer to himself as "Daddy," rather than use the pronoun "I.") Perhaps I should have whipped out the credit card, because the finished product was...different. It was constructed of solid wood, yes, but with deep holes in places, making it look shabby rather than shabby-chic. He varnished the piece, but neglected to erase the pencil marks indicating where the (immovable) shelves would go. Oh, and the bookcase tilted forward, ever so slightly, making it necessary to shove all of the books back a couple of inches every few days.
I wasn't gracious about it. However, I kept that bookcase for more than 20 years.
Shortly thereafter, I needed a desk, because my old fiberboard student desk from Pergament started listing to one side...and anyway, I'd become a "serious" writer and felt I had outgrown it. Again, I couldn't really afford a new desk on my editorial assistant's salary. One day as I was leaving my apartment, I noticed the skeletal remains of a desk on a trash heap near the corner of Union Turnpike and Queens Boulevard. I ran back home and phoned my parents.
"Daddy," I said, "I'm not sure if it's worth it, but...there's most of an old wooden desk outside, it has no legs, no drawer pulls, there's some bad Contac paper stuck to the top, and it's painted black..."
"Stand guard over it, I'll be right over," he said. Forty minutes later, my father arrived from West Hempstead with muscle and bungee cords. He tied the detritus to the top of his car, and within days I had a desk...sanded down, sort of, with legs that didn't match the body, and hardware that looked like it had landed on it by accident.
I most likely complained about the amount of time it took him to complete the restoration, and probably didn't compliment him on a job well done either. And, I held onto that piece for a long time, too.
At times like these, I miss my father, and I would hope—since he's been the topic of much self-inquiry—that I would be nicer to him as he tried to please me and be helpful. I've only been in my new apartment for a few days, and I've already messed up one of the walls in my bedroom, attempting to install a simple lamp bracket. This time, I called a female friend who owns power tools. She did a cleaner job than my father, and also applauded my efforts to do it myself.
Were it within his power, my dad would be here today making marks all over the walls, scratching up my nice, expensive shelves, and installing them over my complaints and protests. He'd chide me for trying to do things that it's not my job to do, and he'd be right.
My father always seemed a little uncomfortable with Father's Day. He was better at giving than receiving. He'd thank me for his Father's Day gifts, then quickly put them away in his bureau and forget about them, unless they were very practical items, like a much-needed new wallet, or the plain, utilitarian undershirts he would have bought for himself anyway.
Only one time did my father appear to be very happy with a gift I gave him. He was extremely hard of hearing—deaf in one ear and half-deaf in the other, I believe as a result of having his ears boxed as a child by abusive foster parents. Talking to him on the phone was frustrating to me, while he would have happily stayed on for an hour going, "Hanh? Speak up, Carol, goddammit." One Father's Day, I bought him a phone amplifier; I worried that he'd be insulted, since he was very sensitive about his deafness. I fretted that he'd see through me, because the gift was more for my convenience than for his comfort.
When he unwrapped it, he put it on the dining room phone receiver immediately, saying, "This is the best gift I ever got."
I used to think my father didn't hear me, in any way. And I saw in that moment that he wanted to. I had been the deaf, clueless one in our relationship, but only for 30 years.
My father isn't here...is that true? Not at all. Though he passed away in May of 1990, I can easily picture "'Andsome 'Arry" in his prime, flipping burgers on the backyard barbecue, which he liked to do on summer Sundays and especialy on Father's Day, wisely keeping me away from anything to do with flames and sharp implements while he barked at my mother and me to bring him this or that ingredient. And, with much gratitude to him for being truthful with me about my limitations, and a new realization that I am not a "helpless female" as long as I've got the Yellow Pages and some cash, I'm going to hire someone capable to put up my shelves.