My father was a hardworking carpenter who prided himself on being a good provider and who expected dinner to be ready when he got home from work. He’d been born into a family of first generation immigrants and had come of age during the Great Depression. When I was born he was working as lead carpenter at the Hartford Electric Light Company which had been deemed an essential domestic industry during WW 2 so he’d been excused from military service. He was apparently well-respected there as a hard worker and skillful tradesman. By the time he retired he was supervising a small crew. He and I never developed a particularly close relationship.
I’ve had trouble finding the right title for this post. Webster defines “homage” as “…..something that is done to honor someone…..”. That’s not what this is. It’s not a paen either for that’s “……a thing that expresses enthusiastic praise….” I thought about calling it “Remembrances of…”, or “Reflections on my Father” but the memories are not what are important here. What I’ve wanted to express is the feelings I now have for him. For even though we shared a great deal genetically and ethnically, I didn’t feel my father and I connected emotionally or intellectually when he was alive. Now, however, I have a better sense of what it was like to be him. I don’t really feel closer to him in the usual sense of the word which implies an emotional closeness. But he’s less remote.
He was a man of few words. He took for granted, I imagine, that child-rearing, like housework and doing dishes, was best left to women. I don’t recall him ever playing a game with me, though he did enjoy playing poker with his old childhood buddies. He loved to fish, and when I reached the age of ten or so he did take me trout fishing at a nearby pond. He’d drop me off on one side with some worms, then go to the other to fly cast.
From what I can recall, hunting and fishing were his only hobbies. He didn’t read much, had no collections. He wasn’t much of a sports fan though he did listen to big boxing matches on the radio. He’d had an English setter before I was born. It was my mother who told me how he had trained it himself, and how much he enjoyed hunting pheasants with it, though we never hunted together as I was growing up. It was my uncles who taught me how and I did enjoy hunting quite a bit after he died.
I’ve often thought about why I enjoy these two “ blood sports”. I don’t consider myself at all macho – in fact I consider machismo kind of “uncouth” and feel scornful of those who are. I never considered my father to be macho either – but I suppose there may be an element of that in both of us. I do think there may be something primitive written in my genes that derives satisfaction from returning from the hunt with food.
Male cardinals in North America and male blue tits in Europe both regularly bring food to their incubating mates – bird behaviors which seem much more likely to be driven by genetics than by any conscious desire to be macho. Even as a kid, I was drawn to natural history. During visits to the American Museum of Natural History in New York my favorite halls were the ones involving the animal dioramas. And for me, one of the attractions of both hunting and fishing is the way one needs to remain intensely aware of one’s natural surroundings and of the likely behaviors of one’s quarry. It’s hard to know if that was a factor for my father; he may have felt drawn to that dimension of hunting and fishing but if he was, he never spoke of it.
I think both hunting and fishing do connect me to him in some way, though. Perhaps part of it is the simple idea that since he did it when I was a child, I should do it now that I am “grown up.” But there’s more to it than that. The gaps between us in years and temperaments and interests and states of being shrink when I fish from a rock that I watched him fish from when I was a boy. The gap gets even smaller when I use one of the lures he made.
Before I was born and well before they ever owned a year round house in Hartford, my parents had built a small cottage on the Rhode Island shore when land prices there were in the tank following the Great Hurricane of 1938. He provided the labor and I suspect that much of the hardware in the place and maybe even some of the lumber was courtesy of Hartford Electric Light. He was clearly a good craftsman. I have a couple of his well worn hand tools in my workshop and it pleases me to use them.
Now, over 80 years later, the section of the cottage which my wife and I have not deconstructed is as sound and snug as the day he built it. Even much of his original joinery remains in good shape, including the dadoes and tongue-in-groove wooden windows, while the high end manufactured windows we installed in the year round place we built fourteen years ago have begun to fail. And while he didn’t care a bit about automobile maintenance (I don’t think he ever changed the oil in our cars) one of my enduring memories is of him meticulously scraping and repainting the woodwork of the cottage he’d built.
Last year we never got to the place because of COVID 19 travel restrictions. It’s proximity to the sea is hard on paint so there’s been even more scraping and painting to be done this year, and as I‘ve been doing it I feel closer to my father than I ever did while he was alive. Somehow, scraping off the loose paint, meticulously feathering the edges of the stuff that won’t scrape off, running the new paint just enough onto the glass that it seals the gap between it and the putty but isn’t visible as a splotch – that process connects me to him
It’s not exactly a feeling of fondness, or even respect, particularly. It’s more as though I understand where he was coming from and I’m now pretty much in the same place. When I’m focused on the job at hand – getting the paint on and dry enough before the weather turns bad – and a friend, even a friend I haven’t seen in a while, stops by to chat, I’m impatient. After the initial pleasantries I’m ready to say goodbye. If they aren’t, I go back to painting, even though it may look rude. And if it’s a familiar acquaintance who just likes to chat, even the pleasantries are barely pleasant.
I’d observed that same scenario play out dozens of times with my father but only recently did it come to mind when a friend stopped by as I was painting. But the weather was threatening and if the paint dries in the brush it is the devil to clean off. So I kept painting.
Today we use the part of the original uninsulated cottage which remains as a bunkhouse for grandkids and a place for me to work on my fishing gear. When I do that I again get that paternal connection. I still have the mold he hand-carved out of sandstone for making his own metal jigs. He melted down junked refrigerator coils to cast his. I use an ingot of pewter a goldsmith friend got me for mine. He tied his own bucktail hooks; I buy mine. But catching a striped bass on one of those jigs evokes a cascade of feelings and memories: the image of him casting into the surf – pipe clenched in his teeth Aldo Leopold style; the outdoorsy smell of his fishing clothes. I’m sure he knew a lot of tricks about how and when to catch stripers – he sometimes caught enough to sell a batch to a local fish restaurant. I’ve learned my tricks from scratch as I suspect he did.
Sometimes when I’m fishing from one of his spots, or scraping a window he too scraped years ago, I feel much closer to him than when he was alive. I think of questions I’d like to ask him but never did. When planing a piece of wood, how does one keep the plane from chattering? What did it feel like when you saved that man from drowning when the bridge over the Connecticut River near the Electric Light Company collapsed? What were your dad and mom like? Who taught you to fish? Things like that. Then I try to imagine his answers. I’m not channelling him, exactly, but I do feel we are, to some degree, more connected. It’s a good feeling.