Monday, April 20, 2009

Life Tools

I was in my late teens, I remember. And I believe this was during my freshman year of college, as I moved off campus into my own apartment, where I lived alone for the rest of my undergraduate years. It could have been earlier, but it doesn't really matter. What matters is that this was a moment when I was taking a step toward independent, solitary living, and my father wanted to make sure that I was prepared. In terms of practical responsibility and emotional maturity, yes—but on this day also in terms of a toolbox. We went, the two of us, to a little mom-and-pop kind of hardware store in Fairfield, Connecticut, and talked about the basics. I didn't need much, Dad said, but I needed to be able to fix some things, to be self-reliant and not have to call a superintendent or handyman (emphasis on man) for matters that required only the right tool and a little bit of elbow grease. The first thing we did was pick out a box. It was small, rectangular, and fairly flat, made of metal and painted candy apple red. We walked the narrow aisles of the store together and surveyed the gadgets. Into the toolbox we placed a hammer, a box of nails, a pair of pliers, a wrench (which I never used), four screwdrivers (two flat, two Phillips-head, each in a large and small size), a retractable metal tape measure (the kind with a yellow latch to hold the extended tape in place and a belt-clip to keep it handy), plus an assortment of picture-hanging hooks. There may even have been a small roll of narrow black electrical tape and some Crazy Glue. The cashier unpacked everything, rang up all the items, put them back in the box. My dad paid for all of it; I thanked him; we drove back home. That's the memory—a simple errand that took perhaps a total of forty minutes door to door. But of course it was much more than that. Let it first be said up front: my father is not really a DIY kind of guy. Throughout the years, my mother and I learned to feign a mock terror (well, there was a touch of genuine apprehension mixed in) whenever my father headed for his own "fix it" kit or, god forbid, grabbed some electrical power tool from the garage. Let it also be said, I share his DNA. But neither of us is useless, and in fact we can manage the basics as well as anyone. Mostly I think our lack of real prowess has more to do with a shortage of time and interest than with any innate handicap. And the real point of the memory, the real lessons here still apply. Twenty-plus years and five states later, I still have the same toolbox. It's a bit more crowded now with additional hooks and screws and wire and random hex keys for in-line skates and children's toys and who knows what all. The latch on the front of the box is a bit loose, so care is needed when lifting it that everything doesn't spill out. No matter how much it bursts at the seams or refuses to stay shut, however, I can't imagine ever outgrowing it. It's become too sentimental and too symbolic. Every girl needs a red toolbox, needs to be told in myriad ways that yes, she can fix it (whatever it is) herself. I couldn't possibly count how many things have been broken over the years—material things and intangibles, broken only metaphorically. In the case of objects, most times the repair can be handled straight from the box. With life's bigger breakdowns, it's often true that my simple kit just can't do the job. But in those moments, I am not without resources; I do have other tools. Foremost among them, a grain of willpower and the desire for self-reliance. And when things feel too far gone, there is still the simple but powerful knowledge that I have the kind of father who cared enough to tell his teenage daughter that she could build and fix, patch and plug, construct what she wishes in this life. I know he still cares, and sometimes that and a hammer are really all that's needed . . . the hammer to do nothing more than drive the feeling home.

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