My dad died in January of this year. He was 92 years old. My sister and brother and I wrote his obituary and we did our best to capture not only the life he lived but how he lived it. Buzz, as he was known to his friends, was quite a force to be reckoned with… and this summer I realized how great a force he has been and will continue to be in my life.
As a wedding present, and when my parents were in their late 70s, they gave me the deed to a cabin that they purchased when they were first married in the 1940s. The cabin is on a small island in an inland lake in Maine. There is no electricity, no running water, but there are propane lights and appliances and a hand pump for washing. Oh and a composting toilet. It sounds magical (okay, except, perhaps, for the toilet), and for the most part it is.
My mom and dad, their friends, and my older brothers (and later my older sister) all participated, over several decades, in the renovation of the little fishing shack that came with the island. They turned this little shelter into a functioning house, with a clearly delineated kitchen, eating area and living room…as well as two bedrooms. They added two sleeping cabins. My parents spent every weekend they could driving many hours from Massachusetts, with a growing carload of kids and dogs, to hammer nails, create walls, hang windows, fill in swampy areas with sand from the sandbar, and of course, enjoy “cocktail time” on the deck.
My father’s presence permeates the place. There is not a nail on that island that he did not hammer himself, or in his later years, supervise the hammering by others. And be it by design or otherwise, the place has not changed very much in 70 years, and as result it feels to me like Dad is still there.
Last winter was a nasty one and while the island did not suffer damage, the wind and cold and snow did a number on the exterior of the house. Because I live in Ohio now I asked others to check on the place in the spring to see how it had weathered. I got news like “well the place is looking tired, but then again it always has…” The house looked sad and neglected. Whether intentional or not, I vowed that I would work hard this summer to make the place look respectable.
I realize now that I was deeply hurt by those comments, because I felt they implied I had somehow let my dad down.
During the month of July, along with my husband and my best friend, we spent a considerable amount of time on the island trying to fix things up. You can see some of our accomplishments here. But there was one moment in particular that, while not my brightest or best moment, made me realize that while Dad and others built this place and did things in a certain way, my Dad was not here anymore to advise, recommend, command or supervise. And that for good or for bad, I had to start making my decisions independent of him.
Here’s what happened: there are 24 sets of single pane wood framed windows on the main house. All of them were originally hung in the 1950s and remarkably only one pair of them has rotted to the point of needing to be replaced. Which meant that as part of the face lift this summer, the other 22 sets had to be stripped, and the caulking or glaze that held the panes of glass had to be removed and replaced.
As a kid I grew up hammering nails into things and later standing on ladders and reglazing windows. I remembering standing on ladders and working on the windows as they hung off the house. I never once remember taking the windows down because I always remembered an unspoken fear that they would never go back… that our tools wouldn’t suffice, that it would unearth ever more work…whatever. It was backbreaking work.
Of course it made sense, A LOT OF SENSE, to take the windows down and to work on them on a flat surface. Deep down I knew that, but when my best friend suggested it, I dismissed the suggestion. My rationale? “We have always done it this way.” Ugh, I cringe even thinking I said that but I did. It was my emotions and my memory of how Dad would have done things, how he told us to do things, that got in the way. And I was afraid, seriously afraid, that I was going to do it wrong if I did it any other way. Even though the other way made a lot of sense. Even though the way were doing it was exhausting and even dangerous (a sizzling heatgun, a rickety aluminum ladder and uneven ground underneath…what could possibly go wrong?).
But this was 2014. The way we do things has changed. We had a generator for one. We had power tools for another. All of these things were meant to help us work smarter, and still I could not give up on how I remembered it being done, by my Dad, and with a lot of sweat and swearing, in the past.
And I also wasn’t proud of the fact that when a contractor from the shore later made that very same suggestion about how to work smarter… I listened. My best friend dissolved into tears put of frustration and exhaustion, and I soon followed suit. My reason for switching gears, in retrospect, was equally bizarre: I knew that if what I feared was true (that the windows wouldn’t go back, that we unearthed untold disasters when we took the windows down, etc etc etc) that this guy and his power tools would rescue us. Correction: rescue me. Rescue me from potentially screwing up my dad’s work, his legacy, the history of the place…everything. And yes, I was afraid that my dad, somewhere out there, would disapprove.
There were many beers that evening, and I am happy to report that my best friend did not evacuate to shore. In the end, we worked just as hard but we did it more efficiently (and safely). And also in the end, very slowly, very gradually… I assumed the role of owner, caretaker, and decision-maker for the place.
I grieved a lot for a long time in July over the fact that my dad is no longer here for me to ask questions and get advice. And then it dawned on me that the best way I could honor his legacy was not to do continue to it his way, the way we have always done it, but to do it the best way possible with the tools and the techniques and the people I could pull together to do the work with me.
I will never have the skills my dad did when it came to building and maintaining things. I know that and I know I have to stop regretting that. I know my physical limitations and am learning to live with them. It took a while, some would say a very long while, to realize that just as I do in my professional life I also need to do here on this island: rely upon the support and the ideas and the creativity of the community of people that love this place to fill in the gaps where my knowledge and my physical abilities lag. Basically, to trust in the wisdom of others and for me to get the hell out of the way and allow them to be wise.
The month of July on the island was a cathartic time for me. I realize I miss my dad more than I can ever fully say. But I also realized that there is no need to live or work in his shadow. Rather, I can honor his legacy, as can my family and friends, by caring for the island based on the reality and the possibilities of today, not just how it was done in the 1950s.
And in the end, I think that was Dad’s plan all along…it just took me a while to figure that one out.