My mom tried her best to say it casually, but it was still such a painful sentence: “Steven honey, now that dad is in the nursing home and the town house is sold, before I give everything away you should go downstairs in the basement and take whatever you want.”
My dad was not a materialistic guy. He worried about money his entire life—to the point that even after he made it in business, he still reused his dental floss—after all, why throw away a perfectly good piece? And don’t get me started on the used tea bags wrapped in paper napkins he pulled out of his shirt pocket while asking the waitress for “just a little hot water.”
So what was left in the basement from a guy who wanted nothing? There was his tackle box, still filled with the lures, the sinkers and leaders, the hooks and bobbers from when I was a little boy and he rowed the boat across the lake on those rare Sundays he took me and my little brother Greg fishing for blue gills. He was tan, and young, and rowed like the strongest man in the world. Did I want his tackle box—what would I do with it? There aren’t any blue gills in LA.
There on the shelf, the grey, quilted long underwear he wore when he worked outside in the Minnesota cold at Leder Brothers’ Metal. Memories of dad at the junk yard washed over me. The noise, the dirt, the heat, the cold. Coming home with frost bitten fingers and toes after days in subzero weather making bails of aluminum and copper. I remember him lying in the bath tub before dinner just trying to thaw out—to soak off the grease and get warm again.
My barely high school educated parents married at 17 and 18, both fleeing their abusive fathers. With no idea that children like to be tucked in and read to at bed time, or should have toys, or be asked about school, they nevertheless had the five of us before they were thirty.
My Dad often made me cry. Rules were military strict, punishment was swift and the worst thing you could be was a ligner–Yiddish for liar. But his toughness and that junk yard put five kids through college and supported the eight family members he brought over from Chile when they had to flee the socialists. Four of them moved in with the seven of us in our three-bedroom home. Four moved in two houses down the block with Uncle Mort and his family of four in their three-bedroom house.
Somehow, no matter how dirty, how cold, how hard– Dad made things work. And not just mechanical things. He was a blue collar guy who lived in the world of shvartze jokes and fag jokes who turned his entire world view around to walk my gay brother down the aisle at his wedding. He was so strong. But what would I do with his stack of long underwear in LA?
Then, I saw it. The chest of drawers in the back–the one with the broken handles. And there they were—used, rusted, oily, older than my earliest childhood memories—my dad’s tools. Another rush of memories. Weekends and summers working with dad while he fixed things at the handful of buildings he bought over the years with cash from the junk yard. One look at that chest and I was riding again in his dirty gray Oldsmobile with that trunk full of old tools and a plunger.
I rode shotgun as we drove around Minneapolis on our way to fix things. Of course, first there were pancakes in the morning at the Town Talk Diner before we attacked the leaky faucet, the stuck door, or the clogged drain. And of course, there was mostaccioli and meat balls at Café D’Napoli afterward for lunch. I was his scrub nurse: “Hand me those pliers. Give me that hammer. Hold the measuring tape right there.”
He wasn’t good at it and neither was I, but somehow or another, things usually got patched together enough to keep going. I learned some tricks along the way too, like scraping the threads of a screw along a Shabbat candle before screwing it into a piece of wood. The wax made things go easier with less damage to the wood and my wrist. My dad didn’t throw things away and if he could fix something himself, he did, and if he could do it without anyone getting hurt–so much the better.
I took three tools from the chest of drawers to take back with me to my life in LA. “That’s all?” my mom asked when I ascended the basement stairs after wiping my tears. “Yeah. That’s all.”
Those tools called out to me from decades long past. His folding rule and his chalk line—physical metaphors, teaching me as a kid and reminding me as an adult about being a straight forward guy who measured things as they were— “no mishegas (nonsense), no schticklach (tickery)”—as my dad would put it. And a pipe wrench with the name “Aaron” engraved on it. A reminder of how my son Aaron and my dad played hardware store together.
First, dad laid a towel on the linoleum floor, then he and Aaron set up shop, removing each tool from the chest and displaying it on the towel. My dad always played the potential customer—Aaron the salesman.
“What’s this called and what’s it for?” he’d ask his little, freckled, five-year-old grandson.
“That’s a hammer. It hits nails into wood Papa.”
“How much is it to buy this hammer?”
“Five dollars Papa.”
“Oh, that’s too much money.”
Eventually, the price was negotiated down, the deal for the hammer was done and it was on to the screw driver.
One day, Dad pretended to buy the wrench from Aaron and then told him he was giving it back to him as a gift for all time. The deal was sealed when my dad took out his engraver and helped his amazed grandson etch A-A-R-O-N on its handle.
Most people don’t fix much of anything anymore. The toaster, the blender, the folding chair—they break, we shrug, we throw them away and buy a new one on Amazon delivered right to our door. We see the despair on the news, in the papers and on the streets. We stop, we look, we shrug, we move on. Someone hurts our feelings. We stop calling, we stop caring. We the children, grandchildren and great grandchildren of people who would not throw away a perfectly good piece of used dental floss—often throw away so much and fix so little.
My dad died last September after a ten-year journey through Alzheimer’s spent mostly silent in his nursing home wheel chair, asleep in a diaper and a bib. The work of his hands is done. Now, his tools are mine, and Aaron’s too. Those tools were old when I was young and they are even older now. They are dirty, worn, and scarred–etched with the memory of a Dad I miss so much who worked so hard to fix what could be fixed. A man who measured straight and true, then acted—no mishegas, no shticklach–never throwing a child, a family, or a used tea bag carelessly away.
I keep trying too; to fix what is broken with the imperfect tools I have been given. To fix and not discard, to care and not to shrug, to remember and never to forget that what is fractured can be healed; even my heart, this first Father’s Day without him….
Steve Leder is the author of More Beautiful Than Before; How Suffering Transforms Us, and the senior rabbi of Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles.