"Daddy, why are you fixing the sink?" my daughter asked me this morning on the way to Home Depot.
Our faucet went out on us this week. This morning had been my first opportunity to replace it. I don’t always have the time (or the skill) for these tasks, but as I wasn’t able to reach the plumbers before the weekend, I decided to give it a try. I made a list of all that we needed for the job and had both kids in the car before my wife got up this morning.
"Because the sink is broken Sweetie," I said, thinking this would explain the situation. This was an incorrect assumption.
"Why?" she asked, and repeated the same question unhurriedly to each new answer I supplied.
"Because we need water ... because I don't want to be thirsty ... so we can boil water to make mac and cheese for lunch ... so I can fill a pond for the fish to swim in ... because I want a water bed tonight ... etc ..." she didn't tire of asking and I did my best to supply interesting (if sometimes implausible) answers.
This can be fun. When she gets into a Why mood, I use her questions as an opportunity to test my imagination; to see how many things I can list and keep it entertaining. It's a very old game for me - I started in college. But until my children came, I never had an audience patient enough to play.
"Ugh! Enough!," my wife (then my fiance) would say when I was in a silly mood and like Elizabeth Barrett Browning, in her Sonnets from the Portuguese, listed out all the ways I loved her.
"I love you enough to stop," I would say with a grin. She groaned. It's amazing she agreed to marry me.
But my daughter is still young enough to be entertained by my nonsense. Or so I think. Maybe she's just delighted to keep asking Why. It doesn’t matter I suppose - it’s just fun.
I was looking forward to this morning with the kids. I look forward to any morning where I can do something useful with them that involves an errand out of the house: Going to storage; going to their Grandmother’s house; returning books to the library ... Sorry ... I'm doing it again.
I also like it because it reminds me of time I spent with my father as a boy.
Dad was working pretty hard when I was my daughter's age. He traveled for his job and worked late when he was in town. He rarely had time to play. But he did lots of home repair and lots of errands on the weekends. And I was his regular companion for these sessions.
Sometimes my younger sisters would come with us, but mostly it was just the two of us. This may have been because of an arrangement that my parents had for keeping us kids grouped into manageable numbers. It may just have happened naturally. I suppose I never asked.
I liked these working mornings with Dad because he was almost always in a good mood - an experience rarely seen at the end of his long days during the week. He was also uncharacteristically talkative and I learned a lot about him that might otherwise have remained unknown to me.
I also learned to get up early and to be ready - Dad didn’t like delays. He would have an early breakfast and coffee with my mother before starting. They’d talk and eat while he wrote out his plans on a sheet of blue lined paper in black ink.
His writing looked to me like little scratches and bubbles. Sometimes - when my mother was occupied - he’d look at the ceiling and mutter and look down and scratch, scribble and circling certain lines without flourish. An unfamiliar observer might have thought he was a little crazed as he did this. I think it of it now as a kind of a code that he used; something more direct than language; something that more concretely transcribed his ideas. It also acted like a kind of enchantment, something a sorcerer or druid would use to put a good spell on an endeavor. It was his ritual.
He’d finish up his thinking, fold the list and put it in his pocket. Sometimes, he’d tape it to the dashboard of the car with Scotch Tape. It would ride around with us all morning (or all day). I’d look at it as we made our way to the garden shop or the lumber yard or the hardware store and wonder what it was all about.
"Can we go home now?" my daughter said to me as we were on route from the first Home Depot to the second (the faucet model was out of stock in the first). My son was making restless noises as well.
I remember being like that too; a chatterbox kid with a lot of questions and little endurance. My Dad probably had his hands full with me.
I stopped for Munchkins for the kids and coffee for me and we completed our shopping trip. When we got home, I set my daughter and son up with their toys and I set to work on the kitchen sink; each of us had our diversion. It worked out well.
The kids were quiet (lucky), the old faucet came out with little trouble (unusually lucky), and I had all the tools and pieces I needed for the job (astounding). Within two hours the job was complete.
“Daddy fixed the sink!” my daughter announced to my wife when she arrived.
“Wow,” she said with convincing enthusiasm, “You did it. Thanks.”
I stood around the kitchen for a bit, enjoying the good feeling while the kids got their lunch and my wife tested out the new faucet. It was nice. I showered and ate and (God bless her) my wife let me take a short nap. I felt (in a small way) like a victorious Roman general, circling the streets of Rome in a chariot, a hero for the day. It was well.
It’s felt like a tough week until now. I knew I needed to do something to pull me out of my rut. And when I’m at a loss, I look back to my Dad’s example for inspiration. Putting that list together, bringing the kids along for the ride and fixing something on my day off. It’s something he did many times. It put my mind back into a good place , helped to calm me down and put things in perspective.
Things are not that bad.
I’m looking at my list now as I write. It’s different from Dad’s.
I prefer unruled 4x6 index cards and blue ink. I don’t make circles or bubbles. There are four even creases where I folded it to fit into my pocket. Sometimes, I’ll even keep an old list in my wallet for a week or so if it’s been a particularly good day. Like a touchstone, it seems to hold some native power for a while and helps me recall a plan that went well.
It may even begin to explain why I like poetic lists so much too.
It’s out of fashion now in literature - a tour de force list. The ancient poets used to invoke it with the phrase ubi sunt or where are. It was an invocation that opened up all of history to them. They could use it to trot out all the great warriors or artists or poets from ages past and make their lists both engrossing and entertaining. Homer, Virgil, the Beowulf Poet, Spencer, Milton and even Wordsworth all practiced these. When it was done well, it was the signature of a master.
I’m sure my Dad did not have any of this in mind when he was making his own lists. His (and mine) are of a more practical nature. But there is a power in them when they’re done correctly whether useful or artistic. I return to them when I’m confused. And today a list helped fix something useful that was broken.
See you tomorrow.