Master of the Essential

Master of the Essential

By David Daniel

My father was forever busy, but what he busied himself with bears examination.

Like there’d be a pressing need to fix a leaky faucet or replace a broken stair tread—always something wearing out in the small Cape Cod-style house where our family of five made do in six rooms and a bath—but he’d perceive that the set of wind chimes he’d fashioned out of seashells, beach glass, and fishing line needed to be re-tuned. Or he’d discover an old half-full can of paint and determine that the cellar door could use a fresh coat, never mind that the paint wasn’t a color match and the door was in a darkened, disused corner of the basement, festooned with cobwebs and soft with dry rot. In my father’s mind, this needed doing at once.

His time casting a hand-tied fly line onto streams choked with alder and sassafras, or sitting on the porch of a July evening listening to the Red Sox ballgame on the radio while mosquitoes buzzed through screens that wanted repair and the lawn grew lush with dandelions, were in the mix, too. But it was as if some signal, perhaps in the blink of fireflies or in the timbre of unseen bullfrogs in the swamp, assured him all was well. Sitting placidly while neighbors’ lawnmowers snarled and my mother’s “orders” faded down the hallway was a commonplace. Yet it wasn’t idleness, such as, say, whiling away time on barstools might have been; for one thing, he never drank, this despite sharing a name with an iconic Tennessee whiskey. No, he was always occupied in some fashion.

His repair kit light on hand tools, heavy on tins of wood dough and rolls of black friction tape—the quick-fix nostrums of the do-it-yourselfer—he was a master of the non-essential enterprise. Like cleaning grit from the cracks on the porch (while the steps themselves were in danger of collapse), or polishing the sink chrome (when a plumbing snake down the plugged drain would have been to better effect). His mechanical fixes routinely resulted in a small collection of leftover parts, which he would stow in a coffee can for some future use.

His ubiquitous tool was the ever-sharp pocketknife with which he would whittle flutes and slingshots for his three sons, and, years later, in the retired quiet of his basement lair, carve ornamental duck decoys.

My mother’s nudging, never badgering or profane, was just a kind of ever-present Greek chorus to the small dramas of our routine working-class lives.

Did my father ever expend a moment trying to figure ways to afford a better car than the neighbors’, most of which were bought new? He did not. He preferred Simonizing the used vehicles he traded for in succession, blacking the tires and taking a razor to the inside glass to scrape off the tar and nicotine deposited by the cigarettes of previous owners. It was his example that disheartened us boys from smoking when it might’ve been the sexy thing to do; and when a bunch of us kids turned sixteen it was his patient hand that taught us to drive.

My brothers’ and my friends would gather in our backyard to listen to the stories that Dad, always willing to break away from some task, would slowly unspool in the lazy summertime shade of maple trees.

The scoutmaster of the Boy Scout troop my brother Jake and I belonged to had grown up on Martha’s Vineyard and late in life decided to subdivide his land there into several smaller lots and offer them for sale to families from the Congregational church that hosted our troop. Some years later—approaching manhood—I learned that my folks had been given an opportunity to purchase a lot for thirty thousand dollars. “Dad!” I said in horror. “Thirty K to own property on the Vineyard!”

He only nodded mildly and said, “Son, it might as well have been thirty million. We didn’t have the money.”

I swore then that when I grew up I’d never be like him, never follow in his footsteps.

But, thank goodness, that’s what I’ve gone and done.

8 Responses to Master of the Essential

  1. Jim Provencher says:

    Dave’s tender wisdom evoked here in ‘Essentials,’ a kind of bequeathed Manual for Being modeled and embodied by the father.
    Once-deemed non-essentials ironically emerge much later as THE Essentials, what could be called, Essentials of Being present in the world: the greatest gift one can pass on, as father or writer.

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