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“It was a lousy $1,500!” my dad would exclaim while my brothers and I helped him work on the basement. “All they were asking was a lousy $1,500 to finish this basement and we’d be able to do something more important.”
My parents bought their house in 1960 for $20,000. It was a new raised ranch house in the suburbs and at the margins of what they could afford on a teacher’s salary. The developer said that a finished basement added $1,500 to the final price, but my dad calculated that with two boys growing into dad’s helper’s age, he could finish it over time. He had the skills. His own dad had been an electrician and my dad learned from him the basic construction skills while he worked for him during high school during summers and weekends.
Four more sons and 30 years later, we finally finished the basement in the form that it’s still in today.
The Trouble Light
All my brothers and I started the process with the same question our dad had asked his own father when he was about eight. “Dad? Can I help you with something?”
The answer was the same that his father gave him. “Sure. Why don’t you hold the trouble light?”
We could have been outside on the equator on the summer equinox at noon on a cloudless day and he would have said “Sure. Why don’t you hold the trouble light?”
Holding the trouble light, we could observe what dad was working on, wiring switches, sawing two by fours, putting up drywall, remodeling a bathroom, or installing a new door. In turn, we’d all learn the skills. Swing a hammer. Use a screwdriver. Cut wood. Use a wrecking bar. Tear out walls. Tape, mud, and sand drywall. Replace pipes under a sink.
We watched, we learned, we listened. When he asked for “that thing over there” we’d know exactly what tool he needed. We could anticipate the need and help him do the job.
We didn’t realize it at the time, but he taught us some of the most important things we’d ever learn in life during this time as he taught us the lessons he learned from his own father and his father’s life. Lessons about taking time to understand other people, and not letting disagreements and people letting you down let you give up on people. Most importantly, he taught us about the power of forgiveness and redemption.
There were four phases to our basement. First was the unfinished phase. Dad didn’t have a lot of time to work on it. Between 1960 and 1965, he went from three to six boys while he was teaching, coaching debate, teaching summer school, or going on summer seminars to learn more innovative teaching strategies.
By the later 60s, he managed to put up dark wood paneling over the walls because it was easier to do than drywall. Over time, the part of the room that was above the foundation were covered in drywall and painted by my two older brothers in bright orange as half of the basement was their bedroom. The other half separated by an accordion wall was the home office where my dad graded papers and my mom kept the family budget and books. By the early 70s, the one car garage was converted into a family room as a separate two-car garage was built behind the house. The teenagers were the main helpers and the youngest working holding the trouble light.
We worked hard, but it was a lot of fun. We were always laughing about something. He told a lot of jokes and stories about working with father. We’d tease each other and debate baseball, politics, sports. It was the only time we ever heard my dad swear. It was not in his nature to use the salty language around us, but when he got going with those tools, we got a sense of his Navy training in its full glory. Working with a bunch of boys who were learning how to do the work would do that to you.
My brothers and I were lucky. Our dad spent a lot of time with us and he and mom saved money for us to go to college when the time came. It was different from his own upbringing.
Grandpa liked to drink. He liked to drink a lot.
He’d spend his entire paycheck buying drinks for his friends on payday. Some weeks grandma would beg for money from her sister or her parents for money for groceries. Sometimes friends would secretly leave bags of food on the front step so that she could feed their five children.
He worked as a tradesman working for the electric company, stringing wire and making sure the growing electric grid was working. He brought electricity to neighborhoods that didn’t have it before. It was dangerous, but he was good at it. He was never drunk on the job.
He was a Mason, a Moose, and a member of a couple of other fraternal organizations. He liked the camaraderie and he also liked providing service, especially for the Moose because they served orphans like he had been. But he made life at home with six children difficult and uncertain. Part of the problem was that he spread himself and his good intentions too thin and he didn’t know how to manage it well. He had little guidance growing up. Luckily, grandma provided stability for the family and did her best to keep her husband from drinking.
He went on a fishing trip up north and came home having purchased an electrical contracting business. He was itching to work for himself and help build the new housing he knew was going to go up once World War II was over. My dad and his mom and sisters didn’t want to move, but grandpa could sometimes make impulsive decisions without consulting his wife.
He had my dad help him with the business. He needed free help to make the company successful, but he promised my dad that he’d pay for college when the time came. He promised he could stay in the boy scouts and earn Eagle Scout.
He promised a lot, but there was no time for boy scouts. Dad stopped at Life Scout. When he was ready for college, there was enough for a year at the local university, but with no money and the draft deferment ending, he had to join the Navy.
When dad entered the navy, his ambition was to do his time and use the GI Bill to go to college to become an engineer. He was an electrician onboard ship. He advanced quickly up the ranks because his father had taught him well.
He was good at taking tests and his division chief asked him to help his shipmates in the division pass the tests. Off duty, he worked with them on the things they needed to know to advance in rank. Things they needed to make sure the ship’s electrical system worked. He was patient and could explain what to do, how to do it, and why it was important to do it that way. Some thought he was strange because he didn’t drink, but they liked him because they could count on him to help them out and make sure they’d get back to the ship when they really weren’t in condition to do that on their own.
His father’s words and lessons rolled off his tongue. He took great pride in his work and what he accomplished, but he took greater pride in what his shipmates did when they advanced in rank. He decided that he didn’t want to study to be an engineer when he got out of the Navy. He needed to be a teacher.
He was teaching all he learned from his dad. Despite his problems, Grandpa was a pretty good teacher on the job. He was patient and could explain what to do, how to do it, and why it was important to do it that way. My dad learned more about grandpa’s childhood. He and his older brother and sister were children of immigrants. Born at the turn of the century, he lived in tenements with his laborer turned clerk father and his stay at home mother who raised their two boys and one girl.
Grandpa was eight when his own father died, leaving behind his wife and three children. It was very hard for the family. His mother took in laundry to wash and mend to keep food on the table. His older brother had to leave school at 15 to work. They were constantly moving Because they didn’t have enough rent money. Without a lot of direction, grandpa became a bit of a wild child. Constantly getting in trouble, disruptive at school, and getting involved in petty crime. Then, when he was only 14, his mother was diagnosed with cancer and he watched her die. It was a devastating blow. He left school after eighth grade and started a series of jobs from selling newspapers to being a cash boy at a store and any job that he could get. He felt adrift and anchorless.
Grandpa’s older brother tried to be a father figure to his younger brother, but it was hard because he was stretched too thin trying to keep the family afloat. They grew up together and then apart. Grandpa, I think felt he was a disappointment to his older brother. His older brother, I think, felt he let his little brother down.
Then the two of them went out together fishing early one morning and did not come back when they were supposed to. The two families feared something had gone wrong, but the opposite happened. They caught more fish than they ever caught. They were having the time of their lives and reconnected in a way they hadn’t in years. That Christmas, grandpa got his brother a beautiful fishing rod in a case and his brother gave my grandpa a large box with box upon box inside. In the last box was a fishing seat.
There were plans to have a summer of fishing, but it was not to be. Grandpa’s brother died of cancer three months later. Not too long afterward, Grandpa made the trip up north where he bought the electrical contracting business. He knew he needed to find a fresh start. I think he felt he owed it to his brother to change, the man who had tried to be a father to him..
Getting away from home allowed my dad to get a new perspective. He was angry with his dad for his broken promises selfish ways, but his time in the Navy gave him time to reflect on the things that his father taught him that were making him successful. My dad saw shipmates that were not as well adjusted as he was and drank far more than his dad and acted worse than he saw his dad. He saw their anger, bitterness, and resentment and realized how unhappy and sad they were. He did not want to end up that way.
Dad was a great high school teacher. Innovative, making learning fun. Working with students over three decades, hoping that they would see in themselves what he saw in them. He knew a student at his high school who everyone predicted was going to be successful. The predictions were right, and the student went on to become successful and fairly well known. One of my dad’s friends asked him if, among all the students he knew, he was most proud of that famous and successful student.
Dad said no. He was most proud of a woman who had become a grade schoolteacher. “How could that be?” his friend asked. “No one ever heard of her.“
Dad explained that everyone knew that the famous former student was going to be OK and was going to do great things. Yes, he was proud. The other student was someone who had come from a broken home, was angry, disruptive, and foul-mouthed in class. The kind of student other teachers dreaded having in class. My dad and a few other teachers took time to get her attention and start to get her to believe that she could do something more positive with her life. Eventually, she started to behave better and do a little bit better in her classes. She went to college and decided she wanted to work with elementary school kids. She wanted to catch the ones who need a little extra attention and encouragement in earlier grades. Dad said the distance that girl traveled from where she started to where she ended up was farther than any other student he had ever known. Who wouldn’t be most proud of her?
Dad was always trying to keep an eye out for kids who he thought needed encouragement. Kids that were trouble in class. Kids who had difficult home lives. I used to think that he was looking out for kids who reminded him of himself, but that wasn’t true. My dad was a pretty good student and people thought he was going to be Ok when.
He was looking for kids like his father.
The Safety Bar
Near the end of my dad’s life, my brother John and I found ourselves standing on opposite sides of the water wall in my parents’ basement installing a grab bar in the shower. Dad had been in and out of the hospital for several months and he was going to be coming home from the rehab center. He needed a hand bar to help him get up from the chair in the shower so he wouldn’t fall.
John and I don’t see eye to eye on political issues – we’re polar opposites. He’s ten years older than me and we hadn’t really worked together on the basement. I was being handed the trouble light about the time he left for college.
As we discussed the install, we knew exactly what the other was saying. We reached for the same tools. We had the same approach in figuring out how to identify where the stud was. We didn’t want to drill holes in the fiberglass shower wall in the wrong spot so someone would pull it out of the wall if it wasn’t secure. We also didn’t want to damage any pipes. That would require a real plumber to fix and anyone who wouldn’t pay a lousy 1500 dollars to finish the basement wouldn’t want to pay a plumber for something like that. He stood in the shower and I stood on the other side hitting the stud with a rubber mallet. Then I hit on either side of the stud so that he knew where he should and shouldn’t drill.
While we were working on the shower, I remembered one summer when I was home from college, my dad needed help installing a light over the kitchen sink. He was in the attic lowering flexible wired conduit between the walls while I was instructed to grab the wires through a knock out in the back of the electrical box with a pair of needle-nose pliers. It wasn’t going well. “God Damn it, Eddy! What’s going on down there! It’s 120 degrees up here! Why can’t you grab those wires?” “You want to come down here and try it?”, I yelled back. “I’ll bet you five dollars you’ll be up here a lot less time in this separate box than me!”
We passed each other in the hallway as he looked me and snarled “don’t lose your footing and stick your foot through the ceiling. I’ve got enough work as it is.” I gave him a side-eye and climbed the ladder to the attic. I looked at the string and wire fishline he was using to lower the conduit. “Come on now! I haven’t got all day!” I grabbed the conduit, bent the ends of the wires, lowered my arm between the walls, and stuck the wires through the hole on the metal box.
“You got that?” I yelled down at him. There was stunned silence. Then I heard my dad trying to say through crying laughter while gasping for air, “I guess you owe me five dollars!” I joined him in the laughing as I rolled onto my back. I came downstairs, handed him the five dollars as he broke up saying, “Now let that be a lesson to you! Work through the problem with people. You never know when a different perspective might be helpful.”
John hit the wall with his fist where he was going to drill and I said “You got it.” He drilled into the stud on center. He finished the drilling and we secured both ends of the bar into the wall and then tightened the screws, making sure the screw slots were straight up and down. Just how grandpa showed dad, and how dad showed us. We did it even though we knew no one would see that detail because a flange would cover the screws. We know what’s important.
The Basement II
Five years earlier, I had started work on my basement. It had gone unfinished for ten years before I could get around to it because of kids being small and other things. My wife kept looking into having a contractor finish it, but I held her off until I could find the time to finish it myself.
Finally, I had the time to use the skills my dad taught me. The internet is a wonderful thing, and I could use YouTube to remind myself how to do the work. There were also a lot more power tools that I could use to make the work easier.
When it came time to put in overhead lighting and switches, I didn’t go to YouTube. I called my dad and asked him to come out and show me how to do it right. He showed up with his wire cutters, a couple of reels of wire, and one of his two pipe benders. He was 80, but I could see his excitement as he walked down the stairs to see the work I had done. He patiently showed me the way again to treat every wire like it’s hot, even though you know you turned off the breaker, use needle-nose pliers to bend the end of the wire to screw it to the outlets, and always make sure that the screw slots were parallel to the plate orientation.
A couple of weeks later, I was installing an overhead light and switch. I was thinking about why I had asked my dad to help me with this simple electrical issue when I had gone to YouTube for more complicated things.
I thought about my parents’ basement and I began to understand why it took him 30 years to finish it. It wasn’t that he wasn’t finished with the basement. He wasn’t finished with us. He wanted to pass on what he had learned in his life. It was only when I, the last of his sons, finished college and left home like my brothers before me, that the basement work could be completed.
By showing him my basement, I guess I wanted him to see that I understood what he and mom had taken the time and effort to teach us. Lessons he learned from his father and lessons learned from his father’s mistakes. Lessons about hard work, education, understanding, paying attention, respecting others, listening, and helping others become the best version of themselves. Most of all, I learned about the importance of forgiveness and the hope of redemption. We have to be willing to forgive people and forgive the past in order to move forward. Only by forgiving others can we ourselves be ready to be forgiven for our mistakes.
And mostly, I wanted him to know that, even though I was 44 and he was 80, I wasn’t done with him yet.
As I was thinking about all of this, the importance of everything my father taught me came into sharp clarity in a moment seared into my brain. I heard a voice behind me. It was my eight-year-old son.
“Dad?” he asked. “Can I help you with something?”
“Sure,” I replied. “Why don’t you hold the trouble light.”
The Father and Son
My grandfather had not had a drink in well over a decade when I was born. My memories are of he and my father telling stories of the time they spent together wiring houses, going fishing at the lake by the family cottage. Laughing about one time they were on a job and my dad lost his footing in the attic and stuck his foot through the ceiling. Grandpa talking about driving a motorcycle the wrong way on a one-way street when his brakes went out. My dad telling the stores of the crazy things his students did and grandpa laughing uproariously. Grandpa especially loved hearing his son talking about the kids who other teachers hated having in class.
My dad wasn’t perfect. He always had after school activities. Summers when we were young, he’d go to continuing education programs out of state or chaperoning student summer trips, leaving mom to watch us on her own for several weeks on her own. She knew it was important for his careers, and it did help. He hoped he’d be there to help us get to Eagle Scout, but you only have so much time and energy, so we all gradually lost interest in scouts and moved on to other things. For a while, he probably spread himself too thin in trying to get better programs for students and working with six sons. He didn’t want to make his father’s mistakes. Family was the priority and he was always there for us and always positive and supportive when it mattered.
As my son was getting ready to go off to college, I understand the pride and sadness he and mom must have felt when I left for college and grandpa must have felt when my dad left to join the Navy. Early last August, I was working with my teenage daughter to remodel her room so that it’s less “little girl” and more “young woman”. “Daddy’s Girl” doesn’t want to be around the old man as much lately, but she didn’t mind working on the construction. She graduated long ago from “trouble light holder” and I was showing her how to tape, mud and sand the seams on new drywall after reinsulating the wall. My son walked into the room. He said he said he wanted something to hold smaller things like pens and his calculator and he wanted me to show him to make a handmade box like the one I made for him when he became an Eagle Scout.
It’s nice to know they’re not done with me yet.
When you become a parent, you really don’t know what you’re doing. You need your children to forgive a lot of things. If you’re lucky, you have someone who was your role model so you have something to work from. My dad realized that his dad never had a good role model as a father, but he was there to give him the guidance he could. He used his skills to teach his son how to be an electrician, and in doing so, learned how to be a better father. When grandpa moved the family up north, he was trying to start anew and try to become a better person. Having his youngest son help him was the business was, I think, an opportunity to become a better father. It took a few years, but he finally stopped drinking and became a better husband and father and grandfather for the last 30 years of his life. I think his main regret was that his brother wasn’t there to see him that way.
A lot of people wouldn’t have blamed my dad if he’d turned his back on his father. He chose instead to turn away from anger, bitterness, and resentment. He understood that his father’s own anger, bitterness, and resentment came from things he lost as a child that increased the fear that comes with being a parent. Dad understood his father and the need to forgive both the small and the large things. Not being willing to forgive meant that he would be absorbing and passing on the worst of his father. In the end, we all want to pass on the best of what we are taught as well as the lessons that we learn from our own and others’ mistakes.
In this time of Thanksgiving, I’m grateful my parents didn’t pay the builder that lousy 1500 dollars to finish the basement. More skilled craftsmen could have done a better job than my dad, but no one could have done the job so well. There are some things too important to leave to others.Published in