My dad was not afraid to fix anything. I’m not saying he always knew what he was doing. I’m just saying that he’d rather fix it than pay anybody for doing something that he figured he could do for himself.
I came home one weekend from college. There was a new sink and small cabinet in the bathroom. The old cast iron sink had pulled away from the wall. It was sagging. The anchors had pulled loose from the plaster behind it.
The replacement was an all-in-one molded sink that sat atop a wooden cabinet. The sink looked new, but the cabinet looked used. A few dings and one knob that didn’t match the other. I recognized the faucet fixture from a shelf in the smokehouse. He had kept it from a time when he helped a friend replace his sink with a new one. The “C” was missing on the cold knob.
The thing that always made me smile in the years that passed was the gawdawful amount of caulk he used to cover up the space between the backsplash and the wall. It didn’t set flush to wall for some reason. A bump in the wall, maybe. Perhaps the sink wasn’t made to fit this vanity. Could be a lot of reasons. What made me chuckle is that Dad used what looked like an entire tube of caulk around that seam, and that he possibly used a toothbrush or a stick to smear it around until he was satisfied that it was good enough.
And it was good enough. It wasn’t pretty, but it worked for the next 40 years or more. Cold and hot water. No leaks. Teeth got brushed and faces got washed in that sink. I can still see my face in the mirror of the medicine cabinet that hung above it. Two fluorescent tubes attached to either side. A push button switch under the lower left corner.
When I was young, I thought Dad knew how to do it all. We did everything from fixing well pumps to changing oil to building shelves. We mended fences, replaced tin on the barn and put a new starter on the tractor.
I was his helper. He gave orders. “Go get me the pliers. Hand me a 9/16 socket. Hold your finger right here.” I handed him tools and fetched whatever he needed.
One of my main jobs was to hold the flashlight. This could be required under the sink or under the hood of the truck. “Point it right here and hold it still.” But I was easily distracted. I loved flashlights. I’d be pointing it at the ceiling, and he’d say something like, “That light would work a lot better if you pointed it down here where I need it.” I’d hold it in place for a minute, then I’d stick it in my mouth so my cheeks would glow.
As I got a little older, my role changed. He’d let me tighten a bolt. I bent a lot of nails, but he let me drive them anyway. I crawled under the truck so I could learn where the oil pan was and how to loosen the plug. I went from being just a helper with a flashlight to working with him on projects.
Two things come to mind. When I started out, I was not a very good helper. I didn’t understand important concepts like lefty-loosey and righty-tighty. I fumbled around. I dropped things. I brought him a crescent wrench when he asked for a pair of channel locks. If I helped wash the car, I missed spots the size of Kansas. Yet, I never remember him telling me that he didn’t want my help. He took my help for what it was. Just an excuse to do things together.
The other thing is this. Most of the repairs we made were anything but perfect. Our fixes always seemed to include some jerry-rigged way of making something work because either we didn’t have the right tools or the right part or the right know-how. Our work didn’t have to be perfect, though, as long as it worked. If it ran when we got done, it was a success. If we could caulk and paint around the flaws, we were happy.
I thought about all of this because my granddaughter was with me the other day and she wanted to help me. I was just putting a few things up on the shelf in the closet. I could have said no. I could have done it so much faster by myself. She wasn’t really tall enough to help. But she insisted. So, I let her bring me things. And the last one, I let her climb up on the stepstool.
“I can’t reach it, Grandpa.” She seemed disappointed.
I grabbed her by the waist and lifted her up to the shelf so she could reach it. “I like helping you” she said.
She’s about the age I was when I was helping my dad. She doesn’t yet have any useful skill sets, but she has heart. She has enthusiasm. She hasn’t yet learned to doubt her abilities, or to question whether she has anything of value to offer. Mostly, she just wants to spend time with me. Helping me do things is one way that happens.
Helping others is never just about getting a job done. It’s about getting to know people. It’s about sharing the burden. Maybe even the burdens of life. And it goes in both directions. To offer help is to reach out and say, “I’m here if you need me.” To accept help is admit a need and say, “I could use a hand.”
Several years ago, a few of us men got together to build a deck with a ramp for one of our neighbors. He was coming home from the hospital in a wheelchair and access to the house was not going to be easy. I got a phone call from a guy I had never met. But he knew that we had a common friend in need. I showed up and met three other guys whom I did not know.
We spent the better part of several Saturdays and Sunday afternoons working together on this project. I marked boards. Handed nails when someone asked for them. Toted materials from the lumber pile. I even held the flashlight when it got dark one evening as we were finishing up.
Over the course of a few weekends, strangers became friends. The job got done. And a neighbor was helped. It wasn’t perfect. A real carpenter might have been embarrassed. But it worked.
I have learned to believe in the power of helping. I think the Good Lord designed us to need help and to give help when we can. I believe kids should be allowed to help. I think we ought to help strangers when we see a need. I’m convinced that good honest help breeds kindness and gratitude in places where nothing else works.
No special skills needed. Just a willing heart and the ability to hold a flashlight.