Some stories percolate until they are ready. I have not told this one before now because part of it reveals what I would have considered a failure in myself as a young man. No one likes to draw attention to the things that make him feel small. I have shied away from it also because it could seem like I’m bragging about certain parts of it. But anything I have done here is not extraordinary by any stretch, it was only the thing necessary at the time.
When we moved to west central Georgia in the summer of 1994, I was 37 years old. I took a job that barely paid the rent and groceries. It was my sixth job in 14 years, which is no way for a man to build a future for his family. We packed all five of us into a two-bedroom apartment. My truck was rusted out. The kids were starting a new life. Beth was looking for work. The help our parents gave us was the only way we held it together.
I’m not saying this is a unique story by any means. A gazillion people have one just like it. Fact is, this is just the story of every young couple who raises a family and deals with the struggles of making a life for themselves.
Two years passed, and we finally found a small piece of land. We had doggedly held on to the money we got from the sale of our house, and it was just enough to close the deal. By the end of that year, we were able to put together a construction loan, but it was obvious we couldn’t afford to pay someone else to build our new house.
Beth was weary of our cramped living quarters. “Don’t worry,” I said, “I’ll build it.”
I could hardly believe the words came out of my mouth. She was even more skeptical.
“How’re you gonna do that?”
“I’m about as fair as any man with a tape measure, saw and hammer. I’ll figure it out.”
That decision began one of the hardest and most rewarding adventures of my life. For the next two years the construction of our house consumed us. I left for work at 6:30 every day and got off at 4pm. Sometimes I went by the apartment to grab a quick bite to eat before going to work on the house. A lot of days I just went straight to the land and munched on the few snacks left over in my lunch box.
The work forced me to dig deep and to learn things that before had only been lessons taught in high school shop class. My good friend, Wayne, was working on his own project across the creek from our house site. We shook on it and agreed to help each other, trading out time and an extra set of hands. We bought each other new East Wing 24 oz. framing hammers and made a covenant one morning over eggs and biscuits.
The days were long. We dug in the dirt and built forms for the footers by lantern light. The owls and the cicadas let us know that we had invaded their solitude. A generator humming in the background. The shadows we threw up against the canopy of trees overhead seemed like giant Neanderthals. We carried water from the creek in 5-gallon buckets for mixing mortar. By 11:00 we turned off the lantern and went home. It was a good tired.
Little by little our house rose up out of the ground. Beth was beyond patient with my absence. The kids came down and played around the house on Saturdays while I worked. Looking back now, I wouldn’t trade that experience for all the tea in China.
What has stayed with me the most has nothing to do with hammers and nails. The longer the work went on, and the more the money ran out, and the more word got around about what I was doing, the more I began to realize the irreplaceable value of friends and family.
Wayne stood beside me for the lions-share of the work. Terry helped me run every inch of plumbing. Mitt let me help him pull every run of wire. Neighbors brought food. Dad showed up from time to time and stuck a check in my shirt pocket.
“I figure you could use this,” he’d say.
“I don’t know how I’m going to pay you back.” He’d already done so much and it made me feel so pathetic to depend on him like this.
“You let me worry about that.” Which was his way of telling me the conversation was over.
Dad was just 28 when his father died in May of ‘52. Soon after, he came back to live on the homeplace. I never gave much thought to what his life was like back then. He seemed to me to be the most independent man I knew. He never spent what he didn’t earn. He was a practical man who fixed what was broken and did without what he did not need. As far as I could tell, he made his own way in this world.
I wanted to be that man, which is why it was hard for me to accept his help.
It wasn’t until just a few years ago that I unearthed a bit of family history that changed the way I now see my own life. Beth and I were searching the land records at the courthouse in Henry County. Among the handwritten deeds we discovered that Dad didn’t even own the farm until 1961. He bought if from Uncle Robert for $3,000. Which means that Uncle Robert helped his younger brother a great deal by allowing him to live there for all those years.
None of us are independent of the help we receive. Especially, the kind we can never repay. A loan from the bank does not cause a man’s pride to suffer because he knows that he can earn the right to pay it back, and the thing, whatever that thing is, will be his. But the generosity of a brother, a day of help from a neighbor, a check stuffed in a shirt pocket that is given without strings; each of these is a gift that has nothing to do with keeping track of who owes whom.
I think this is true. My dad made his way in this world because of the help he accepted from others. I’ve always heard that D’Daddy was a generous man, and I am certain that my dad benefited from whatever he gave. And prove me wrong, it was true of the generation before that, and the one before that one.
Every man lives in the succession of the ones who lived before him and around him. For a long time, it bothered me to owe somebody. There was a lot of blood and sweat and sacrifice not of my own doing that went into our house. Even more has been passed along into the making of my life.
I can accept that, now. More than that, I cherish it.