I can never walk into the lumber section of a big box hardware store without thinking of my dad, mainly because the aroma of aftershave and sawdust call to mind so many of my fondest childhood memories.
You see, upon hearing the news that his wife was expecting, my dad, (like most fathers, if they’re being honest) was thrilled by the prospect of raising a son. A man’s man, reared solely by his mother after his own father’s tragic death, he could only imagine how it would be to fish and boat and hunt with a son, because of course, that’s what he knew of childhood.
And then, as luck would have it, he was saddled with two daughters to raise instead.
This could be where the story ended –- with my mother raising her daughters to be women while my father retreated to his man cave, unburdened. But happily, that is not what occurred. What happened instead is that my dad forgot all those traditional, gender-role stereotypes he grew up with, about what men should do and what women should do, and he just started teaching me everything he knew, despite my missing Y chromosome.
As soon as I was able to toddle down the basement stairs, he welcomed me into his domain -– a world of platform trains and bumper pool and power tools. He hoisted me onto his lap and let me press the buttons, ushering the O-gauge Lionel trains in and out of their stations, around and around the track. He taught me the difference between straight and Phillips head screws, which grain sandpaper to use before staining, and why dovetail joints are stronger than mitered ones. He taught me how to hold a pool cue and aim the ball so it would ricochet directly into the pocket. And when my mother would call us upstairs for dinner, he’d join me in asking for “just five more minutes.”
Outside was another place where it didn’t matter that I was a girl. I’d watch for hours while he restored the small fleet of antique cars he kept in the garage -– the way he waxed the ebony paint until I could see my reflection in the body’s surface. On spring evenings, after dinner, while my mother washed the dishes, he would take me outside behind our garage and pitch softballs, one after another, while I tried to hit them with my undersized aluminum bat. He patiently coached me to choke up on the grip, keep my elbow up, and not crowd the plate.
“I am the woman I am today because my father didn’t set out to raise a girl.”
When summer arrived, I helped him till the potato patch, build our wooden swingset, and steer the lawnmower, perched on his lap. And when the oppressive heat of summer gave way to the crispness of fall, we went mountain biking together along the old railroad tracks, him always pushing my distance and pace while we talked endlessly about life’s big questions.
But then, in the blink of an eye, autumn blew into winter and I became a teenager, on the brink of adulthood. If there was a season in my life when my dad could have backed away, this would have been the time. Happily, though, even hormones and boyfriends couldn’t keep my dad from shaping the woman I was to become. He took me to the closest cemetery and taught me to parallel park. He showed me how to change my oil. He cheered from the stands at every one of my high school and college swim meets.
Eventually I left home and went out on my own, but thanks to my father’s ad hoc tutelage, I did so with the knowledge that I was capable of anything I set my heart on. I carried the lessons my dad taught me into my adulthood -- about life without limits, about challenging what the world said I could and couldn’t do, and about going after my dreams. I am the woman I am today because my father didn’t set out to raise a girl. He set out to raise a person, the only way he knew how, and I’m so lucky that he did.