Growing up, my dad’s garage was a place where it seemed we could go back in time.
My dad was born in 1929 in San Francisco, a few days before the start of The Great Depression. Growing up poor and having to fend for himself at a very young age, he valued what he owned. He took pride in his things and was incredibly responsible when it came to reuse and recycling.
He could build just about anything – a house, a deck, a bed frame, a table – and could fix just about anything – cars, boats, electronics, toilets, you name it. I thought that was what dads did – build and fix things.
My dad’s garage was a place where all the action happened. On the weekends you’d find him tinkering around, hammering and sawing, the familiar sounds of the table saw and Big Band music echoing around the valley where our house sat.
He was always working on the house – that was what weekends were for. Lazy was not in my dad’s vocabulary. He’d be up early – tool belt on, gloves on and a cold six-pack of Lucky or Bud chilling in a cooler next to him. He liked to stay hydrated.
He landscaped our entire backyard – put up fences, retaining walls and staircases – a project never too daunting. He was an excellent craftsman.
He seemed to have every tool imaginable – band saw, lathe, pipe threader, router; every wrench, ratchet, nail and screw one could ever need. He had collected tools throughout his life so he could be ready for any project.
At the age of 63, when he moved from Marin County to the little town of Volcano in Amador County, he brought his workbench with him. The workbench he had made in his high school woodshop. Somehow he managed to get the 8-foot long bench, complete with drawers and large wood vice at one end, up onto the back of his truck – then transport it 2.5 hours to his new home and install it in his brand new workshop – without any assistance. That’s my dad.
Dads are so amazing that way. As kids, you think there is nothing they can’t do. They are invincible.
My dad was strong, brave and at times intimidating. He spent several years in the Army and served in the Korean War. He then led an impressive 28 year-career in the San Francisco Police Department and was one of the founding members of their K-9 Dog Patrol Unit. I thought that was so cool. Most of my friend’s dads didn’t have jobs quite as exciting.
His exciting career also took a beating on his body. Chasing criminals through the streets of San Francisco caused him and his partner to be in terrible car crash, and as a result, he nursed the fallout of a broken back and various other injuries for the rest of his life.
As he grew older, these injuries became crippling. In his mid-80s he became so frail it seemed like a gust of wind could blow him over. His back hunched, he shuffled about with a cane, going not much further than the end of the driveway for several years. He mostly read, sitting in his beloved rocking chair, glasses on, magnifying glass out, with his nose deep in a book.
I used to worry about him every time I woke up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom. I’d think about him getting out of bed to do the same, fatigued and a bit disoriented from being roused from sleep, and falling at some point as he made his way to the bathroom. I worried a lot about him falling.
He used to keep a fire going in the wood burning stove at all times. He was always cold. Tending the fire was his big on-going project that pulled him away from his books and gave his day variety. He’d hobble out to the garage and pick up a log and bring back into the house. He used to bring in 6 or 7 logs at a time – logs he would have chopped himself. He now relied on others to do the heavy lifting.
The wood burning stove was in the corner of the living room and sat atop a brick landing. In order to put a new log on the fire one had to step up several inches onto the brick landing. For most, this little step up would go unnoticed; for my dad, it became a test of his strength, and more difficult to manage with the passing days.
I’d have visions of him, his unsteady body trying to tend to the stove, falling backwards off the brick ledge. It was painful to watch someone you love struggle so much with such simple tasks. During this time though, I learned that you can’t take all of these tasks away from the aging. It’s important to let people maintain their dignity and purpose in life, even though watching them struggle makes us uncomfortable.
One day, on December 9, 2016, when he was tending his stove, he did fall backwards off the brick ledge and hit head on the edge of the coffee table. The injury, while not fatal itself, was rather a catalyst that quickly accelerated the deterioration of his health. My dad died a few weeks later on January 4, 2017.
I’ll share more about that journey at another time. For now, I’ll fast forward to where I am today – in my dad’s garage, two and a half years later.
Over these past few years, my mom, brother and I have been sifting slowly through the things in his garage. My brother took a few of the large power tools, I took a few hand tools and his large collection of flags which I am now selling on eBay. My dad was passionate about flags; a brazen patriot and lifelong Republican (we didn’t always see eye to eye), he took great pride in flying the stars and stripes.
Other than that though, much of the garage is how he had left it. It was still his space; every time I walked into that workshop I could feel him, hear his voice and the sound of his tools and Big Band music floating around the large room.
I think we thought after he passed, we’d quickly go through his things, keep what we wanted and donate or sell the rest. But for some reason it just hasn’t happened. We couldn’t get motivated to do it. It’s as if going through the things in his garage would be the final acknowledgement that he is truly gone. Cleaning out his workshop would seal that permanence and it would no longer be his space.
The pressure was on to clean it out though, as my mom recently decided she wants to move to a retirement community and sell the home. We needed to go through everything and determine what we wanted and what would remain for an estate sale. Twenty-seven years in the same place – my parents had amassed a lot of stuff.
Since I’m not working and don’t have two small kids like my brother does, much of the cleaning out part I’ve taken on. So I set aside two days during the week to spend with my dad, in his garage. Going through his memories, the special objects from his life that he’s collected over time, the tools that built the things in our home, and the photos that adorn the workshop walls.
I picked up a cassette tape that was next to a small boom box and popped it into the player. Out came the sweet sounds of Glenn Miller, immediately sending me back in time to the house I grew up in. The music was always on in my dad’s garage and he never strayed too far from the Big Band era –the 30s and 40s being “real” music.
As a kid, I couldn’t understand why he wouldn’t listen to more contemporary bands. At least bump it up a few decades, dad! While my friends’ parents were listening to The Beatles and Rolling Stones, my dad was stuck in the “olden” days. I recall being rather embarrassed by his choice of music, my friends incredulously asking, “What is your dad listening too?”
While embarrassed as a kid for my dad’s vintage tastes, I grew to love Big Band music. It’s jaunty, upbeat rhythms, and silly, often nonsensical lyrics. Just listen to Glenn Miller’s “I’ve Got a Gal in Kalamazoo” on YouTube, posted by. Ocanasordi, 2012, 4:07. I’m still trying to figure out the true meaning of “pipperoo.”
So, with a cold bottle of beer in hand, Glenn Miller blasting as loud as possible on the small boom box, I danced around my dad’s garage. And for a moment, I felt him dancing with me.