A Home Repair Project Showed Me How Much I Still Had to Learn About My Dad

Working on a home repair project with my father showed me I had more to learn about him than I thought.

Growing up, I understood one thing about my dad: He knew everything. This was our relationship, in sum: I asked him questions and he told me the answers. Is there really a man in the moon? How do sailboats work? What is the highest score anyone’s ever gotten in Pac-Man?

In my teen years, he taught me things I’d need to know to survive in the real world. How to drive a stick shift. How to check your car tire’s pressure (though the gauge he bought me 20 years ago still sits untouched in my glove box). The correct knife to use to cut a cantaloupe.

When I moved out on my own, I called him at least once a week, usually when something broke in my apartment and I needed to know how to fix it: the toilet; the air-­conditioning; the wall, once, when I threw a shoe at a terrifying spider.

But then, eventually, I needed him less. I got married, and my husband had most of the knowledge I lacked about gutter cleaning and water heaters and nondestructive insect removal. For everything else, we had Google.

I don’t know when it happened, but our conversations when I called devolved into six words. Me: “Hi, Dad.” Him: “Hi, sweets. Here’s Mom.” (Because her, I still needed—What’s your chicken parm recipe? Do I need to call the doctor for my daughter’s fever? Can you read this draft of my novel?)

pull quote textI loved my dad, of course, but I wondered at times if maybe he had already shared everything I needed to know. Maybe I’d heard all his stories. Maybe, after knowing a man for 40 years, there’s nothing left to say.

Then, this past summer, my husband, our four kids, and I moved in with my parents for three weeks while our house was being renovated. They own a lake house, and Dad asked me to help him rebuild the bulkhead at their dock.

I didn’t balk—it was the least I could do for free rent—but I was dreading it. It was hard, manual labor. We got wet and sandy, and I’m fairly certain a deadly bacteria was unleashed from the innards of the rotted wood we hacked away from the old retaining wall.

But as we put the new bulkhead together piece by piece, my dad knowing exactly what went where, I looked at him. “How do you know how to build a bulkhead?”

The heavy mallet he was swinging paused in midair. “I spent a summer in college building them on the Jersey Shore.”

“You did?” I thought I knew everything about my dad—all his random jobs. I knew about the apple orchard, the summer at the horseradish manufacturing plant that burned his hands raw, and even the diner line-cook position, where he learned how to make the best omelet in the Western hemisphere. But I never knew this.

illustration by Agata Nowicka of father and daughter sailingAgata Nowicka for Reader's Digest
“Yep. Now come up here and let me teach you how to use this circular saw.”

As he explained the importance of not setting the blade too deep (information I quickly tucked away in the same place I store the information about how to use the tire gauge), I realized that maybe it’s not that there’s nothing left to say. Maybe it’s just that I’ve spent my life asking him the wrong questions.

A few weeks later, after my family and I moved back into our renovated house, I called my parents. Dad answered. “Hi, sweets,” he said.

“Here’s Mom.”

“Wait, Dad,” I said. “How are you?” We ended up talking about the consulting gig he was working on, a new battery he’d bought for his sailboat, a refi my husband and I were looking into to bundle our home-­renovation loan. Nothing life-changing, nothing earth-shattering. To anyone else, it would sound like a normal conversation between a dad and his daughter.

But to me, it was novel. A new beginning. I spent the first part of my life needing to talk to my dad. Now I talk to him because I want to.

Reader's Digest
Originally Published in Reader's Digest