78: Building 101

78: Building 101

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Thanks Dad

Building 101

Eighty percent of success is showing up.

~Woody Allen

“It’s every little girl’s dream,” he said, rubbing his scratchy chin. “I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to build.” Dad and I walked around my yard. “Location is everything,” he said grinning, “especially for a dollhouse.”

The corner yard beside the pear tree was ideal. I frequently glanced through the kitchen window at it. A playhouse there would give my daughters a safe place to play.

At seventy-three, my heavy-set father convinced me we could build it. “It’ll be a piece of cake,” he said, “and we’ll enjoy working together.”

Dad brought his engineering experience to the project. After I reviewed his plans, I doubted we could build a miniature house. We were both out of shape and Dad was a cancer survivor. I didn’t own a hammer, but Dad came with old tools from his father’s workbench.

Dad had the vision, plans, and the means to make it happen. I had determination. I was a rookie embarking on Building 101. Class was outdoors. My retired father was the teacher. And this project turned out to be the turning point in our father-daughter relationship.

The foundation wasn’t a piece of cake. It was the hardest job I’d ever done. Dad taught me how to mix cement, lay cinder blocks, and attach the floor frame. It got done, but I couldn’t do it again in my wildest dreams. Three days later the floor joists were completed. It had to be perfect.

“The floor must be level,” Dad said.

After days of precise measurements, calculations, justifications and modifications, I didn’t want a perfect floor. I had been hunched over all day in the blistering hot sun. I was tired and wanted to settle for a second-best type of floor. I felt like a crooked woman, walking a crooked mile, and longing to live in a crooked house. Dad wouldn’t hear of it. But he was right. I felt proud when it was finally level.

He taught me how to hold a hammer and drive in a nail with three good whacks. I learned the importance of a good hammer. Dad gave it to me for my birthday. It was a beauty. It was the first time I owned a tool and referred to it with affection. I got ten years of frustrations out in one afternoon by nailing the floorboards down and assembling the sidewall studs with my very own hammer.

Holding up an entire sidewall stud was nothing compared to attaching it to the other four-sidewall studs and hoping it was level. Dad said “hoping” wasn’t a part of the assembly equation. It had to be level.

With the sidewall studs attached to the floor, we spent the remainder of the week putting the roof on. We painstakingly erected a center ridge post, attaching triangular roof rafters to it. I wasn’t sure of the difference between the truss and the struts, but it’s possible we had both. We fit sheets of plywood on top of the rafters, holding it securely in place with a million nails. A drain spout was fashioned around the sides and black shingles were tacked on.

I saw shingles every time I looked at a house, but I had never really seen a shingle before I held one in my hand and had to figure out what to do with it. My shingles had a thin layer of tar with ground up stone in it. They were also hotter than Hades when sitting on a rooftop under the blazing sun as I struggled to nail them down. They smelled disgusting and felt like rough sandpaper.

“The walls will be a piece of cake,” Dad said, hoping to make me feel better.

I wondered what kind of cake he was talking about. We calculated, measured, and cut sheets of plywood with an electric saw. I still can’t hear right because of that noise. We made adjustments to fudge it when we miscalculated. For five brutal hours we struggled to erect four walls.

When window day arrived, I appreciated what a cake job was. They popped in effortlessly. The door wasn’t so easy. It didn’t pop into anything. We bought a beautiful solid pine door. It was heavy and it took a lot more muscle than I had to drill a hole for the doorknob apparatus. Dad thought we should do it the “old fashioned” way with tools from his father.

Sheetrock day was puzzling. I felt like I was trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. Lugging it, holding it upright, and nailing it was another challenge. At the end of the day my body cried for a massage, but all I got was a hot shower and a good night’s rest. It was enough to rejuvenate me for the next day’s work — taping seams.

It was like taping packages on birthday presents. Spackling the seams reminded me of opening a giant can of ready-to-spread frosting and slopping the interior of the house with it. Everything was coated. It was fun and I didn’t mind the mess. I felt like a baker frosting the inside of a cake house. I wanted to decorate the walls with gumdrops and candy canes like a gingerbread house for Hansel and Gretel. It must’ve been the cake job my father had been talking about.

I didn’t realize once the putty dried, the walls had to be sanded smooth. It only sounded easy. I was covered from head to toe with a film of white dust. I looked like the Pillsbury Doughboy saturated in flour. The floor needed a thorough sweeping once the walls were smooth. White dust billowed from the windows like smoke dissipating from a fire. There was no fire, but there was a burn in my muscles from overexertion.

For months we had been working on the project, wondering if it would ever take shape. Finally the form of a real house towered over us. Paint brought it to life. Slapping on a coat of paint didn’t sound hard until I had to do it with arms of rubber. Mine felt useless. They were tired from all of the other things I had been doing. I was beginning to make mistakes. Paint dripped everywhere.

It took three months to build. It was the most incredibly prolific thing I’d ever done with my bare hands and a few meager tools. It was backbreaking work for a greenhorn, but I loved every minute of it. It went way beyond providing a safe place for my children to play.

Still, it wasn’t completely about building a playhouse. It was about carving out a portion of my life and building a relationship with my father, overcoming obstacles, and using creativity that I didn’t know I had. While the nails and glue held the wood structure together, our time together bonded us closer than any tool imaginable. When I gaze through the kitchen window, I don’t even notice the pear tree anymore. My eyes go directly to the structure that I built with Dad. He taught me many incredible things that summer, most of which revolved around building a relationship meant to last a lifetime.

~Barbara Canale

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