From Chicken Soup for the Father & Son Soul

Building Your Dreams

A man can do only what he can do. But if he does that each day he can sleep at night and do it again the next day.

Albert Schweitzer

“Not another apartment!” I’ve heard that statement a few times. Working as an apartment manager for two years brought me in contact with various applicants and their opinions. Many of them were tired of living in crowded rentals with little privacy and walls so thin that neighbors heard their every move. They longed for a spacious backyard for their children to play in, a garden with vine-ripened tomatoes, and enough room for the family dog to bury his favorite bone. These renters all had one dream in common: owning their first homes.

However, to make these dreams come true, most people need the help of a loan institution. They must have established credit, money set aside for a down payment, and sufficient income to maintain payments for the next thirty years.

Not my father, Raymond; he dreamed up a different way to own a home.

Dad had bartered several tile jobs in exchange for a vacant lot nestled near the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains in Southern California. The next month, he and my mother, Eloise, started construction on their first house, one piece at a time.

During the building process, my father worked as a firefighter for the Los Angeles County Fire Department. It was a good job with steady work. Still, his salary barely covered the bills. Money was tight in those days, just like today. Nevertheless, after each payday, he stopped by the La Canada lumberyard on his way home. With any extra cash from his paycheck, he purchased building materials.

Dad enjoyed challenges. He mixed his own cement and poured the foundation with the help of a borrowed wheelbarrow. The living room and bathroom were the first things to go up. My parents lived in the living room, cooking their meals over the open fireplace while they finished the kitchen. After the kitchen came their bedroom, and then they were finished.

After my sister, Nita, was born, they moved her into the living room. I realized later why my parents called it the “living” room: it was a place one lived in while waiting for a “real” room. The sleeping arrangements were viable until I came along three years later.

When I was born, my parents had a dilemma: where to put me. Since the living room was already at capacity, they placed me in a secondhand crib at the end of the hallway, adjacent to the bathroom. For the next four years, the back of the hall became my five-foot dormitory. My parents called it the hall-room. I could visit the living room during the day, but I had to return to the hall-room for the night.

I have always favored the story of Cinderella because we had something in common—our own little corner in the house. However, unlike Cinderella’s family, my family loved me very much. My cramped accommodations were the best my parents could offer. Needless to say, I didn’t invite many friends for sleepovers. As I grew older, I envied my sister’s spot in the living room.

One morning, I heard someone digging outside the house. When I rushed outside to see who was making all the noise, I discovered my father digging a long trench along the back of the house, adjacent to hall-room. Finding a broken shovel in the backyard, I offered to help, making sure to stay out of his way. I had no idea what he was doing, but it looked like fun. Besides, I liked playing in the dirt.

During the next few weeks, we dug a trench about twenty feet long on each side, forming a perfect square at the back of the house. We finished by digging a smaller ditch that ran down the middle, connecting both ends with each other. The next week, a delivery truck arrived with a load of sand, rock, and heavy bags of gray stuff.

When combined with water, the mixture made the best mud pies. Dad called it concrete. We shoveled our creation into the forms we had built earlier and let it dry.

My father let me help with every part of the building process, all except the electrical. I even nailed down a few of the roofing tiles. Mom worried most about my being on the roof, but Dad always assured her I would be fine. I never slipped even once.

Although I have forgotten many things about my childhood, I will never forget building my first real room. Dad and I had such fun together. Digging forms, pounding nails, painting walls—it had never seemed like work at all. These memories are as unmovable as the concrete we poured.

When I turned nineteen years old, I moved away from home. That year, a specialist diagnosed my father with cancer. Dad died three years later. I wept for months, the loss was overwhelming. Even today, thirty years later, the tears still flow. I often wonder if Dad knew his life might end prematurely. Maybe that’s why he let me help with the construction when I was so young. If so, he left something precious behind, something better than any earthly inheritance. Dad left me a heritage of faith, memories that will never fade, and he taught me how to build my dreams, one prayer at a time.

Occasionally, I take a trip to La Canada, California. I drive up Ocean View and make a right turn on Daisy Lane. The old house looks the same. My small handprint remains stamped into the concrete foundation, along with the words: “dad and me.”

Charles E. Harrel

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